Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian painter of the XVII century, with an unmistakable dramatic and expressive style, clearly inspired by Caravaggio. However, her fame has often been attributed to the dramatic sentimental events of her life, that made her a feminist heroine ante litteram.
Who was the paintress Artemisia Gentileschi?
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome on July 8, 1593. She was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a Mannerist-styled painter from Pisa who had moved to Rome and got influenced by Caravaggio.
Since she was a child, Artemisia devoted her interest in painting, especially after her mother’s passing (1605). As well as her father, she was inspired by the dramatic realism of Caravaggio, to which she added some elements of the Bolognese school. Her first complete work is Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susanna and the Elders), painted in 1610 when she was only seventeen.
In 1611 an event happened that deeply marked her personal and artistic life: she was raped by her teacher of perspective Agostino Tassi, during the apprenticeship in her father’s studio. A public and very gossiped lawsuit ensued, in which she had to testify under torture, prove her virginity prior to the rape, and was submitted to the sibyl, a torture planned for the painters, which consisted in binding their fingers with ropes until they bled.
Agostino Tassi was condemned, but Artemisia’s reputation and psychophysical saneness were irremediably ruined.
After the lawsuit she married the lowly painter Pierantonio Stiattesi with a pre-defined wedding, and then she moved to Florence in 1612 (the city had a very lively cultural environment). In 1616 she was the first woman in history to enter the glorious Academy of Drawing in Florence.
In 1620, due to her husband’s debt and to the chattering about her morality, she had to leave Florence. She undertook a number of trips and stays: Genova, Venice, Naples and London, where she met many important artists of the time. Although she was always welcomed in those cities, she did not receive as many commissions as her male colleagues did.
She died in Naples in 1653, after a last period of great activity.
Feminism in Artemisia’s paintings
Artemisia lived in a society in which women had a marginal role: painting, as well as other activities, was a practice reserved to men. Artemisia was ignored for centuries by art historians, who tended to relate her artistic status to her sad personal events.
Her ripe and dramatic style, and more generally her own personality began to be re-evaluated starting from an article by Roberto Longhi (1916), Gentileschi padre e figlia (Gentileschi father and daughter). Anyway, her expressivity is still associated with the dramatic sentimental aspects of her life, that led her to an ante litteram feminism. About that, we can mention some of her works that represent biblical heroines triumphing over male abuses: Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith Beheading Holofernes,1612-1613), Ester e Assuero (Ester and Ahasuerus, about 1628-35), Davide e Betsabea (David and Bathsheba, 1635).
Artemisia’s painting style
We must not forget the magnificence of Artemisia’s painting style. She ventured into new genres, compared to the -few- previous female painters: until then, they had limited themselves to landscapes, portraits and still life.
Artemisia’s painting is a “lofty” painting, with historical and sacred subjects and a monumental and dramatic style, clearly inspired by Caravaggio: the scenes are expertly built, shapes and colors have sharp contrasts, and the close-up framing dramatizes the relationship with the beholder, giving up the conventional iconographic forms. Atmosphere is more intimate, with a more lyrical tone, in full harmony with the Baroque style. Artemisia expresses a power that goes beyond the personal affairs: we can remember her Judiths, painted with great concreteness and never idealized, as well as the self portraits and the nudes.
Where to find Artemisia’s works in Naples?
Artemisia’s stay in Naples (from 1630 to 1653, interrupted by a four-years stay in London) was very productive; however, only a few works are kept here nowadays.
Museum of Capodimonte
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612-1613). It represents the biblical heroine Judith (with her slave Abra) beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes, who was besieging the city of Betula. Unlike other painters from XVI and XVII century who had represented the same subject, Artemisia chose the bloodiest moment of the event: the precise moment of the beheading.
The Annunciation (1630). A big altarpiece painted in oil on canvas, that represents a typical theme in all times history of art: the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.
San Gennaro in the Flavian Amphitheater of Pozzuoli (1636-37). It is part of a tryptich painted by Artemisia for the Cathedral of Pozzuoli (on the Rione Terra). It represents the Martyrdom of St. Gennaro: in particular, the moment in which the wild beasts (that were supposed to tear him to pieces), instead of attacking, quiet down at his feet. After been kept in the Museum of Capodimonte for more than fifty years, this painting has been restored to its original location, after the Cathedral of Pozzuoli reopened to worship.
Saints Procolus and Nicea (1636-37). It represents two of the Martyrs of Pozzuoli: Procolo and his mother Nicea. As the previous painting, this one as well has been stored in the Museum of Capodimonte for more than fifty years, and is now kept in the Cathedral of Pozzuoli.
Adoration of the Magi (1636-37). Togheter with the previous two, this painting completes the tryptich painted by Artemisia for the Cathedral of Pozzuoli. It represents the Three Kings adoring Baby Jesus. It is very interesting to notice that all the characters have the typical physiognonomy of Southern Europe, almost Hispanic.
Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano
Samson and Delilah (1630-38). Oil on canvas inspired by the homonymous biblical story, depicting Samson asleep on the knees of the charming Delilah, who conquers the heart of the young man by deceit and manages to discover his strength.