Artist of the Month
Self-Portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria, Artemisia Gentileschi. 1615-17. National Gallery, London
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) lived in Italy at a time when women were expected to be mothers, wives, and nuns. She developed into one of the most creative artists in the 17th century. Her work is on a par with that of Caravaggio, with a difference. Gentileschi’s women are depicted as heroic and self-assured. Her women are empowered with strong stories to tell in a male-dominated world. No wonder that for many, many years few had heard of Gentileschi. In fact, some of her paintings were attributed to male painters and her father, Orazio. Only in the past couple of decades has Artemisia become recognised for her imaginative retelling of biblical stories from the viewpoint of women.
Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620. Artemisia Gentileschi. Florence Uffizi.
In Judith Slaying Holofernes Artemisia takes the story of Judith from the Bible and gives it a Tarantino style treatment. Judith, a young widow from the Jewish city of Bethulia, beheads Holofernes, the Assyrian general of the army that had laid siege to her city. This was a popular theme for many paintings of the 17th century, including Caravaggio. Artemesia’s treatment of the story is different in many ways from that of other artists of the time.
The two women are presented as working together with a sense of purpose as they set about decapitating the general. Both are well-dressed, young and appear stronger together than the man they are murdering. The creases in Judith’s wrists show her physical strength as she overpowers Holofernes. The thrust of his arms are countered by the more forceful movement of Judith’s accomplice, Abra.
Artemesia positions Judith’s sword vertically providing the painting’s central axis which goes from Abra’s arm to the blood that runs down the edge of the bed. The bed sheets are in the immediate foreground, close to the viewer’s space. Holofernes muscular body projects dynamically into the depicted space as bold areas of light and dark draw attention to his powerful limbs. Her use of chiaroscuro creates a theatrical quality to the scene. This reinforces the strength of the women and the violence of the scene.
The unique portrayal of Judith and Abra has prompted art historians to argue that Artemisia identified with Judith. Artemisia was raped at 17 years of age, leading to a shocking trial in which she was treated as complicit in the rape. It is argued that the painting is an expression of imagined revenge against her rapist. Others have pointed to the popularity in the 17th century of the strong as an example of virtue over vice, of God’s protection of his chosen people from their enemies. Judith was seen as an Old Testament antitype of the Virgin Mary and by extension a symbol of the Church.
The overall impact of the painting shocked many in the 18th century. The painting’s owners, the Medici family, were so shocked by the gory nature of the scene that they locked the painting in a hidden corner of the Uffizi, where it remained until the late twentieth century.
Susanna and the Elders, 1610. Artemisia Gentileschi. Pommersfelden, Schloss Weissenstein
The first woman ever admitted into the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno in Florence.
Since she was a woman, she could paint live nude female models. This gave her an advantage over male painters, who were prevented from using live female nude models.
Galileo and Artemisia Gentileschi knew each other: they both had connections to the Grand Ducal Court in Florence.
Judith Slaying Holofernes (c. 1620) was most likely made for Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who hid the painting from view as he believed it was too horrifying to behold.
Artemisia Gentileschi painted a panel entitled Inclinazione, commissioned by Michelangelo Buonarotti the Younger, inside Florence’s Casa Buonarotti.
Artemesia knew Caravaggio, who was a friend of her father. She is now recognised as one of the leading exponents of his dramatic approach to painting.
The Penitent Magdalen 1617-1620, Artemisia Gentilesch. Florence, Palazzo Pitti
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1630, Artemesia Gentileschi. London
Susanna and the Elders is the first work known to be entirely painted by Artemisia, completed when she was 17 years old. The work shows a frequently depicted biblical scene: two voyeuristic elders spy on the virtuous Susanna while she is bathing, then attempt to blackmail her into having sexual relations with them with false accusations of adultery.
While many artists have chosen this subject, Susanna is usually presented as unaware of the elders' presence, or even welcoming them in a flirtatious fashion. Artemesia, on the other hand, shows Susanna's distress at being watched and accosted by the men, presenting the incident as a traumatic event.
Susanna's response is at the centre of the painting, demonstrating Artemesia's unprecedented psychological realism, particularly in her presentation of women. Artemisia's Susanna presents us with an image rare in art, of a three-dimensional female character who is heroic. The expressive core of the painting is the heroine's plight, not the villains' anticipated pleasure, and this offers an entirely different set of concerns to that of many of her male counterparts.
This image was painted before her rape by Tassi. The subject matter may reflect sexual harassment that she was receiving at his and other artists' hands once she began training at his studio.
What the painting gives us is a reflection of how a young woman felt about her own sexual vulnerability in the year 1610. The painting is about the threat of rape in a society dominated by men.