She painted many pictures of strong and suffering women from myths and the Bible – victims, suicides, warriors.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born Artemisia Gentileschi-Lomi in Rome on 8 July 1593, although her birth certificate from the Archivio di Stato indicated she was born in 1590, the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone. Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father's workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked alongside her. She learned drawing, how to mix color, and how to paint. Since her father's style took inspiration from Caravaggio during that period, her style was just as heavily influenced in turn. Her approach to subject matter was different from her father's, however, as her paintings are highly naturalistic, where Orazio's are idealized. At the same time, Artemisia had to resist the "traditional attitude and psychological submission to this brainwashing and jealousy of her obvious talent". By doing so, she gained great respect and recognition for her work.
The first work of the young seventeen-year-old Artemisia was the Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susanna and the Elders) (1610, Schönborn collection in Pommersfelden). At the time some, influenced by the prevailing misconceptions, suspected that she was helped by her father. The painting shows how Artemisia assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the language of the Bologna school, which had Annibale Carracci among its major artists. It is one of the few paintings on the theme of Susanna showing the sexual accosting by the two Elders as a traumatic event.
In 1611, her father was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino delle Muse inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome, so Orazio hired the painter to tutor his daughter privately. During this tutelage, Tassi raped Artemisia. Another man, Cosimo Quorli, was also involved. After the rape, Artemisia continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, with the expectation that they were going to be married and with the hope to restore her dignity and her future. Tassi reneged on his promise to marry Artemisia. Nine months after the rape, when he learnt that Artemisia and Tassi were not going to be married, Orazio pressed charges against Tassi. Orazio also claimed that Tassi stole a painting of Judith from the Gentileschi household. The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Artemisia's virginity. If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, the Gentileschis would not have been able to press charges. During the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law, and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. During the trial, Artemisia was subjected to a gynecological examination and torture using thumbscrews to verify her testimony. At the end of the trial Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year, although he never served the time. The trial influenced the feminist view of Artemisia Gentileschi during the late twentieth century.
Artemisia was surrounded mainly by the presence of males since the loss of her mother at age 12. When Artemisia was 17, Orazio rented the upstairs apartment of their home to a female tenant, Tuzia. Artemisia befriended Tuzia; however, Tuzia allowed Agostino Tassi and Cosimo Quorlis to accompany Artemisia in Artemisia's home on multiple occasions. The day the rape occurred, Artemisia cried for the help of Tuzia, but Tuzia simply ignored Artemisia and pretended she knew nothing of what happened. Artemisia felt betrayed by Tuzia, and because Tuzia was the only female figure in her life, Artemisia's works contained a strong sense of the importance of solidarity and unity between women.
The painting called Mother and Child is attributed to those early years. The baby has been interpreted as an indirect reference to Agostino Tassi, her rapist, as it dates back to 1612, just 2 years after the rape. The painting appeared in a Swedish private collection during the 1960s. It depicts a strong and suffering woman and casts light on her anguish and expressive artistic capability.
A month after the trial, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. Shortly afterward the couple moved to Florence, where Artemisia received a commission for a painting at Casa Buonarroti. She became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the House of Medici and Charles I of England. It has been proposed that during this period Artemisia also painted the Madonna col Bambino (The Virgin and Child), currently in the Palazzo Spada, Rome.
While in Florence, Artemisia and Pierantonio had a daughter around 1618, Prudentia, but who was also known as Palmira, which has led some scholars to conclude erroneously that Artemisia had two children, not one. Prudentia was named after Artemisia's mother, who died when Artemisia was 12. It is noteworthy that her daughter was a painter, trained by her mother, although nothing is known of her work.
In Florence, Artemisia appears to have enjoyed significant success. She was the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). She maintained good relations with the most respected artists of her time, such as Cristofano Allori, and was able to garner the favors and the protection of influential people, starting with Cosimo II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and especially of the Grand Duchess, Christina of Lorraine. Her acquaintance with Galileo Galilei, evident from a letter she wrote to the scientist in 1635, appears to stem from her Florentine years.
