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Artemisia Gentileschi's

Heroic Women


CLEOPATRA. Gentileschi. 1630s, London. private collection


LUCRETIA . Gentileschi. 1621.

Genoa, Palazzo Cattaneo-Adorno


ESTHER BEFORE AHASUERUS. Gentileschi. late 1620s. The Met. New York City. USA

"You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of this women," said Artemisia in response to a patron's doubt about women's artistic abilities. This reference to Caesar probably has to do with the 17th-Century idea of the heroic, and her choice of heroines from the Bible and classical sources.

Lucretia, 1621

Artemisia presents Lucretia, a figure from classical mythology who was raped and, after confessing what had happened, killed herself. Lucretia became a popular symbol of female defiance against male tyranny. 


Lucretia was a married Roman woman, beautiful and virtuous. She was attracted to the king's son Sextus Tarquinius.  Lucretia was unable to accept her dishonour. She told her husband everything that happened, and in his eyes stabbed herself, preferring death to shame. Her act had political consequences. Outraged Roman citizens rebelled, the excitement quickly turned into an uprising. So, thanks to the courage of Lucretia, Rome became a Republic.


Artemisia captures the moment in which Lucretia decides to stab herself. The image is pared down in terms of detail - Lucretia is without jewellery or the trappings of wealth seen in other images and she wears only a dishevelled slip, perhaps indicating the rape has only just occurred. 


This simplicity along with the close crop and dramatic lighting, which highlights her face and breast, places the focus firmly on Lucretia, presenting her as a solitary figure and emphasising her agency in her decision to commit suicide after being mistreated by men. 


Whereas other (male) artists had often depicted Lucretia's rape or the pathos of her death, Artemisia focuses on the psychological consequences of the rape. By grasping both her breast and the dagger, she draws attention to the character's femininity and the nurturing potential of the woman, as well as indicating her bold intention. The act that is about to occur is anticipated in the blood-red of the fabric which spills across her lap and out of the pictorial frame. 


Artemisia's portrayal of Lucretia is an important example of the artist's creation and promotion of the 'female hero' in her art - a three-dimensional female character who is heroic in the classical sense - something which is otherwise missing from 17th-century painting. She repeatedly presents women in this way by focusing on the psychology of her subjects and moving the viewer to feelings of pity and awe.

"As long as I live I will have control over my being"

(Artemisia Gentileschi)


In this work, Artemisia presents another woman whom her male counterparts eroticised as a sexual temptress. She shows the moment when Cleopatra's suicide is discovered by two of her female attendants. Cleopatra's stiff position indicates the onset of rigour-mortis, pointing to Artemisia’s quest for realism. 


In this painting, Artemisia presents a complicated vision of female power and powerlessness. She shows Cleopatra's self-inflicted and solitary death brought about by her mistreatment by men. In some ways this can be seen as an example of female agency in that she made the personal choice to respond in this manner. Conversely, by not focusing on the decision itself, as in Lucretia, but on the aftermath, the painting acts as a strong symbol of the lack of recourse that women had available to them and the impact that this had on those around them, in this instance the female attendants at the back of the painting. 


Artemisia also uses some tropes typical of male painters of the period to present Cleopatra's semi-nude body to the viewer. In this as in other similar works, she portrays nude women in sleep or in death, placing the viewer in the position of voyeur. 


Artemisia's has minimised some of the patently sexual references used by other artists. She has presented a vulnerable female, unaware of the viewer's gaze.

"This Will Show Your Lordship What a Woman Can Do”

(Artemisia Gentileschi)

Esther before Ahasuerus, 1620s

This painting shows  Esther going before her husband King Ahasuerus to beg him to spare her people after the king ordered the execution of all Jewish people in the Persian Empire. Artemisia captures the moment Esther fainted.


While the subject matter depicted in this work is a biblical scene, the style of the clothing and setting is more contemporary. The significance of the way Artemisia paints Esther and the king illustrates her style and ideals. Esther is shown in better lighting, while Ahasuerus is in shadow, and the king is also depicted with an extravagant feathered hat and fur-trimmed boots that are bejewelled. 


Esther is more elegant and wearing refined clothing. Artemisia marks her as the protagonist of the scene and gives her more agency while conveying the message of how much of a biblical heroine Esther is. 


The colours are generally muted. Shades of red run throughout much of the background, darkened by brown to come off as shadows.  Esther's vibrantly yellow dress stands out in comparison to the rest of the painting, bringing attention to her figure. The king's colour palette is also different from the background with an outfit of white and dark green.


 Ahasuerus leans forward in his chair as Esther faints backwards, caught by the women behind her. The diagonal angles in the curtains in front of and behind the king also give the effect of drawing the eye towards him as if to remind the viewer to pay attention to him, too, instead of just focusing on Esther. This is a very dynamic scene with a lot of movement from both Esther and the king.


Artemisia paid a lot of attention to the folds of the fabrics as well as in Ahasuerus's boots, and she made the stitches on the hem of Esther's dress so exact that they almost look real. The materials in this painting feel almost real and tangible, which helps to make the scene even more relatable to viewers.


Artemisia's depiction of the king is not very formidable. He is leaning forward with a puzzled expression on his face as Esther faints. This does not seem to be the face of a king who has the power to order the execution of an entire race, and that may be part of Artemisia's intention as far as his portrayal goes; the people in charge may not always appear as powerful and scary as their position entails.

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