Artemisia Gentileschi was born in 1593 in Rome. The daughter of popular Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi and Prudencia Montone, Artemisia was the oldest of five children. She was raised in a world where her neighborhood was filled with well-known painters who socialized with her father in a city where the tradition of decorating churches, palaces and public buildings had just begun.
Artemisia lost her mother at age 12. By this time Orazio, was already training Artemisia and her brothers to mix paints and draw.
We imagine that their household was filled with male visitors and her father’s colleagues. Documents from the time, report that Artemisia was hardly seen by the visitors, justifying a tradition of protecting one’s daughter’s innocence from the world.
Artemisia was most likely introduced to Caravaggio around that time. Her father and Caravaggio were friends, and Orazio’s work was highly influenced by the master of lights and shadows. Artemisia learned how to dramatically use light and dark as her main style of painting from both Caravaggio and Orazio.
Without a mother around, it is likely that much of Artemisia’s world was her father’s studio. At that time, to be a painter meant to craft with raw materials. This required grinding minerals and mixing them with oils and other pigments to generate other colors. Constructing tools, such as brushes, and stretching canvases were basic tasks for a painter.
She was practically illiterate because it was not common to teach women to read. As a young woman she couldn’t write and could read very little.
When Artemisia was seventeen she finished her first painting, Susana and the Elders. Her Father declared Artemisia to have precocious talent after studying painting for a mere three years. Her painting suggests that she was observing other painters’ work, especially at the Sistine Chapel and other churches under the direction of Pope Paul V.
Her Father mostly did frecoes in that period, while collaborating with painter and friend Agostino Tassi. Artemisia was introduced to Tassi in order to learn perspective.
Having Agostino Tassi as her tutor changed Artemisia’s life in Rome forever.
Orazio Gentileschi went to court and sued Agostino Tassi after he found out he had raped his daughter.
Amazingly, a complete file of the seven-month trial still exists and has been translated into English.
Mary D Garrard explains, “To read the trial testimony is to descend to a genuinely depressing level of sexual and moral sordidness. Even upright citizens do not look good in police court and the cast of characters involved in this incident some very seamy types indeed. Yet it is a precious document, affording a very large slice of raw seventeenth-century reality, and a few facts that can be sifted from the heap of self serving half-truths and lies.”
Artemisia was raped at age 17 by her tutor Augostino Tassi, who was hired by her Father to teach her perspective.
According to Artemisia’s testimony, it is clear that Agostino Tassi raped her and pressured her to continually engage in sex under the pretense he loved her and would marry her. Since Agostino wouldn’t follow through with the actual marriage, Artemisia felt she had to tell her father. As her Father discovered that Artemisia had been violated and would be “damaged goods” for someone else to marry her, he went to court to clear Artemisia’s name.
I can not imagine what an ordeal that must have been for a young woman in a misogynistic society to be exposed like that in a trial. At the time, a woman’s word was good for nothing, so Artemisia was submitted to the most humiliating proceedings that would now be considered barbaric and unlawful. She was put to the truth test and a Sybille was used to extract it. A Sybille was a contraption that was attached to her hand and her thumb was crushed in a small vise. The pressure could cause excruciating pain and even cause the loss of fingers. According to the files, a neighbor called Tuzia, who was responsible for Artemisia’s daily activities at home, and had been at in the house with her at the time, allowed Tassi to come in and have privacy with her on the day of the rape. Also, it was established during trial that Artemisia fought physically and even once stabbed Tassi with a knife.
Other notable evidence was that Tassi accused Artemisia of being a whore and brought several men to testify against her.
During the trial, it was established that Tassi was a criminal. He had been imprisioned for trying to murder his wife and having an illicit relationship with his sister-in-law.
Artemisia’s father also accused him of stealing a painting from their house.
The court records indicate that Artemisia showed sympathy to Tassi until she found out he was in fact already married, which might explain why she continuously engaged in sex after the rape. One could suppose that she might have been smitten with her teacher like any inexperienced young woman.
