Like all female artists of the Renaissance, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1652) was forbidden to draw from the live, or naked, male model. Commissions for paintings from the Church and nobility were expected to incorporate characteristics like naturalism, tenebrism (the creation of forms by focusing a strong light source into a dark background) and drama enacted by men. Within these constraints of Renaissance art, female artists were forced into less prestigious and lucrative genres like still-life and portraiture.

Luckily for Artemisia Gentileschi, her father was the established Renaissance painter Orazio Gentileschi, perhaps most memorable for his artwork in the Palazzo Rospigliosi-Pallavicini, the Borghese palace in Rome which also houses Guido Reni’s breath-taking fresco, Aurora. In defiance of stereotypical roles in Renaissance art, Artemisia painted mythological and Biblical themes like her male peers, but she opted instead for women who were heroic, powerful or abused, such as Bathsheba, Susanna, Cleopatra, Judith, and Esther.

This choice of subject matter allowed her to define her own niche market in Renaissance art, the naked female form, but also recalled personal tragedy.

Orazio had hired the Italian painter, Agostino Tassi, to teach drawing to Artemisia; she subsequently claimed that he raped and sexually intimidated her.

In the ensuing seven month court trial in 1621, she – as a teenager – was tortured with thumb screws to ascertain the truth of her claims; she was further subjected to relentless public humiliation from both the Roman judicial system and the public. Although Tassi was ultimately convicted (he also stood accused of raping his sister-in-law and one of his wives), Artemisia’s honor and reputation were irreparably harmed.

Artemisia Gentileschi.  Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1620.  Oil on canvas, 78″ x 64″.  Uffizi, Florence. 

Orazio arranged a marriage of convenience to a Florentine painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi. Although the marriage was loveless and lasted until he abandoned her ten years later, it relocated Artemisia to Florence, and created a socially acceptable framework in which she could paint. And paint she did, in addition to mothering four children.

Although illiterate, she nonetheless flourished and became socially intimate with (and was unabashedly admired by) Galileo; had patrons including the Italian scholar, Cassiano del Pozzo, and Cosimo II de’Medici; and became in 1616 the first female painter in the Academy of Design (Accademia del Disegno).

One of Artemisia Gentileschi’s most famous paintings is Judith Beheading Holofernes (above) which illustrates an event from the Old Testament Book of Judith.  As the Assyrian general, Holofernes, prepared to destroy the land of Judah,  Judith went with her maidservant, Abra, to Holofernes’ camp.  Posing as a deserter from the Hebrews, Judith seduced him with her beauty, plied him with alcohol, and severed his head.  After it was displayed from the city walls, the Assyrians disperse.  Quickly, legend has it!

Coming next… The later life (and success) of Artemisia Gentileschi.