Nowadays, it is often suggested that Artemisia Gentileschi (1593- 1656) should be deemed the actual forerunner of feminism in the West and there is indeed much rationale behind such a point of view. After all, Gentileschi was the first female artist/painter who succeeded in attaining a “cult-status” in Europe for the first time in history. Also, there is the undeniable motif of women’s liberation (although achieved through violence) in many of her artistic works. However, there is also a certain ambiguity as to what accounts for the visual representations of this motif in Gentileschi’s paintings, as well as to what caused her to become an integral part of the modern discourse of feminism. My paper aims to fill the discursive gap, in this respect.
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Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome to the family of the well-established artist Orazio Gentileschi, who at the time was considered the most talented disciple of Michelangelo da Caravaggio – the founder of the realist tradition in visual art. Throughout her young years, Gentileschi used to help Orazio in his studio while learning different painting techniques/skills and coming to the point of being recognized by her father as a thoroughly competent artist of its own.
Consequently, this prompted Orazio to introduce Artemisia to Agostino Tassi (Rome’s yet another popular painter, specialized in reproducing landscapes) so that he could teach her how to ensure the perspectival integrity of the painting. The development’s ultimate consequence, however, proved strongly counterproductive to the young female artist’s well-being. In 1612, she was raped by Tassi – the experience that never ceased to affect Gentileschi’s existential attitudes throughout her life. What contributed even further, in this respect, is that following the incident, Gentileschi experienced several different humiliations while testifying against Tassi during the trial and also the fact that her offender managed to avoid being punished.
Even though Gentileschi was strong enough to remain herself after the rape, it can be presupposed that this event contributed to her feminist views. The artist did not surrender to the circumstances and became even more determined to share her existential views through her paintings. As Tassi was not sentenced, Artemisia acknowledged the strength of men’s power and the weakness of women who were deprived in comparison to them. Of course, this experience affected her worldview and future works.
In 1613, Gentileschi married a Florentine painter Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved to live with him in Florence, which seems to be not a feminist action at all, as she accepted the dominance of a man. In this way, she did not emphasize her rights and independence; she became influenced by her spouse’s will. However, this experience was critical for her future because at this time she was able to establish herself as an utterly popular and highly paid artist, specialized in visualizing biblical fables and favored by the rich and powerful aristocrats, such as the Grand Duke/Duchess of Tuscany and Cosimo II de Medici. It was throughout the Florentine period of her life that Gentileschi produced the painting Judith Beheading Holofernes – the most famous of her artistic masterpieces.
It is difficult to discuss the way Artemisia was influenced by her marriage to Pierantonio because it was formal. Even though she was not willing to be engaged in this relationship, such a step was necessary due to the cultural conventions of the time mandated middle-aged women to be married. Artemisia yielded to society because she realized that she could be a valued artist only if she fits it perfectly. Still, it did not take too long for her to become strongly frustrated with marriage – the development followed by the artist’s relocation back to Rome in 1620, which emphasized the dominance of her personal views over cultural ones. While staying in the “Eternal City” for the next ten years of her life, Gentileschi produced close to two hundred “biblical” paintings, among which the most well-known are Lucretia and Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes.
In 1630, Gentileschi relocated to Naples. By this time, she attained the fame of one of Europe’s “cult-artists” – owning her paintings used to be considered a statement of good taste, on the part of just about any Italian, French or Spanish aristocrat of the era. This achievement allowed Artemisia was influencing masses. Her works spread feminist insight through countries because they could be seen by many influential people. In this way, she also managed to establish herself as a master, proving that women had great potential and were able to reach achievements that did not concede men’s ones. Among the notable artworks produced by Gentileschi while in Naples, can be named Self-Portrait and St. Cecilia.
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In 1638, Gentileschi traveled to London to rejoin with her father, who has been working there since 1625 at the court of King Charles. In close collaboration with Orazio, Artemisia decorated the ceiling of the Royal Palace in Greenwich, which made their perceptions by the general public similar, avoiding men’s dominance. Following Orazio’s death in 1639, Artemisia decided to stay in Britain. However, the advent of the English Civil War had forced the artist to move back to Naples. By then, Gentileschi’s art began to fall out of favor with the representatives of the European social elites causing the artist to begin experiencing material hardships.
The concluding chapter of her life in Naples was marked by the artist’s works becoming ever more conventional, in the sense of departing from the tradition of “graphic realism” in art – something best illustrated by Gentileschi’s painting Esther Before Ahasuerus. At this time, she was not afraid to face society’s resistance. She was eager to make people understand her desires and beliefs, which affected her works enormously. Artemisia Gentileschi died in Naples at the age of 63, presumably due to the outbreak of the black plague in this city in 1956 (Bohn, 2001).
