One of the first female artists with a reputation beyond her native country, Artemisia Gentileschi endured a tumultuous childhood (read about the early life of Artemisia Gentileschi) but thrived nonetheless.

She and her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi, were acquainted with the renowned Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610).  In one of the best known Artemisia Gentileschi paintings, Judith Beheading Holofernes, (right), her rendition of this apocryphal legend was influenced by Caravaggio’s version created about two decades earlier (below left). The violence and drama of her painting, enhanced by use of chiaroscuro, are typical of the Caravaggisti, or followers who imitated Caravaggio paintings.

Artemisia Gentileschi.  Judith Beheading Holofernes.  Oil on canvas, c. 1620.  Uffizi, Florence.

In comparing the Holofernes theme executed by each,  Mary D. Garrard (Artemisia Gentileschi; Rizzoli Art Series) observes:

“Her strategy was not so much to pay Caravaggio homage as to demand to be compared with him, to be taken seriously as an artist, perhaps even to go him one better.”

In Gentileschi’s rendition, Judith appears older, Abra is younger, and both unite to slaughter Holofernes.  The women dominate and control the action in a manner impossible to imagine with Caravaggio’s timid females.  Gentileschi has not only demonstrated her superior ability to portray these women convincingly, but also has asserted her prowess in painting the Biblical and mythological themes typically handled only by male artists.

Nearly four centuries later, her popularity is once again as pervasive as it was during her late career. Works of art previously attributed to Orazio and other Baroque painters, for example, have been attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi.

Left. Caravaggio.  Judith Beheading Holofernes.  Oil on canvas, 1598-99.  57″ x 76 1/2″.  Palazzo Barberini, Rome. 

The first art exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi paintings was held in 1991 at Florence’s Casa Buonarroti; significantly, the Casa was built by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, a nephew of Michelangelo and an early patron of Artemisia. Numerous books have been written about her (I’m a fan of Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia) and even a movie, Artemisia, was made in 1997. In it, the relationship between Artemisia and Tassi is portrayed as mutual and passionate — but now you know that that is pure Hollywood, not art history!

Another of the famous paintings by Gentileschi, her Self-Portrait of 1630, typifies her tendency to challenge the status quo. The position in which she portrays herself is highly unusual, and would be daunting for any painter at any time in art history.

The Royal Collection, which owns this famous artwork, posits that she placed two facing mirrors on either side of herself. The mirror, traditionally an attribute of female vanity, is here associated with truth and accuracy — and in the case of Artemisia Gentileschi,  with another break from tradition.

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Artemisia Gentileschi. Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1630. Oil on canvas, 38″ x 29″. The Royal Collection, St. James’ Palace, London.