Gentileschi: the diva the art world didn’t know it had

By Harry Ewbank

Two women pin a man to the bed and sever his head with a sword. He grasps and pushes with all his strength but they manage to overpower him. The woman in the foreground twists and presses the man’s head into the mattress with a clenched fist. Blood spits from his throat as she saws through his neck with a glinting blade. His eyes begin to roll to the back of his flushed face as if it’s some form of erotic asphyxiation. A look of resolve etches upon the women’s faces as they get the job done. Any sound he makes is swallowed by the darkness. The physicality in the piece is striking, from the struggle of the man to the strength and determination of the two women. With the exquisite use of chiaroscuro, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the work of the great baroque painter, Caravaggio. It is, in fact, the work of his female contemporary, Artemisia Gentileschi, and the piece described is “Judith Slaying Holofernes.”

In 1593, the year of Gentileschi’s birth, Rome’s society was deeply entrenched in patriarchy, and women were solely the property of men. Gentileschi was the daughter of Orazio, an artist and a friend of Caravaggio. Her mother, Prudentia, died when she was just twelve, making Artemisia the surrogate mother to three younger brothers. Though Caravaggio fled Rome when she was just thirteen, the influence he had on her works is profound. Orazio had high hopes for his daughter and organized private art lessons with one of Rome’s prestigious upcoming artists, Agostino Tassi. In 1611, Tassi raped Gentileschi in her father’s studio. Tassi promptly asked to marry Gentileschi, and out of shame and in an attempt to keep the rape a secret, Gentileschi agreed. But when Tassi broke off the engagement, Orazio initiated a very public trial that would last almost a year. Orazio pressed charges against Tassi, not to protect his daughter but to avenge the destruction of his property; the case did not concern her emotions, or even her humanity.

To prove her honesty, Gentileschi was then tortured with thumbscrews. At the risk of losing her artistic ability, she stayed loyal to the truth and so Tassi was found guilty. His importance as a painter for the Pope (though his works have been largely forgotten since) meant Tassi was given a light sentence of five years exile from Rome, which he never served. On the other hand, Gentilschi’s reputation was shamed throughout the city as her honour was lost in the eyes of the public. Gentileschi swiftly married a modest artist from Florence, where she moved and became a very successful painter and mother of a daughter who she named Prudentia. Whilst in Florence she produced the epic autobiographical piece named “Judith slaying Holofernes.” The style was heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s piece of the same scene, made fifteen years prior. However, Gentileschi’s traumatic experience and interpretation of the story would enable her piece to transcend a mere depiction of a biblical tale.

Judith had previously been painted gracefully assassinating Holofernes in his sleep while the maidservant patiently waits to receive the severed head. Such elegance is completely absent from Gentileschi’s piece. Brute force, grit and determination are Judith’s tools against a struggling Holofernes. The women aren’t gentle but savage. In doing this, Gentileschi attacks the gender stereotypes still entwined in society 300 years later. Another major alteration Gentileschi made to the original story was to include the maidservant in the killing. Far from playing a passive role, the maidservant is fully involved in the assault on Holofernes. This subtle change becomes a statement about the potential of the collective when united in a common cause. Gentileschi believes in the power of the people who can stand up against authority and fight against injustice. This is the exact spirit that has been adopted by countless movements since and can be seen at the Women’s March in Washington earlier this year. 500,000 people in Washington and an estimated five million people worldwide campaigned together against Donald Trump’s policies.

Having been side-lined for centuries, it is not surprising that, with the growing awareness of women’s rights, Gentileschi’s works have drastically gained popularity. She is now considered one of the most revolutionary and cutting edge (*wink*) baroque painters. Gentileschi often modelled herself as the female heroines in her paintings and this piece was no exception. With just her art as a weapon, Gentileschi would paint a piece that would both take revenge on Tassi and become an emblem for women’s rights for hundreds of years. It showed women taking control of their own destinies, a philosophy Gentileschi stayed loyal to throughout her life. Not only was she a captivating artist, but a survivor, a rigorous businesswoman, and caring mother. Through the paintings she produced and the way she lived her life, she transformed women’s rights and her impact can still be seen today.

From Emma Watson’s UN speech to Beyoncé’s 2016 concept album, Lemonade, Gentileschi’s legacy is as strong as ever. To see the original painting by Gentileschi, you have go to the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples. However, Gentileschi painted a grander copy of “Judith Slaying Holofernes” in 1621. The second piece sits in a room amongst a collection of Caravaggio’s most iconic works in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It is in my opinion the most extraordinary room in the entire city and well worth a visit. If you make the effort to stay long enough, let the crowds diffuse and take off the headphones from the audio guide, something quite extraordinary happens. Through the rustle of a gallery pamphlet and the hard thud of footsteps in the other room, the voice of the painting pierces through.

She sings…


Middle fingers up

Put them hands high

Wave it in his face

Tell ‘em boy bye

Tell ‘em boy bye Boy bye

Middle fingers up

I ain’t think ‘bout you

Sorry, I ain’t sorry

(Beyoncé – Sorry)

Image: National Museum of Capodimonte

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