As it was mentioned in the Introduction, Artemisia Gentileschi is now commonly regarded as probably the first feminist in the history of Western civilization, even though the artist never positioned herself as the advocate of women’s liberation (at least consciously). The reason for this is apparent – there are indeed many themes and motifs in Gentileschi’s paintings that correlate perfectly well with the feminist assumption that women are denied a chance to attain self-actualization as the subjects of patriarchal oppression (Arruzza, 2016).
Specifically, Gentileschi’s art is consistent with the ideological provisions of feminism’s “third wave”, reflective of its adherents’ commitment to promoting the idea that there is an irreconcilable cognitive/emotional gap between men and women and the latter has a right to act aggressively towards the former. As Parry and Fullagar (2013) noted, “One particular aspect of the third wave (of feminism) has been interpreted in terms of the embodied politics of a generation of women in their twenties or thirties who other feminists claim are informal, grassroots oriented, individualistic, aggressive, radical, and deviant” (p. 572). After all, one of the main motifs in this art is that of women exercising authority over the representatives of the “strong gender” in a graphically violent manner.
The artist’s painting Judith Beheading Holofernes exemplifies the validity of this statement better than any other:
This painting brings to life the biblical story of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes – hence, revenging for his crimes against the “chosen people”. Even though the concerned fable has been explored by some Baroque artists before Gentileschi (including Caravaggio himself), she was the first one to succeed in ensuring the extreme lifelikeness of the depicted scene. After all, as one can see above, there is an essentially “photographic” quality to how the artist went about visualizing the murderous mise-en-scene in question.
The realistically portrayed spurts of blood squirting out of Holofernes’ neck are especially notable, in this respect. Enough, being thoroughly knowledgeable of human anatomy, Gentileschi must have “played” the scene in her mind numerous times before coming up with the idea of what would be the best way to represent it on canvas. Given the fact that Judith Beheading Holofernes was created circa 1614, and the fact that the character of Holofernes resembles Tassi, there can be only a few doubts as to the concerned artwork’s strongly autobiographical sounding.
As Spear (2000) pointed out, “Given the artist’s (Gentileschi) unusual biography, and given the validation by modern psychology of the Aristotelian principle of catharsis, it is surely justifiable to interpret the painting (Judith Decapitating Holofernes), at least on one level, as a cathartic expression of the artist’s private, land perhaps repressed, rage” (p. 669). Thus, this particular painting can indeed be discussed as the extrapolation of Gentileschi’s unwavering commitment to take revenge on Tassi for having raped her.
This alone provides the artist with much feminist “credit”. After all, in the 17th century Italy, the criminality of the act of rape used to be only recognized in conjunction with the damaged reputation of a victimized woman’s family – the victim’s suffering was not something to be taken into consideration in the court of law. And yet, it is clear from the artwork in question that Gentileschi refused to recognize the validity of this male-chauvinistic practice.
Another Gentileschi’s painting that can be deemed highly supportive of the feminists’ claim that the artist did belong to their cohort (without realizing it consciously) is Lucretia:
The reason for this is that, contrary to what used the 17th century’s conventions of representing women in the works of art, in this particular masterpiece Gentileschi made a point of ensuring that the depicted character (Christian martyr) radiates a strong aura of “masculinity” around her.
The fact that this has indeed been the case can be shown regarding the unmistakably “manly” qualities of Lucretia’s facial anthropology, such as her prominently protruding chin, and also the fact that the expression on the character’s face connotes the sheer strength of her resolve to do what she felt needed to be done – something that has traditionally been discussed in terms of a “masculine virtue”. And, as psychologists are well aware of, feminist-minded women have always been exhibiting a certain tendency to distance themselves from the conventions of “femininity”, which explains the manlike appearance of many of them.
Some contemporary feminists go as far as suggesting that Lucretia is about exposing the incompatibility between the male “yin” and female “yang”. For example, according to Garrard (1989), “Gentileschi’s special expression (in Lucretia) of the theme lies in the juxtaposition of the female breast and the sword. The breast symbolizes female nurture and the ongoing cycle of human nature while the sword represents the phallic agent of death” (p. 216). Thus, there were many objective preconditions for Gentileschi’s art to end up being seen as such that supports the cause of feminism. In the next sub-chapter of this explorative paper, I will outline the most notable aspects of how such a state of affairs came into being.
Gentileschi’s Influence on Modern Feminism
Even though Gentileschi did enjoy much popularity with art lovers throughout her lifetime, it became a common practice during the 18th and 19th centuries in the West to regard her as a minor artistic figure in the 17th century’s Italy. The situation, in this respect, began to change in the mid-20th century – the development marked by the publishing of Anna Banti’s novel Artemisia in 1947, which became a bestseller. The concerned novel did not only result in reviving public interest in Gentileschi’s art, but also in providing feminists with a discursive ground to argue that Artemisia should be regarded as one of their own.
