Artemisia Gentileschi: a trailblazing proto-feminist artist

Content Warning: this article contains discussion of sexual assault, graphic violence and rape.

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“The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman”, proclaimed Judith when she freed Bethulia from siege. Through her quick wit she was able to enter the encampment of Holofernes, feign wishing to forge an alliance with Assyria and persuade the general to invite her to a banquet. At the banquet Holofernes became increasingly drunk, allowing Judith to draw her concealed scimitar and behead the general, leading to the siege being lifted.

This Old Testament tale has been depicted by artists across history with Judith and Holofernes represented in well over a hundred paintings and sculptures. Evidently, the story of Judith and Holofernes, a tale of a victorious underdog, captures our imagination, emotions, and humanity.

A tale of a victorious underdog

Of the various representations, two are displayed in Florence’s Uffizi gallery. One of which is Artemisia Gentileschi’s visceral “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1620 c.). Judith appears strong and determined, with rolled up sleeves and an expression of intense concentration. She clutches her face, as blood spurts from Holofernes’ partly severed neck whilst her maidservant holds him down. This painting is dramatic and gripping, and its contexts and history are even more so.

Gentileschi (1593–1652/53) has come to typify the talented, but previously overlooked female artist and her subject, Judith, to exemplify female rage in the Baroque era. She spent her formative years in Rome with her father, Orazio Gentileschi, himself a painter; there she was able to imbibe the style of well-known artists, such as Caravaggio. She collaborated with the painter, Agostino Tassi, who later raped her, resulting in her father launching a legal suit against him. Although Tassi was found guilty of committing this act, a punishment was never fully enforced. Such tumultuous experiences and personal adversity certainly contributed to Gentileschi’s guttural paintings of women. For example, there is consensus that Tassi was the model for Holofernes and Gentileschi envisioned herself as Judith. 

Merging Caravaggesque realism with Florentine opulence

‘Judith beheading Holofernes’ is intertwined with her life story and displays her bold style – one that does not shy away from violence whilst still deftly merging Caravaggesque realism with Florentine opulence. However, the gory nature of the work provoked strong negative reactions and prevented it from being exhibited. It was only with the assistance of Galileo Galilei that she was able to receive payment for her work. Gentileschi soon became an artist in courts across Italy, ran a successful workshop in Naples and was the first woman to enter the Academy of Art and Design in Florence. In her own words, she had the “the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman”. Yet, according to the art historian, Straussman-Pflanzer, Gentileschi did not prosper as much as an artist of her talent should have done. This is irrefutably because of her gender and her marred reputation because of the rape trial.

A woman of prodigious talent

Tellingly, Gentileschi was not widely known until well into the 20th century, with many of her paintings attributed to either her father or to Caravaggio. Feminist art historians helped with the re-discovery and increased popularity of her art. Their collective work highlighted the notion that Gentileschi was a proto feminist whose representations of biblical women bring a uniquely valuable perspective. However, it is her artistic merit combined with her biography, not simply her identity as a woman, that makes her depictions of the biblical heroine so striking.

Today, Gentileschi and her paintings symbolise the struggles of a woman who became an artist in an era dominated by male painters. Her experiences also recall how talented artists from across the span of art history, who produce art that is provocative and emotive, should gain the recognition they deserve. As such, Artemisia Gentileschi should be viewed as a pioneering, trailblazing and highly accomplished 17th century painter.

Illustration:

https://www.dunelm.org.uk/donations/palatinate

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