Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian painter of the Baroque period from the early to mid 1600's. She is considered one of Caravaggio's most talented followers and is best known for her powerful portrayals of biblical female characters.
Self Portrait as a Lute Player, 1617-18
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in 1593 in Rome to an affluent Italian artist, Orazio Gentileschi. Orazio introduced her to painting at a young age and instructed her in the style of Caravaggio in which he worked as well. But where Orazio's work was meticulous and portrayed demure female characters, Artemisia's was bold and expressive. In her figures, particularly women, she emphasized emotion and realism over placid idealism.
One of her first major works was Sussana ei Vecchioni (Sussana and the Elders). This scene had been depicted by many artists before her, but Gentileschi's version is notable because it portrays the sexual harassment Susanna experienced as a traumatic event. A theme that runs through much of Gentileschi's work, starting with this first impressive image, is the illustration of the scene from the point of view of the female character. In Gentileschi's version, Susanna is not a prop or sexual object for the audience to enjoy - she is the abused heroine with whom we empathize, and the elders are the villains.
Sussana ei Vecchioni, 1610
Women were not allowed to enter university, so her father hired a private tutor, Agostino Tassi, to train her. Tassi raped the young Artemisia and was later that year tried for the crime against her and her honor. The trial was excruciating for her as she was physically examined before a judge and tortured with thumbscrews. This traumatic series of events is unfortunately still one of the most well-known aspects of the artist, more famous than her paintings, and is often used to explain her desire to paint audacious female characters.
The most well known of such images is Judith Slaying Holofernes, which is a particularly graphic depiction of an often-painted biblical story. Here Judith, with the help of her servant, struggle to behead the Assyrian general Holofernes to stop him from destroying her city. Not only did Gentileschi choose to describe the scene in an especially bloody and violent way, but she also gave the Judith character her own face and portrayed Holofernes as her rapist, Agostino Tassi. This painting is also a wonderful example of the expressive nature of Artemisia's figures, the unidealised realism of her female characters, as well as the intense lighting and high drama the Baroque period is famous for.
After Tassi was tried and sent to prison, Gentlileschi married and moved to Florence where her work was well received. She became the first female artist accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) and her work was commissioned by some of the most powerful and influential people of the time.
Gentileschi returned to the death of Holofernes by Judith several times, including in Giuditta con la sua ancella (Judith and her Maidservant), though here she chose a slightly more serene moment to capture. Carrying the head of their victim from the scene of the murder, Judith and her aid turn at a sudden sound and hope they are not about to be discovered. Even though there is minimal action in this image, the alerted poise of the figures creates a subtle tension which is highlighted through the composition that leads us, via the figures' arms, from the faces of the women to the lifeless head in the basket and back.
Because Artemisia returned to the same violent story many times, and because the trial against her rapist was so well known, many theories attempting to correlate the two facts have been produced. Some view Artemisia's paintings of Judith as a window into the repressed trauma she must have been carrying after the rape, while others think she used this suspicion to generate interest into her work. And there are others as well who think that the notoriety around the rape trial liberated Gentileschi to portray the bold, determined women that she wanted because her fascination with the subject matter could be 'explained' by her history.
Little is known about the later years of her career. Although it appears from written correspondence that she was actively painting commissioned work at least until 1654, there has been difficulty attributing authorship to her work with certainty. Even the place and year of her death are debated. It's possible that she died in a plague that ravaged Naples in 1656.