She was esteemed by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger (nephew of the great Michelangelo): busy with construction of Casa Buonarroti to celebrate his notable relative, he asked Artemisia—along with other Florentine artists, including Agostino Ciampelli, Sigismondo Coccapani, Giovan Battista Guidoni, and Zanobi Rosi—to contribute a painting for the ceiling. Each artist was commissioned to present an allegory of a virtue associated with Michelangelo, and Artemisia was assigned the Allegoria dell'Inclinazione, "Allegory of the Inclination (natural talent)", presented in the form of a nude young woman holding a compass. It is believed that the subject bears a resemblance to Artemisia. Indeed, in several of her paintings, Artemisia's energetic heroines resemble her self-portraits.
In 2011, Francesco Solinas discovered of a collection of thirty-six letters, dating from about 1616 to 1620, that provide new insight into Gentileschi’s personal and financial life in Florence. Most unexpectedly, they show that she had a passionate love affair with a wealthy Florentine nobleman named Francesco Maria Maringhi. Curiously, her husband, Stiattesi, was well aware of their relationship, and maintained a correspondence with Maringhi on the back of Artemisia’s love letters. Nevertheless, he tolerated it, presumably because Maringhi was a powerful ally who provided the couple financial support. However, by 1620, rumors of the affair had begun to spread in the Florentine court, and this fact, combined with ongoing financial and legal problems, led them to resettle in Rome.
Notable works from this period include La Conversione della Maddalena (The Conversion of the Magdalene), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art) and Giuditta con la sua ancella (Judith and her Maidservant), now in the Palazzo Pitti. Artemisia painted a second version of Judith beheading Holofernes, which now is housed in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. The first, smaller Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612–13) is displayed in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples. Despite her success, financial excesses borne by her for her husband led to problems with creditors, and she fell out with her husband. She returned without him to Rome in 1621.
Artemisia arrived in Rome the same year her father Orazio departed for Genoa. While there is not enough evidence for this, some believe that Artemisia followed her father to Genoa, asserting that this time together would have accentuated the similarity of their styles, making it often difficult to determine which of the two painted certain works. Most of the evidence, however, supports the notion that Artemisia remained in Rome, trying to find a home and raise her child.
Although the master had been dead over a decade, Caravaggio's style was still highly influential and converted many painters to following his style (the so-called Caravaggisti), such as Artemisia's father Orazio, Carlo Saraceni (who returned to Venice 1620), Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Simon Vouet. Painting styles in Rome during the early seventeenth century were diverse, however, demonstrating a more classic manner of the Bolognese disciples of the Carracci and the baroque style of Pietro da Cortona.
It appears that Artemisia also was associated with the Academy of the Desiosi. She was celebrated with a portrait carrying the inscription "Pincturare miraculum invidendum facilius quam imitandum" (To paint a wonder is more easily envied than imitated). During the same period she became associated with Cassiano dal Pozzo, a humanist and a collector and lover of arts, while the visiting French artist Pierre Dumonstier II produced a black and red chalk drawing of her right hand in 1625.
Despite her artistic reputation, her strong personality, and her numerous good relationships, however, Rome was not so lucrative as she hoped. Her style, tone of defiance, and strength relaxed. She painted less intense works; for instance, her second version of Susanna and the Elders (1622). The appreciation of her art was narrowed down to portraits and to her ability with biblical heroines. She did not receive any of the lucrative commissions for altarpieces. The absence of sufficient documentation makes it difficult to follow Artemisia's movements in this period. It is certain that between 1627 and as late as 1630, she moved to Venice, perhaps in search of richer commissions. Evidence for this is that verses and letters were composed in appreciation of her and her works in Venice.
Although it is sometimes difficult to date her paintings, it is possible to assign certain works by her to these years, the Ritratto di gonfaloniere (Portrait of Gonfaloniere), today in Bologna (a rare example of her capacity as portrait painter) and the Giuditta con la sua ancella, (Judith and her Maidservant) today housed at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Detroit painting is notable for her mastery of chiaroscuro and tenebrism (the effects of extreme lights and darks), techniques for which Gerrit van Honthorst, Trophime Bigot, and many others in Rome were famous. Her Venere Dormiente (The Sleeping Venus), today at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, and her Ester ed Assuero (Esther and Ahasuerus) located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, are testimony to her assimilation of the lessons of Venetian luminism.
In 1630 Artemisia moved to Naples, a city rich with workshops and art lovers, in search of new and more lucrative job opportunities. Many other artists, including Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, and Simon Vouet had stayed in Naples for some time in their lives. At that time, Jusepe de Ribera, Massimo Stanzione, and Domenichino were working there, and later, Giovanni Lanfranco and many others would flock to the city. The Neapolitan debut of Artemisia is represented by the Annunciation in the Capodimonte Museum. She remained in Naples for the remainder of her career with the exceptions of a brief trip to London and some other journeys.
