Artemisia Gentileschi is a famous artist of the Baroque period. Her works are the topic for various debates. While some art experts and historians recognize her talent and professionalism, other specialists consider Artemisia as a mediocre painter.
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However, her unique style was acknowledged by most researchers. Also, many feminist supporters pay much attention to Artemisia’s art, especially to her self-portraits. Among her other paintings, these works are of particular importance. Certain aspects of Artemisia’s self-portraits deserve to be highlighted and analyzed. The purpose of this paper is to describe and understand the value of Artemisia’s self-portraits referring to the development of the feminist movement.
The Analysis of Artemisia’s Art
In order to comprehend the value of Artemisia’s self-portraits and their influence on the development of feminism, it is necessary to highlight some parts from her biography. She was born in Rome in 1593, and her mother died when Artemisia was very young (Daugherty, 2015). The death of her mother had an enormous impact on her life. Artemisia’s father, Orazio Gentileschi, had to raise her alone. Orazio was a painter but not a very successful one. He noticed Artemisia’s talent and started teaching her.
Orazio was inspired by Carravagio’s works and helped his daughter to adopt his virtuosic techniques. In spite of the fact that traditions of the seventeenth century did not let women study at the Academy of Arts, Artemisia continued practicing painting and mastering her skills.
Another important event, which affected her art, was the rape trial. That trial made her famous to the public. This was a tough and humiliating for Artemisia process as she was subjected to physical tortures to prove the accusation (Criswell, 2016). In the end, however, the criminal was found guilty and expelled from Rome.
Evaluation of her early works helps to see Artemisia’s evolution, which reached the highest level in her self-portraits. Social environment formed her revolutionary perceptions, which she embodied in her paintings. In response to the pressure the society put on her, she started focusing on women’s inner strength. This might be seen in one of her early works – Judith and Her Maidservant. This painting presents two famous characters that killed and beheaded Holofernes.
This biblical subject was used in several Artemisia’s paintings. The theme of a strong and confident woman was very close to Artemisia. Another remarkable work is Lucretia. The painting depicts an episode from Lucretia’s legend. It is a tragic story about a beautiful woman who had to commit suicide as an act of vengeance against her rapist (Endres, 2013). Gentileschi again shows a heroic and strong female character. Artemisia developed these ideas in many of her paintings. She was driven by her memories. Eventually, Artemisia implemented her vision of an independent female nature in a series of self-portraits.
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Only several self-portraits by Artemisia remained safe. However, many artists referred to them in various letters. Also, other Artemisia’s works are considered to be representations of herself as well. Woman with Lute, Female Martyr and other paintings serve as allegeable examples of how she perceived herself. La Pittura or Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting is a clear depiction of Artemisia. This picture presents a painter at work.
She is looking at an object of her painting invisible to observers. She is totally focused on work. Her arm is holding a brush right in front of a canvas. Her voluptuous body is bent and strained. Artemisia depicted herself in a natural, restrained manner. It is not a traditional ostentatious display of a woman. She does not even wear any make-up. She does not know about viewers’ presence. Artemisia emphasizes the process of creating a piece of art. However, there are many details that highlight her femininity like the clearly illustrated shape of her body, her beautiful dress or the revealed neckline.
This work demonstrates Artemisia’s protest against gender stereotypes. Women had limited rights back in those days, they could not attend art academies and were rarely able to make professional careers. Gentileschi created the revolutionary canvas, which aim was to show the relevance of female artists. That was a challenge to the public opinion accustomed to male art.
Two other Artemisia’s self-portraits, Woman with Lute and Female Martyr have similar features. Woman with Lute also presents a female artist. Artemisia highlighted the confidence with which the character plays the instrument. Hand and finger position demonstrates the experience of the depicted artist. Female Martyr appeals to the notion of a women’s sacrificial nature. These works present traditional womanly qualities as well. Bright colors of the dress, soft shade of skin, natural curves of a body are the inalienable attributes of Artemisia’s self-portraits.
These works made Artemisia Gentileschi a widely respected art professional. She achieved excellence through many years of working hard and finding a unique way. Artemisia adopted Caravaggio techniques and developed them into a new unrivaled style. Her works were highly appreciated by European aristocracy and various artists. A French painter, Pierre Dumonstier le Neveu, created the canvas of the Artemisia’s hand in honor of her talent and beauty.
In her self-portraits, she combined professionalism and artistic value. Artemisia’s technique “was adopted and replicated by other artists” (Conn, 2015, p. 28). La Pittura is a well-known masterpiece representing a great artist that was able to mix traditional and revolutionary styles to reveal unusual for that period ideas of a confident and independent female nature. Artemisia Gentileschi was recognized as the founder of a new genre, and her art inspired followers throughout the world.
However, Artemisia’s importance cannot be overestimated. The establishment of the women’s liberation movement is deeply rooted in Artemisia’s art. Various feminists often refer to her works and her biography.
Gentileschi’s success as an artist is considered to be a prominent event in the history of feminism. Her self-portraits got a strong “feminist interpretation” (Conn, 2015, p. 25). Protest against traditional norms advocating male dominance in art is considered to be the main theme in Artemisia’s self-portraits. Her other works are affected by the presence of this idea as well. The image of a rebellious woman who overcomes obstacles despite fear and disapproval may be seen in most of Artemisia’s works.