To finalize her humiliation during trial, she was submitted to a court examination by two midwifes who testified; that she was not a virgin and had not recently lost her virginity.
Finally, the judge decided, Artemisia’s name was to be cleared and Tassi was to be banned from Rome for 5 years. He never fulfilled this sentence.
Art historians have debated over how to look at Artemisia’s work.
Were Artemisia’s powerful females in her paintings a reflection of her rape? Was Artemisia ahead of her time, being one of the rare females fighting against a misogynistic world?
It seems to me that if the dates on her paintings are correct, Artemisia’s first painting Susana and the Elders already represents some of her feelings toward men before her rape. In this painting, one can feel the contempt the young woman seems to have toward male authority. To me she is saying “Leave me alone. Don’t touch me!”
She lived in a time when women were not even considered complete human beings. Man saw women as male who were not whole.
The writer Mary D. Garrard wrote a chapter on Artemisia’s life at the time, where she includes a whole chapter on historical feminism and female iconography of the period. She discussed how women at that time were classified as having only seven different character attributions: beautiful, chaste, magnanimous, unchaste, wicked, warlike and virtuous. To me, that seems rooted in cruelty, and manipulation and misogyny.
If Artemisia was able to just think and analyze her surroundings, she must have concluded from early on that she lived in a world where women needed to be treated better. She would have wanted her work to reflect the potential strength of women. I want to believe Artemisia would have painted just the same if she had not been raped. Nevertheless, I want to believe that the rape confirmed everything Artemisia thought already about the cruel male world of 400 hundred years ago.
Mary D. Garrard wisely wrote that the painting Susana and the Elders might have been painted right after the rape or during the period when Agostino Tassi was pursuing her so aggressively. “What the painting gives us then is a reflection, not of the rape itself, but rather of how one young woman felt about her own sexual vulnerability in the year 1611.”
After the trial, there was only one way for Artemisia to look proper in that male dominated society: Artemisia’s father arranged for her to be married toPierantonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi, a painter himself.
If we were to choose a theme that best represents Artemisia’s body of work, the depiction of Judith and Holofernes, painted at least 5 times by her best represents what she was trying to do. It seems that she identified in many ways with this subject. In the first painting, the Uffizi Judith, one wonders if this represents her psychological state as she finished the trial. Was the painting some sort of vengeance or self-empowerment?
Mary Garrard says, “Artemisia seems to have drawn personal courage from her subject, to go farther than any woman artist had ever gone-or would go, before the twentieth century- in depicting a confrontation of the sexes from a female point of view.”
Agostino Tassi, Artemisia’s rapist, was banished from Rome for five years, in November of 1612; but he apparently was never made to comply with this sentence. Right after the trial, Artemisia’s father arranged for her to get married to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a painter himself.
After marrying they moved to Florence where Artemisia gave birth the following year to their first son, Giovanni Battista.
It was during this period in Florence, that Artemisia had many important things happen in her personal life and career. We don’t know if she was happily married, but we do know she gave birth to four children.
Around this time Artemisia was invited by Michelangelo Buanarroti, the Younger, to be part of the project to decorate Casa Buonarroti in celebration of his great uncle, Michelangelo. He commissioned her to paint “Allegory of Inclination” which was completed in 1616.
Mary D. Garrard emphasizes that “it is quite possible that Artemisia’s reputation as a specialist in the depiction of the female nude had preceded her. Artemisia’s informal access to female models gave her a rare advantage over her masculine peers.”
It is clear that Artemisia’s successful career in Florence was bringing her fame. One might assume that Pierantonio wasn’t happy to hear about his wife’s success. As a husband of that time, I suppose he must have felt a pang of jealousy to hear about Artemisia’s acceptance at the Academia del Disegno. Being the first woman admitted was quite an accomplishment. She enjoyed the success and the friendships she gained there. It was in Florence that Artemisia received the protection and patronage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Notable works from this period include La Conversione della Madalena, Self Portrait as a Lute Player, (in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art) and Judith with Maidservant, in the Pitti Palace. And one can’t forget the famous Judith Beheading Holofernes, which is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
At the end of this period in Florence, Artemisia and her husband were experiencing financial problems. Documents found at the Academy where she was a member, show an exchange in communications about debts. It’s not clear to me why they moved back to Rome. Did something happen in Florence that caused Artemisia to think she had no more work opportunities?
