Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Artemisia Gentileschi is, in my opinion, one of the greatest artists to ever exist.

From the age of 15, her talent on canvas turned important historical and biblical stories into strong, heroine-centred pieces, revealing her outrage at the patriarchy. Despite her important role in feminist art history, I had heard very little about the young critically-acclaimed painter. With the reveal of an exhibition exclusively attributed to her work at the National Gallery in London, critics named her “The Old Master” and ranked her equally amongst her male peers. But why this sudden resurrection? 

Susanna and the Elders (1610) was one of the most popular biblical pieces painted during the Baroque period by ‘The Masters’ of the time: Rembrandt, Vaccaro and Von Dyke. A naked Susanna sits centre, her body partly covered by a towel as she bathes, with the intrusive gaze of two leering men leaning over her. In these paintings Susanna is displayed as innocent, her face held in a gasped form, while the two men caress her towel between their fingers. To the male gaze, her body is bare and beautiful, with Susanna depicted as evocative and rather intrigued by the male attention, unlike the expected repulsion most women would experience in the same situation.

Susanna and the Elders (1610) (Image: Store Norske Leksikon)

Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17-year-old painter in 1610, turned the sexual and suggestive Susanna into a feminist icon. Starkly contrasting her peers, Susanna distinctly turns her head away from her uninvited seekers with a depicted, pained and uncomfortable expression, throwing her hands up in protestation. Awestruck as I stood directly in front of it in the first room of the National Gallery, I understood the authenticity of Artemisia’s painting: a body which for so long appeared as sexual, was now revealed as sexualised. 

Artemisia was the oldest child of painter Orazio Gentileschi, and even though the profession of painting was profoundly a male aspiration, Artemisia followed fruitfully in his steps. She was found most days in his home studio as an apprentice, practising his Caravaggio-style techniques.

Left alone in his studio one day when she was 17, under the supervision of a family friend Tuzia Medaglia, an uninvited associate of her father, Agostino Tassi, raped Artemisia. Rape in this time was seen more of a dishonour to the family than a crime against a woman, and so with Tassi’s failure to marry Artemisia, Orazio opened a public rape trial. This exhibition was the first ever to publicly display the documentation from the rape trial, describing the event, Artemisia’s statement and, most disturbingly, outlining the torture and scrutiny Artemisia endued to convince the court of her accusation. As screws were tightened around her fingers Artemisia repeatedly echoed “è vero, è vero, è vero”“it is true, it is true, it is true”.

At the trial, Artemisia was protecting her family name, but punishment for the horror and exploitation of her body was never received. After the anger and resentment experienced in the first room of the exhibition, the second room is brutally uplifting. To the right of you sits the gruesomely detailed murder of Holofernes in Judith Slaying Holofernes. The sheer force and strength of these two women is striking, their forearms muscular and faces tense with concentration of the deed. Artemisia left no detail astray, unafraid by gruesome imagery, adding even the bloody detail to Judith’s forearm and dress. It is clear no resentment is felt, Holoferne’s pained deathly expression is visible as he is beheaded. In the biblical story Holofernes, an Assyrian general prepared to destroy Judith’s home of Bethulia, is seduced and beheaded by her. In the case of Artemisia, she is taking revenge on the man who never paid for his crime. From a feminist perspective this piece was stunning.  It presents the power of an art form in sharing a story. In the modern day, social media is the sharing platform, but the fact that a feminist cry was heard in some strength long before the birth of the #MeToo movement is an encouraging prospect for similar victims of abuse.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-13) (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The famous series is completed with Judith and the Maidservant, two women carrying the head of Holofernes in a basket like a prize possession. But to say her fame came solely from her production of violent feminist artwork would be a reductionist view of her accomplishments, and a modern one. Artemisia’s little recognition up until the modern day is simply a consequence of male ignorance with regard to female artist representation in the Baroque period. In fact, Artemisia was a very successful painter during this period producing paintings for a prestigious crowd including the Italian Medici and Charles I. Her success was locational, documented successfully with each room in the exhibition being a new place she lived. From producing the Holofernes series and her collection of portraits in Florence to Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy in Rome and The Sleeping Venus in Venice.

But let’s not forget the significance of the fact that Artemisia was a woman. Extraordinarily, she was the first woman to gain membership to the Academy of the Arts of Drawing in 1620 and one of the only notorious female artists within Italy at the time. She may have been a sought-after artist, but her locational movement was not spontaneous.

Artemisia struggled like every other woman in that era, without the protection of a wealthy husband and a family of five children to support, she had to please her male audiences around Italy and moved to find richer commissioners.  Being a woman was Artemisia’s weakness: success during her lifetime was attributed to her stunning technique, but equally, and maybe even more so, to intrigue about her femininity. It was this femininity that led to the abolition of her work from collective memory as generations of male domination in art took over.

I like to think of this exhibition as a rebirth, a time to recognise her femininity as a strength, realise the true feminist meanings of her artwork and never ever forget her again.

Jasmine at the exhibition, by Priya Sen

Article by Jasmine Charles

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