Naples was for Artemisia a kind of second homeland; her daughter was married there. On Saturday, 18 March 1634, the traveller Bullen Reymes records in his diary visiting Artemisia and Palmira ('who also paints') with a group of fellow-Englishmen. She received letters of appreciation, being in good relations with the viceroy, the Duke of Alcalá, and started relations with many renowned artists, among them Massimo Stanzione, with whom, the eighteenth-century writer Bernardo de' Dominici reports, she started an artistic collaboration based on a real friendship and artistic similarities.
In Naples for the first time Artemisia started working on paintings in a cathedral, dedicated to San Gennaro nell'anfiteatro di Pozzuoli (Saint Januarius in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli) in Pozzuoli. During her first Neapolitan period she painted Nascita di San Giovanni Battista (Birth of Saint John the Baptist) located in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and Corisca e il satiro (Corisca and the satyr), in a private collection. In these paintings Artemisia again demonstrates her ability to adapt to the novelties of the period and handle different subjects, instead of the usual Judith, Susanna, Bathsheba, and Penitent Magdalenes, for which she already was known.
In 1638 Artemisia joined her father in London at the court of Charles I of England, where Orazio became court painter and received the important job of decorating a ceiling (allegory of Trionfo della pace e delle Arti (Triumph of Peace and the Arts) in the Queen's House, Casa delle Delizie of Queen Henrietta Maria of France in Greenwich). Father and daughter were working together once again, although helping her father probably was not her only reason for travelling to London: Charles I had invited her to his court, and it was not possible to refuse. Charles I was a fanatical collector, willing to ruin public finances to follow his artistic wishes. The fame of Artemisia probably intrigued him, and it is not a coincidence that his collection included a painting of great suggestion, the Autoritratto in veste di Pittura ("Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting"), which is the lead image of this article.
Orazio died suddenly in 1639. Artemisia had her own commissions to fulfill after her father's death, although there are no known works assignable with certainty to this period. It is known that Artemisia had already left England by 1642, when the civil war was just starting. Nothing much is known about her subsequent movements. Historians know that in 1649 she was in Naples again, corresponding with Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily, who became her mentor during this second Neapolitan period. The last known letter to her mentor is dated 1650 and makes clear that she still was fully active.
As Artemisia grew older, her work became more graceful and "feminine," and while this was to some extent part of the general shift in taste and sensibility, it must also have resulted from the artist becoming more and more self-consciously a woman painter.
Artemisia was once thought to have died in 1652/1653; however, recent evidence has shown that she was still accepting commissions in 1654, although she was increasingly dependent upon her assistant, Onofrio Palumbo.
Some have speculated that she died in the devastating plague that swept Naples in 1656 and virtually wiped out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists.
Some works in this period are, Susanna e i vecchioni (Susanna and the elders) today in Brno, Madonna e Bambino con rosario (Virgin and Child with a Rosary) today in El Escorial, David and Bathsheba today in Columbus, Ohio, Museum of Art, and Bathsheba today in Leipzig.
The research paper "Gentileschi, padre e figlia" (1916) by Roberto Longhi, an important Italian critic, described Artemisia as "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing, and other fundamentals". Longhi also wrote of Judith Slaying Holofernes: "There are about fifty-seven works by Artemisia Gentileschi and 94% (forty-nine works) feature women as protagonists or equal to men". These include her works of Jael and Sisera, Judith and her Maidservant, and Esther. These characters intentionally lacked the stereotypical 'feminine' traits—sensitivity, timidness, and weakness—and were courageous, rebellious, and powerful personalities. A nineteenth-century personality commented on Artemisia's Magdalene stating, "no one would have imagined that it was the work of a woman. The brush work was bold and certain, and there was no sign of timidness". In Ward Bissell's view, she was well aware of how women and female artists were viewed by men, therefore explaining why her works in the beginning of her career were so bold and defiant.