The First Feminist Female Artist
The Catholic Popes were trying to make Rome the most impressive and beautiful Christian city in the seventeenth century with the help of art. Although many artists worked on their stunning paintings, Caravaggio was the most famous and talented of them. As it was already mentioned, Orazio (Artemisia’s father) was considered one of the best Caravaggio’s students as his works were impossible to recreate even by professional artists due to the congenital sense of harmony (Bissell, 2013). He was also asked to make frescos for the Vatican Apostolic Library.
It would be proper to state that Orazio’s daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, obtained a decent education and was always introduced to various pieces of art and cultural heritage. The girl managed to complete her first work at the age of sixteen (Bissell, 2013). Once Gentileschi gained her popularity and respect of the audience, she was asked to copy some of her works as people wanted to buy original paintings of the author.
In the year of 1625, Artemisia received a letter from her father from London who worked for the king Karl I. Before, Gentileschi happened to face many lies and violence by men, and her father was the only person she loved her entire life. Therefore, she decided to visit her only parent in London. The letter that the man sent to his daughter said that he was already old and it was hard for him to finish particular works that were intended to be placed at the sealing of the largest vestibule in Greenwich (Buckley, 2013).
Gentileschi was glad to help her father with this task. Moreover, her creations were much more professional and fascinating than Orazio’s as she had more inspiration at that moment. However, the woman faced several unfortunate events in London. The first distress was caused by Orazio’s sudden death in 1639, whereas the menace of war in England forced the artist to return to the continent.
It is an interesting fact that when London was invaded and Karl I was executed, some of Artemisia’s works were auctioned, and people managed to purchase her self-portraits for twenty pounds. However, in two decades these pieces of art were returned to the king Karl II (Buckley, 2013). Nowadays, these paintings are all kept in the capital of Great Britain and remain a part of the royal collection in the Kensington temple.
Since the year of 1642, Artemisia was occupied with the creation of new paintings to relax and forget all the tribulations that she happened to face recently. Unfortunately, the artist could not become happy till the end of her days due to a strange and unusual destiny. Also, she always had certain financial difficulties as she did want to sell some of her creations, whereas there was no one near to help or support lonely Artemisia (Buckley, 2013).
When Gentileschi departed, the audience was not interested in her works anymore. Moreover, her grave in Naples was lost as no one took care of it, whereas the exact date of her death is undefined. Perhaps, she suffered from the plague, which diffused all over Europe, and passed away in 1653.
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As it was already mentioned before, Artemisia Gentileschi was not happy as no man in the world (except father) loved her. Orazio played a major role in her life as he gave his daughter a name of Artemisia, which is interpreted as a bitter absinth from Latin. Also, Orazio wanted Gentileschi to become an artist, and he started teaching her the basic painting techniques when the girl just turned twelve years old.
Some works of the notable paintress became popular only in the previous century due to the role they played in the style of European Caravaggisti (Locker, 2015). Moreover, in the year of 1970, the International Feminist Organization representatives stated that Artemisia Gentileschi was considered to be the first feminist in the entire world.
It is essential to mention that a plethora of novels and plays were written about her lifestyle and desperate fate. The most notable and interesting works of the artist can be observed in the museum of Maillol in Paris today (Locker, 2015). Moreover, there is a hotel in Berlin, Germany that is given the name of “Artemisia 3”. This building has only eight suites, and its owner lets only women rent a room here.
It would be proper to say that it is almost impossible to separate such aspects of Artemisia Gentileschi’s life as biography and professional activity as these two factors are closely related to each other. Therefore, to understand the central concepts of her paintings, it would be advantageous to know in which period of her life a particular work was created (Locker, 2015). Her dramatic destiny made Gentileschi involved in the sphere of painting until the end of her life as this occupation made her forget about all the misfortunes caused to her by men. The pieces of art created by Artemisia are essential to observe in order to understand the period of Baroque and particular techniques of Caravaggio who influenced a certain shift in the cultural movement.
Review of Artemisia Gentileschi’s life and career reveals prominent aspects of her influence on the modern feminist community. The importance of her self-portraits is mentioned in different researches as these works carry within them a message for all patriarchal societies. Artemisia’s innovative approaches and ideas changed the course of the history of art. The embodiment of her perceptions created the army of supporters and followers who develop her ideas further trying to create an equal world.
Bissell, R. W. (2013). Artemisia Gentileschi: Painter of still lifes? Notes in the History of Art, 32(2), 27-34. Web.
Buckley, P. J. (2013). Artemisia Gentileschi, 1593–1653. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170(8), 832-833. Web.
Criswell, H. (2016). Proceedings of The National Conference On Undergraduate Research: Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Reimagined. Asheville, NC: University of North Carolina Asheville.
Conn, Virginia L. (2015). The personal is the political: Artemisia Gentileschi’s revolutionary Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. Kaleidoscope, 8(1), 6.
Daugherty, B. (2015). Between Historical Truth and Story-Telling: The Twentieth-Century Fabrication of “Artemisia”. Web.
Endres, A. L. (2013). Painting Lucretia: Fear and desire a feminist discourse on representations by Artemisia Gentileschi and Tintoretto (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Female Martyr. (1615). Web.
Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. (1625). Web.
Locker, J. (2015). Artemisia Gentileschi: The language of painting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.