The world of art of the 16th or 17th century differed from the contemporary one and was characterized by absolute male domination. Only a few female artists managed to succeed and gain fame in art until the 19th century. Nevertheless, there is a woman whose outstanding artistic performance brought her fame already in the 17th century. Her name is Artemisia Gentileschi, and she was an Italian Baroque artist who was not treated as an important contributor to the history of art until 1970, when art researchers reconsidered her position in art and society.
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Thus, the researchers stated that “Artemisia Gentileschi is the first woman in the history of western art to make a significant and undeniably important contribution to the art of her time” (Buckley, 2013, p. 832). Gentileschi was a follower of the naturalistic tradition developed by Caravaggio. In fact, she managed to bring it to a new level. Nevertheless, her name and artistic heritage are currently studied to feministic tradition. This essay analyzes some major works by Artemisia Gentileschi in the feministic context.
The Influences of Artemisia Gentileschi’s work
To understand the impact of Gentileschi’s work, one must see it within the historical context of her time and evaluate it according to the influence it had. Gentileschi, eventually aided in studying the basics and specifics of a painting by her father, was raised in a family of painters, with her sisters following her father’s suit (Parker & Pollock, 2013). Her influences, highlighted in her works even today, were that of the era-defining Caravaggio, which resulted in a methodology of not only technique but also of style and topic (Farrar, 2018). Thus, the role of Gentileschi can be defined as an artist who reimagined the influence of Caravaggio and brought it into the distinctly new Renaissance era, developing a unique style.
This mélange of predecessor’s influence and the individual uniqueness of each work of art makes Gentileschi’s paintings outstanding in the artistic boom of the Renaissance. Her works display the “dominant stylistic mode of Caravaggist realism and dramatic subject matter,” while at the same time reimagining traditional characters in new, formerly unexplored roles (Parker & Pollock, 2013, p. 20). This distinction from other painters, her social position as a child of a famous painter, despite being a woman, as well as her professional experience earned Gentileschi a place at the Academy of design (Poggioli, 2016).
This single act did not elevate the women of the Renaissance to be perceived as artistically equal to men but did create precedence for the possible further admission of women to previously male-only institutions.
Evaluation of the Work of Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi was a rebel in her artistic career and opposed the accepted taboos of Counter-Reformation taboos. Thus, the first painting that introduced her to the artistic world, Susanna and the Elders, was a challenge. At that time, female artists were expected to paint portraits and still life, and the plot developed by Gentileschi was not acceptable (Poggioli, 2016). Artemisia Gentileschi was eager to break archaic traditions of art typical of that period, which resulted in a valuable contribution to artistic heritage.
Some of her paintings are characterized by cruelty and violence. For example, the one titled Judith Slaying Holofernes depicts a biblical scene where Judith is beheading Holofernes. The focus of the painting is on the courage and beauty of a woman. Some of her works are autobiographic. For example, apart from self-portraits, Gentileschi has a work, Lucretia, which depicts an image of a woman from classical mythology who was raped.
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The tragic events of her biography influenced her work in other ways as well, not only stimulating vengeful works but also those of sexuality and grief. Gentileschi’s depiction of Mary Magdalene, the Biblical prostitute and friend of Jesus, highlights the melancholic feelings of her character, thus making Mary Magdalene and Judith the obverse and reverse of the same coin (Reenkola, 2013).
In the very same Magdalene, some researchers find depictions of sexuality and desire, linking them to the fact that Gentileschi pursued a relationship with her rapist, customarily expecting marriage as amends to her honor (Reenkola, 2013). Thus, the multitude of emotions is evident in her work, with scenes of both anger and sorrow, vengeance, and desire presented in different paintings.
The weight assigned to Gentileschi’s work varies, with different researchers having a multitude of opinions on her historical and artistical influence. Even following the reevaluation of her place in the history of art and her elevation in the 19th century, while her genius was not disputed, strong words were written about its “atrocious misdirection” (Parker & Pollock, 2013, p. 21). Today, researchers credit Artemisia Gentileschi as one of the outstanding artists that made the depth of Renaissance artistic expression possible.
Her depiction of women reimagined their position as creators, not only as concepts and as muses, which is a practice that carried well into the Baroque period (Farrar, 2018). Thus, it is possible to assign Gentileschi the role of not only a painter of exceptional emotion but also of a pioneer in the depiction of women: as both actors of historical scenes and as artists.
Artemisia Gentileschi as an Early Feminist
Researchers often study Gentileschi through a lens that sees the hardships of her life, her rape, and the path to recognition in the male-dominated painting scene of Italy as defining episodes of her life. Some researchers argue that this is not an appropriate way to approach the weight of Gentileschi in the history of art, which stems from the inability to put her into a pre-existing category as a creator (Parker & Pollock, 2013).
Parker and Pollock (2013) state that some, inappropriately, perceive her depictions of strong women as man-hating or as influenced only by her rape and the negative emotions stemming from it. To appraise this, one must not only compare and contrast Gentileschi’s most famous painting of Judith but also know the historical context behind the Biblical scene that was in place during the Renaissance and its time of creation.
It can be supposed that the life and artistic career of Artemisia Gentileschi was significantly influenced by her rape at the age of 17 (Buckley, 2013). Her pieces of art created during and after the trial over her abuser are treated as symbols of revenge against the man who raped her (Poggioli, 2016, para. 14). Moreover, this sad event had an impact on her perception of a woman who appears to be powerful and strong in her paintings.