Longhi wrote: "Who could think in fact that over a sheet so candid, a so brutal and terrible massacre could happen [...] but—it's natural to say—this is a terrible woman! A woman painted all this? ... there's nothing sadistic here, instead what strikes the most is the impassibility of the painter, who was even able to notice how the blood, spurting with violence, can decorate with two drops the central spurt! Incredible I tell you! And also please give Mrs. Schiattesi—the conjugal name of Artemisia—the chance to choose the hilt of the sword! At last don't you think that the only aim of Giuditta is to move away to avoid the blood which could stain her dress? We think anyway that that is a dress of Casa Gentileschi, the finest wardrobe in the Europe during 1600, after Van Dyck."
Feminist studies increased the interest toward Artemisia's artistic work and life. Such studies underlined her suffering of rape and subsequent mistreatment, and the expressive strength of her paintings of biblical heroines, in which the women are interpreted as willing to manifest their rebellion against their condition. In a research paper from the catalogue of the exhibition "Orazio e Artemisia Gentileschi" which took place in Rome in 2001 (and after in New York), Judith W. Mann critiques feminist opinion of Artemisia, finding that old stereotypes of Artemisia as sexually immoral have been replaced by new stereotypes established in feminist readings of Artemisia's paintings:
Without denying that sex and gender can offer valid interpretive strategies for the investigation of Artemisia's art, we may wonder whether the application of gendered readings has created too narrow an expectation. Underpinning Garrard's monograph, and reiterated in a limited way by R. Ward Bissell in his catalogue raisonné, are certain presumptions: that Artemisia's full creative power emerged only in the depiction of strong, assertive women, that she would not engage in conventional religious imagery such as the Madonna and Child or a Virgin who responds with submission to the Annunciation, and that she refused to yield her personal interpretation to suit the tastes of her presumable male clientele. This stereotype has had the doubly restricting effect of causing scholars to question the attribution of pictures that do not conform to the model, and to value less highly those that do not fit the mold.
Because Artemisia returned again and again to violent subject matter such as Judith and Holofernes, a repressed-vengeance theory has been postulated. Some art historians suggest, however, that she was shrewdly taking advantage of her fame from the rape trial to cater to a niche market in sexually charged, female-dominant art for male patrons.
The most recent critics, starting from the difficult reconstruction of the entire catalogue of the Gentileschi, tried to give a less reductive reading of the career of Artemisia, placing it more accurately in the context of the different artistic environments in which the painter actively participated. A reading such as this restores Artemisia as an artist who fought with determination—using the weapon of personality and of the artistic qualities—against the prejudices expressed against women painters; being able to introduce herself productively in the circle of the most respected painters of her time, embracing a series of pictorial genres that probably were more ample and varied than her paintings suggest.
Feminist interest in Artemisia Gentileschi was sparked in the 1970s when feminist art historian Linda Nochlin published an article titled "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" in which that question was dissected and analyzed. The article explored the definition of "great artists" and how oppressive institutions, not lack of talent, have prevented women from achieving the same level of recognition that men received in art and other fields. Nochlin said that studies on Artemisia and other female artists were "worth the effort" in "adding to our knowledge of women's achievement and of art history generally." According to the foreword by Douglas Druick in Eve Straussman-Pflanzer's Violence & Virtue: Artemisia’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, Nochlin’s article prompted scholars to make more of an attempt to "integrate women artists into the history of art and culture." Artemisia and her oeuvre became a focus again, having had little attention in art history scholarship save Roberto Longhi’s article "Gentileschi padre e figlia (Gentileschi, father and daughter)" in 1916 and R. Ward Bissell’s article "Artemisia Gentileschi- A New Documented Chronology" in 1968. As Artemisia and her work began to garner new attention among feminists and art historians, more literature about her, fictional and biographical, was published. A fictional account of her life by Anna Banti, wife of critic Roberto Longhi, was published in 1947. This account was received well by literary critics but was criticized by feminists, notably Laura Benedetti, for being lenient in historical accuracy in order to draw parallels between author and artist. The first full, factual account of Artemisia’s life, The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, was published in 1989 by Mary Garrard, a feminist art historian. She then published a second, smaller book titled Artemisia Gentileschi around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity in 2001 which explored the artist’s work and identity. Garrard noted that analysis of Artemisia’s oeuvre lacks focus and stable categorization outside of "woman," though Garrard questions whether femaleness is a legitimate category by which to judge her art at all.
