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Artemisia Gentileschi:
On Her Own Terms

You can read about a painter, but none of it makes any real sense until you see her paintings. I read a little bit about Artemisia Gentileschi in Uppity Women of Medieval Times by Vicki Leon (buy it! read it!), and then I read some more. But none of it made any real sense until I saw her paintings.

“O my Goddess! Get thee to this website and see this woman's art! This woman, starting at age 16, painted pictures to rival all the greats of her time, which was the early 1600s in Rome. Deeply influenced by Caravaggio and Michelangelo, she developed a distinct style that to this day is recognized and celebrated as her own. As she matured, she enjoyed the support of many wealthy, famous patrons.

But it was not an easy row for a woman to hoe. Her father -- Orazio Gentileschi -- was a celebrated artist in his own right, and he taught her until she was 17. At that age, boys interested and talented in art were entering academies for further training, but Artemisia was denied the opportunity because women were forbidden to draw male nudes.

So Dad hired a "friend," Agostino Tassi, to tutor Artemisia at home. Agostino lost no time in trying to seduce his young charge. She resisted. He raped her. Her father brought charges against him, and although the five month trial ended in a conviction, Artemisia suffered more because of it than did her rapist. Forced to endure a vaginal exam somehow meant to determine if she was a virgin at the time of the rape (and how insane is that?), she was also subjected to torture with thumbscrews on the witness stand. Even the conviction was a short-lived triumph, as Tassi won an acquittal after a mere eight months in jail. The sensational nature of the trial pretty much ruined life for Artemisia in gossipy Rome, so she took off for Florence -- away from the label of "damaged goods" that an unmarried non-virgin (no matter how she arrived at that status) had at that time and place, under those circumstances.

But Artemisia was unstoppable. She married and eventually had two daughters. She later separated from her husband, and was noted in the official census as Head of Household. She received a large commission for a painting at the Casa Buonarroti, followed by many more significant commissions. She enjoyed the support of the Medici family, and later in her career, one of her greatest admirers was King Charles I of England. She even became a member of the until-then all male Accademia del Disego, a formal art institution.

In what appears to be a true reflection of her personal struggles, Artemisia's art deals preponderantly with the theme of female vengeance against male violence. Her first signed painting, “Susanna and The Elders” (1610), depicts the virtuous Susanna suffering from sexual harassment by the men of her community. Instead of the typical male rendering of Susanna as coy and welcoming of the attention, Artemisia paints her as frightened, vulnerable and resisting, while the men threaten and conspire. Some historians believe this painting reflected Tassi's sexual harassment of the artist before the actual rape.

Her next major work -- painted either during or just after the trial -- is “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (1612-13). This is a bloody, violent rendering -- once again, different from the typical male treatment of the subject. Artemisia depicts Judith and her maid Abra utterly focused on the gruesome deed of hacking off a general's head. This is one of six paintings Artemisia executed of the same event, each one depicting strong, determined, un-squeamish women engaged with complete confidence in their task.

The themes of women struggling with, or seeking vengeance for, male violence committed against them is central to many of her works. In 1621, Artemisia painted Lucretia -- also a rape victim -- as she struggles over whether to commit suicide. Twice she painted Cleopatra, who also died by suicide. In "Corsica and the Satyr" (1640s), she portrays the nymph Corsica escaping rape by the satyr when her wig comes off in his hand. "Jael and Sisera" (1620) shows Jael - with Judith-ian determination - driving a tent peg through the head of Sisera, enemy of her people.

Like the subjects of her paintings, Artemisia Gentileschi was an independent woman, determined to live life on her own terms. She is quoted as saying, "As long as I live, I will have control over my being." She survived sexual harassment, rape, a humiliating trial, torture and discrimination; made a living as an artist; was well known and respected for her talents; raised two daughters as a single mom, and generally did what she pleased, and did it well, thank you very much. The fact that the two epitaphs written at the time of her death satirize her in sexual terms, but say nothing of her artwork, is all the more reason why we should remember Artemisia, as well as all the un-remembered women who insisted on having control over their own beings -- even back in the 1600s.

-- by Sue Scharff

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