In an era in which most powerful and noteworthy women are remembered more for breaking the paradigm of female oppression within their fields than their contributions to their fields of study themselves, Artemisia Gentileschi managed to not only overcome years of abuse and ridicule for her gender, but surpass many male contemporaries and become one of the most successful and accomplished painters of her time hands down.
Born in Rome in 1593 to accomplished Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia demonstrated talent exceeding that of her brothers from a young age. Her first surviving work, a depiction of the biblical figure Susanna who was almost put to death for refusing to have sex with two older men, is noteworthy for being one of only a few paintings on the theme depicting the event as viscerally brutal and traumatic. She was 17 when she painted it.
Artemisia’s father encouraged her as a painter, hiring Agostino Tassi to tutor her when she was 18. Tassi soon after raped Artemisia, and was only able to be tried because she had been a virgin at the time of the assault, and he had reneged on his promise to marry her subsequently. Despite this, he was released after only a brief imprisonment. Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews during the trial to guarantee the honesty of her testimony.
Her body of work is characterized by an unidealized, naturalistic approach to her (often biblical) subjects, and a focus on the struggles and narratives of female characters from parables and legends. This emotional honesty, exhibited by few other painters of her time, is often attributed to the trauma she underwent early in her life and her struggles as a female painter to gain recognition, not just as a curiosity, but a master of her craft.
Despite all this, Artemisia was able to go on to marry and enjoy a highly successful career. After moving to Florence, she was the first woman ever to be accepted into the highly prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing), befriended Galileo Galilei and many of the most respected artists and noblemen of her time, and worked on a number of high-profile projects and commissions.
The exact circumstances surrounding her death are unknown, though it is speculated that she died in a plague outbreak that swept through Naples in 1656. Her legacy, however, as a master painter, and, more recently, feminist figurehead, has endured throughout the centuries to preserve her status as a highly talented and extraordinary woman.
– Olivia Swarthout
Thumbnail Image- Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, 1615, Oil on Canvas