Artemisia is known for her portrayal of women in positions of power, like her painting Judith Slaying Holofernes. She is also known for the rape trial in which she was involved, which scholar Griselda Pollock said is now the "axis of interpretation of the artist’s work." Her fame, though great among art historians, is deemed by Pollock to be less due to her work and more to the sensationalism caused by the trial. Feminist literature tends to revolve around the event of Artemisia’s rape, largely portraying her as a traumatized but noble survivor whose work became characterized by sex and violence as a result of her experience. A literature review by Laura Benedetti, "Reconstructing Artemisia: Twentieth Century Images of a Woman Artist," concluded that Artemisia’s work is often interpreted according to the contemporary issues and personal biases of the authors. Feminist scholars, for example, have elevated Artemisia to the status of feminist icon, which Benedetti attributed to Artemisia’s paintings of formidable women and her success as an artist in a male-dominated field while also being a single mother. Elena Ciletti, author of Gran Macchina a Bellezza, wrote that "The stakes are very high in Artemisia’s case, especially for feminists, because we have invested in her so much of our quest for justice for women, historically and currently, intellectually and politically."
For a woman at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Artemisia being a painter represented an uncommon and difficult choice, but not an exceptional one. Before Artemisia, between the end of the 1500 and the beginning of 1600, other women painters had successful careers, including Sofonisba Anguissola (Born in Cremona around 1530, Palermo around 1625), was called into Spain by King Philip II and Lavinia Fontana (Bologna, 1552, Rome 1614) departed for Rome by invitation of Pope Clement VIII. Later Fede Galizia (Milano or Trento, 1578, Milano 1630) painted still lifes and a Judith with the head of Holofernes.
Other women painters began their career while Artemisia was alive. Judged on their artistic merits, Longhi's statement that Artemisia was "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting" may be questioned, but there is no doubt that Artemisia continues to be among the most highly regarded of women artists, and she has attained her place among the great artists of the Baroque.
The first writer who produced a novel around the figure of Artemisia might be George Eliot in Romola (1862–63), where some aspects of Gentileschi's story, while set in Florence in Gentileschi's time, are recognizable, but much embroidered. A later and clearer use of Gentileschi's story is by Anna Banti, wife of Roberto Longhi. Her first draft of the manuscript, dated 1944, was lost during the war. Three years later she started again with the book, to be entitled Artemisia, writing in a much different form. Banti's book is written in an "open diary" form, in which she maintains a dialogue with Artemisia, trying to understand why she finds her so fascinating.
Gentileschi is one of the women represented in The Dinner Party, an installation artwork by Judy Chicago that was first exhibited in 1979.
Artemisia, and more specifically her painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, are referred to in Wendy Wasserstein's 1988 play, The Heidi Chronicles, where the main character, Heidi, lectures about it as part of her art history course on female painters. At the end of the play, Heidi adopts a daughter she names Judy, which is at least a partial reference to the painting. Canadian playwright Sally Clark wrote several stage plays based on the events leading up to and following the rape of Artemisia. Life Without Instruction was commissioned by Nightwood Theatre in 1988, and was developed during an Ontario Arts Council Playwright's Residency in 1989. It was workshopped in 1990 under the direction of Kate Lushington and dramaturged by Jackie Maxwell. Life Without Instruction premiered at Theatre Plus Toronto on August 2, 1991.
Gentileschi's life and the Judith Slaying Holofernes painting played a pivotal role in the 1997 miniseries Painted Lady, starring Helen Mirren.
The film Artemisia (1997), by Agnès Merlet, tells the story of Artemisia's entry into being a professional artist, her relationship with Tassi, and the trial. Merlet exonerates Tassi of rape, not only by depicting their sex as loving and consensual (which sparked controversy upon the film's release), but also by two ahistorical fabrications: Artemisia denies the rape under torture, while Tassi falsely confesses to rape to Artemisia's torment.
In 2002, Susan Vreeland published The Passion of Artemisia, a novel based loosely on her life.
She appears in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire alternate history, being mentioned in 1634: The Galileo Affair (2004) and figuring prominently in 1635: The Dreeson Incident (2008).
The 2016 novel Maestra by L.S. Hilton has Artemisia as a central reference for the main character, and several of her paintings are commented on.
A 2018 young adult novel in verse, entitled Blood Water Paint and authored by Joy McCullough, focuses on Artemisia and her struggle during the trial, as well as her looking to Susannah and Judith for inspiration.