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Everything You Need to Know About Artemisia Gentileschi

26 Sep 2021 | 0 Comments

Born in 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi went on to become one of the most well-regarded painters in the history of Italian art.


Her story is one of the most important in all of art history and has become a focus for huge numbers of artists and art enthusiasts alike.


So, here’s everything you need to know about the icon that is, Artemisia Gentileschi.


Artemisia was born into an artistic family. 


She was the daughter of the renowned artist Orazio Gentileschi and was the only girl alongside her four younger brothers.


 Her father, Orazio, was also the son of an artisan with his father before him being a goldsmith.


She was already an accomplished painter by the time she was a teenager, and her artwork Susana and Her Elders was painted when she was just 17 years old.


She Was Known for Her Powerful Paintings


Artemisia was known for her excellent use of colour, light, and shadow – which created incredibly theatrical scenes, made even more powerful by her naturalistic style.


She was influenced heavily by Caravaggio, who many would now argue that she surpassed!


However, she wasn’t just a talented painter. She was also a shrewd businesswoman.


She was known to send paintings, without them being requested or bought, to some of the most influential and powerful patrons in Europe.


It’s a lovely example 17th century Guerrilla and Influencer Marketing!


Who needs Instagram?


She Didn’t Stay Put in Italy


In 1639 Artemisia made a journey over to England to assist her ageing father with the completion of the ceiling in Queen's House, Grenwich.


Her fame by this stage in her life was Europe-wide, and she was commissioned by Michelangelo’s great-nephew to paint the ceiling of the Casa Buonarotti – which was being built to honour Michelangelo’s legacy.


He wanted Artemisia to be involved so much that he (quite amazingly) paid her three times as much as any of the other well-known artists who were involved in the project, in order to convince her to join them.


Artemesia's Rape


At the age of 18, her father’s close friend and fellow artist, Agostino Tassi, assaulted Artemisia and took her virginity.


When he later refused to marry her, Artemisia’s father, Orazio, decided to take Tassi to court – charged with raping his daughter.


In the end, the nasty 7-month trial hinged on whether or not Artemisia was a virgin or not when the rape occurred, because the laws of the time would have meant that if she was not a virgin then it wouldn’t have been classed as rape.


Prosecutors tortured Artemisia by subjecting her to a thumbscrew, in order to verify her claims.


Eventually, Tassi was convicted of Artemisia’s rape – though he never actually served the exile with which he was sentenced.


The trial also brought to light that Tassi had sexual relations with his sister-in-law, plotted to steal artworks from the Gentileschi’s, and even murder his own wife.


So, we’ll leave you to conjure up a word that you feel best describes him...  


How Was She Remembered?


It says a lot about how Artemisia’s fame dwindled in her old age and after her death, that it is not known exactly when she died.


Interest in her work was minimal when she did eventually pass away, to the extent that barely any histories of Italian art included her work until the early 1900s.

Even then, it was only in a rather patronising extract that said she was ‘the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, colouring, drawing, and other fundamentals’.


It wasn’t really until Linda Nochlin brought her story to light as part of her seminal book, ‘Why Were There No Great Women Artists?’, that Artemisia’s story really began to capture people’s interest and she once again became a well-known and well-loved icon of art history.


In many ways, however, the case of Artemisia’s rape has overshadowed so much of her story, achievements, and the subsequent retelling of these in the history of art.


Many only assess her work through this sometimes-one-dimensional lens – positioning her as a woman driven solely by her vengeful disdain for men because of her experience.


While this is unquestionably a thread in which this sentiment can be seen in a large amount of her work, it’s increasingly argued that this has been overplayed and that we ought to look beyond this in analysing her work.


That said, some semi-fictional depictions of her life have taken this to the opposite extreme, by controversially presenting her relationship with Tassi as a consensual one in which the two were truly in love... So, maybe don’t go that far.