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The reason for this had to do with the qualitative subtleties of the novel’s plot, which in essence is about “a female protagonist struggling to reconcile a model of artistic development based on male cultural expectations with her own experience of female social roles that function as barriers to that achievement” (Lent, 2006, p. 213). Nevertheless, it was not up until this century’s seventies that the figure of Artemisia Gentileschi became strongly associated with the ideology of feminism. What contributed rather substantially, in this regard, was the 1973 founding of the art studio Artemisia in Chicago by the feminist artist Joy Poe and her female associates.
As Gardner-Huggett (2012) argued, “The women who founded Artemisia were no longer willing to comply with their subjugation in the art world and understood that a feminist intervention would be necessary to disarm the masculine power that maintains patriarchal governance structures” (p. 56). As of today, this studio is often being referred to as one of the main harbingers of women’s liberation in the US during the specified historical period. It must be noted, however, that despite the studio’s name, neither of its members was willing to work within the realist representational format.
To validate the soundness of this suggestion, we can refer to the expressionist/modernist paintings of Phyllis MacDonald, Barbara Grad, Emily Pinkowski, and Margaret Wharton – the studio’s most prominent affiliates. Thus, it will be appropriate to suggest that, for as long as visual art is concerned, Gentileschi’s influence on its contemporary feminist extrapolations had to do with helping to legitimize the idea that no rules apply within the context of how a female artist goes about expressing herself – whatever ironically it may sound. After all, given the particulars of Gentileschi’s artistic style, she would likely be taken aback by most emanations of today’s feminist art, as such that refer to just about anything but to the idea that women should assume an active stance while fighting for their rights.
Another major contribution to the popularization of Gentileschi as the 17th century’s feminist proved to be the 1989 publication of Mary Garrard’s book Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. In it, the author went a great length advocating the idea that Gentileschi’s preoccupation with exploring the theme of female domination over males was objectively predetermined. As Garrard pointed out, “When a woman feels her affective life as a woman, or her condition as a social being too brutally ignored by existing discourse and power – she may make herself a ‘possessed’ agent of violence to combat what was experienced as frustration” (p. 25). It is understood, of course, that this specific point of view on the significance of Gentileschi’s artistic legacy did help to establish her in the eyes of contemporaries as someone utterly passionate about the idea of women’s liberation from patriarchal oppression. In its turn, this served as a powerful contribution towards sustaining the conceptual legitimacy of the feminist discourse since the early 1990s onwards.
Finally, we can mention the 1998 film Artemisia (based on Banti’s novel and directed by Agnes Merlet), which also played an important role in presenting the concerned female artist as a woman with extremely progressive (as for her time) views on the surrounding social reality and women’s place in it. In particular, the director made a point of emphasizing the sheer measure of Gentileschi’s courageousness within the context of how she used to go about exploring her sense of sexuality. At the same time, however, Merlet’s film ended up being criticized on account of containing although implicit but still easily traceable patriarchal overtones.
According to Lent (2006), “Merlet’s film positions the male artist (Tassi) as the creator, teaching, and awakening the creativity of his female student, literalizing the metaphor of a male’s artistic creativity flowing like seminal fluid into their female students (p. 215). This serves as yet another indication that, even though there is very little disagreement among the promoters of feminism as to the fact that Gentileschi is indeed nothing short of a feminist heroine, how these individual discuss the artist’s contribution to the cause of promoting equality between both genders, do vary rather significantly. Partially, this situation can be explained by the continual absence of consensus among different feminist groups in the West on what should be deemed the discursive implications of Gentileschi’s artistic legacy.
In light of what has been mentioned earlier, there can be only a few doubts that Gentileschi does deserve to be given credit for having contributed to the cause of women’s empowerment, which in the 19th century became the conceptual cornerstone of the ideology of feminism. At the same time, however, the obtained insights imply that due to the sectarian divisions within the feminist movement in the West, it is likely that the provided feminist interpretations of the artist’s legacy will continue to exhibit a certain inconsistency with each other, especially given the fact that Gentileschi never articulated in writing her outlook on the essence of the interrelationship between men and women.
Arruzza, C. (2016). Functionalist, determinist, reductionist: Social reproduction feminism and its critics. Science & Society, 80(1), 9-30.
Bohn, B. (2001). Artemisia Gentileschi and the authority of art. Renaissance Quarterly, 54(1), 275-277.
Gardner-Huggett, J. (2012). Artemisia challenges the elders: How a women artists’ cooperative created a community for feminism and art made by women. Frontiers, 33(2), 55-75.
Garrard, M. Artemisia Gentileschi: The image of the female Hero in Italian Baroque art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Lent, T. (2006). “My heart belongs to daddy”: The fictionalization of baroque artists Artemisia Gentileschi in contemporary film and novels. Literature/Film Quarterly, 34(3), 212-218.
Parry, D., & Fullagar, S. (2013). Feminist leisure research in the contemporary era. Journal of Leisure Research, 45(5), 571-582.
Spear, R. (2000). Artemisia Gentileschi: Ten years of fact and fiction. The Art Bulletin, 82(3), 568-579.