Siren spotting: Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)
Like many other women artists of her era who were excluded from apprenticeship Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of a painter. She was born in Rome on July 8, 1593, to Orazio and Prudentia Gentileschi. Her mother died when Artemisia was twelve. Her father trained her as a painter and introduced her to the working artists of Rome, including Caravaggio, whose chiaroscuro style heavily influenced Artemisia's work. Later her father sent her to study with Antonio Tassi who raped her when she was 19. He tried to placate her by promising to marry her and since she was a virgin at the time of the rape, she felt that was her only choice. When he wouldn’t follow through and marry her, her father had him arrested and charged with rape.
Only thirty four of her paintings survive today, as well as the near complete transcript of the rape trial, which tells how Tassi paid all his male friends to attest to Artemisia being a loose woman. Only one of his friends told the truth to the court and testified that Tassi bragged about his attack on Artemisia. In spite of this truthful testimony, Artemisia was tortured as part of the trial process to get her to confess.
Tassi had been imprisoned earlier for relations with his sister-in-law and was charged with arranging the murder of his wife. Even with his reputation, Artemisia was the one who was tortured, not him. He was ultimately convicted on the charge of raping Gentileschi but he served less than one year in prison.
One month after the long and brutal trial ended, the pregnant Artemisia married a family friend, Florentine artist Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, and they moved to Florence, where she had her daughter.
Soon after, Gentileschi painted Judith Slaying Holofernes. The painting is remarkable not only for its technical proficiency, but for the original way in which Gentileschi portrays Judith and is considered a better painting than Carravaggio’s version. Clearly a cathartic expression of her rage, Artemisia returned to the subject of Judith again and again.
She became famous for her work and gained commissions from the Grand Duke Cosimo of the Medici family as well as King Charles I of England. She was in residence at the English court from 1638 to 1641, one of many artists invited there by the art-collecting king. A French artist, Pierre Dumonstier le Neveu, made a drawing of her hand holding a paintbrush, calling it a drawing of the hand of "the excellent and wise noble woman of Rome, Artemisia." Her fame is also evident in a medal bearing her portrait made some time between 1625 and 1630 that calls her a ”celebrated woman painter." Also around this time, Jerome David painted her portrait with the inscription calling her "the famous Roman painter."
The cause and timing of Artemisia's death is not known, but it seems she likely died in 1652. Unfortunately, however, the rape trial clouded her life as a female painter, and her numerous paintings of powerful women fighting against male dominance did not endear her to the male aristocracy. The only record of her death is two epitaphs that make no mention of her art but describe her in exclusively sexual terms as a nymphomaniac and adulterer.
Unbelievably, this same storyline is still being played out today around the world. What are we doing about it? One small thing we've decided to do is support A Safe Place for Animals with our sales. It is a program that helps shelter abused women and gives them a safe place to go with their pets. For many women, they would rather stay and suffer abuse rather than leave a beloved animal at home where they would certainly be tortured. We must help to convert all women's shelters to safe houses for women and their loved ones be those children or animals.
xo, Jacci & Laura