At this point Artemisia became a skilled writer. Many letters have survived, and each letter shows a very proficient and eloquent Artemisia communicating with friends and patrons. She corresponded with Galileo Galilei for a long time after she left Florence.
When it comes to her personal life, there is very little reference about her children. She lost her youngest daughter in 1619. We know she went back to Rome with her oldest daughter Palmira and her husband Pierantonio in 1621. There is no indication of what happened to her two sons.
By 1623, Artemisia, while still in Rome, lost touch with her husband. Nothing more is documented about their relationship, except that right before he disappeared, he slashed someone’s face for serenading Artemisia’s window in Rome.
In the Census of 1624, Artemisia is listed as head of household, which indicates Pierantonio was gone.
I think it is true to say that one could read the whole story and make assumptions about her life. One could formulate all kinds of theories of what might have happened between Artemisia and Pierantonio. Was he in love with her but couldn’t handle her success and fame? Did he leave her for a lover? Did he start a new family? Was Artemisia only interested in her work?
It is in this period Artemisia is associated with the Academia del Desiose in Rome, and enjoyed the protection by the house of Savoy, where she painted the second version of Susana and the Elders.
Artemisia must have felt that Rome was not much of a lucrative environment. She moved to Venice for an unknown period of time, where she was commissioned to paint for Phillip IV, King of Spain, and the count of Oñate. She fled the plague in Venice in 1630, and went to Naples, where she lived for the rest of her life.
With the exception of a few years that Artemisia spent in England, Naples became her home for the rest of her life. It was there that her daughter, Prudencia (also known as Palmira) got married sometime around 1637. Artemisia trained her as a painter, but no paintings of hers have survived.
During that time, she moved to England, under the request of King Charles I. Her father had been working there, and with his health declining, Artemisia felt obliged to go. One could say that maybe there was an opportunity for Artemisia to finally spend some time with her father and reestablish their relationship before he died shortly after her arrival in 1639.
Mary D. Garrard says, “The painting that hangs today in the Kensington Palace, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, may well be her major achievement.” She again used her point of view as a female to demonstrate in this self-portrait two themes never explored by a male. At the time, an allegorical female symbolizing the art of painting had never been done. She managed to show herself with unique expertise, something a male couldn’t have done. Also, she probably used at least two mirrors in painting her self-portrait, so that she could show herself in the action of painting.
It is believed that the King himself, if for the only reason that she was a rare woman painter requested her portrait.
Artemisia’s stay in England was probably no longer then two years. She went back to Naples where she had commissions to fulfill for patrons such, as was Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily.
From this long period in Naples, Artemisia most likely was present for both the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1631 and the political insurrection of 1647, but none of these events are mentioned in her correspondence.
She lived in Naples for the rest of her life. Mary D. Garrard says, “as Artemisia grew older, her work became more graceful and “feminine,” while this was to some extent part of a general shift in taste and sensibility, it must also have resulted from the artist becoming more and more self-consciously a woman painter.”
Only 34 paintings and 28 letters remain from Artemisia’s entire life.
There are no records of her death, perhaps because she was present during the devastating Naples plague in 1656 that killed two-thirds of the city.
1. Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Gentileschi, Princeton University Press, 1991.
2. Christiansen, Keith and Judith W. Mann, Eds. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. Exh, cat, Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Heaven and London, 2001.
3. Bal, Mieke The Artemisia Files, the University of Chicago Press, 2005.
4. Vreeland, Susan. The Passion Of Artemisia, 2002.
Artemisia, Agnés Merlet.
A Woman Like That, Ellen Weissbrod.