Gentileschi’s famous work Judith Slaying Holofernes, which depicts females who demonstrate superiority over a man, is probably the brightest representation of the painter’s feelings and desire to revenge at that time. As the artist, herself said about this painting, “I shall show what a woman is capable of” (Campbell, 2018, p. 106). According to Campbell (2018), this work represents the power that Gentileschi wanted to express. Judith appears like a determined and powerful woman who has enough emotional and physical power not to be afraid to execute Holofernes with his own sword. By doing so, she manages to save her besieged town from the enemy’s army (Campbell, 2018). Also, her paintings of that period involved the topics of defiance and freedom.
Feminist views of Gentileschi might not have been acknowledged by her contemporaries, but they were born as a result of that humiliating trial process. Her father, who was a famous painter, asked his friend, Agostino Tassi, to teach Artemisia drawing, but the man ended up raping the girl several times. At the trial, Tassi was trying to save his reputation by accusing Artemisia of having had sexual intercourse with many men (Campbell, 2018).
The process was mortifying for the young artist, and she was married off to her father’s friend after the trial. However, the girl’s rebel nature did not allow her to keep living with that man, and she found her escape in painting. As Campbell (2018) notes, Judith Slaying Holofernes had a “cathartic” effect on Gentileschi and gave a start to the feminist phase of her artistic life (p. 107).
On the whole, both her paintings that depict the tendencies of female empowerment and her success as a female painter made Gentileschi a feminist inspirer some centuries after her death. Her contemporary audience and critics did not yet realize what essence she was putting in her paintings and did not view her works as feminist ones. Thus, although Gentileschi expressed her endeavors explicitly at the time of their creation, her works of art were not associated with feminist ideas.
Despite this, Gentileschi is seen as a pioneer in the depiction of strong women, giving them not the typical physical prowess but social and emotional power. Merging different trends: Caravaggian strong characters, famous Biblical scenes, Florentine wealth and excess, and the Renaissance humanistic approach, Gentileschi creates a unique narrative for women (Farrar, 2018). Her view of women is justifiably self-inspired through her success and survival, and she aptly writes of herself to her patrons: “you will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of this woman” (Parker & Pollock, 2013, p. 20).
Researchers cannot describe this approach as feminist, as the conception of feminism cannot be adequately transferred into the realities of the Italian quattrocento. Despite this, her approach to the role played by women in their own life and their nation’s history cannot be downplayed, as it gave rise to the furthering of women as protagonists of their narrative.
The Study of Italian Renaissance Feminism by English Critics
Scholars continuously remark that the opinion about Renaissance artists’ ability to proclaim feminism in their works did not use to be high. In a substantial work by Robin (2013), which is dedicated to the analysis of Italian Renaissance female artists, it is noted that “even feminist historians assumed that the oeuvre of Renaissance women writers was slight” (p. 13). However, the situation changed in the middle of the 1990s, when Albert Rabil and Margaret King initiated a series of edited texts on early women artists (Robin, 2013). Among such works, there was a study dedicated to the life and work of Artemisia Gentileschi.
The study of female art of Italian Renaissance was initiated by Griselda Pollack and Roszicka Parker’s book Framing Feminism and Linda Nochlin’s research Women, Art, and Power. All of these authors, as Robin (2013) remarks, paved the path for further detailed investigation of specific trends in art. As a result, Mary Garrard wrote a book that focused solely on Artemisia Gentileschi’s contribution to the art of painting.
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According to Robin (2013), this book was of those that set the stage for “future revisionist art historical work” on females, gender, and their representation (p. 19). Moreover, Garrard’s work suggested not only the thorough analysis of Gentileschi’s unique style but also discussed the themes that inspired the artist. Thus, it is possible to remark that the analysis of Italian Renaissance female artists by Anglophone researchers gave a start to viewing these painters’ works as feminist ones.
To summarize, it should be mentioned that Artemisia Gentileschi’s heritage can be treated in different ways. On the whole, most of the researchers conclude that her works open a new direction in painting and introduce women into the artistic world.
In her prominent position as a woman of her time, a pioneer not only in art but also in education, Gentileschi brought change by action. As the first woman accepted in the academy of design, she became an example to follow for other female painters. Apart from her contribution to the history of art, Artemisia Gentileschi is considered to be a great female artist who stimulated the development of the feminist movement. Her works have been studied by many researchers lately, and their favorable feedback indicates that she was truly a unique and powerful artist. It seems viable to say that even though Artemisia Gentileschi’s heritage is looked upon from different angles, all critics agree that her paintings cannot leave anyone indifferent.
Buckley, P. (2013). Artemisia Gentileschi, 1593–1653. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170(8), 832-833. Web.
Campbell, E. (2018). The woman’s book of hope: Meditations for passion, power & promise. Newburyport, MA: Conari Press.
Farrar, M. (2018). Identity, invention, and influence in the life of Artemisia Gentileschi. The Journal of the Core Curriculum, 27, 15-23. Web.
Parker, R., & Pollock, G. (2013). Old mistresses: Women, art and ideology. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
Poggioli, S. (2016). Long seen as victim, 17th century Italian painter emerges as feminist icon. Web.
Reenkola, E. (2013). Vicissitudes of female revenge. In I. Moeslein-Teising & F. Salo (Eds.), The female body: Inside and outside (pp. 201-222). London, England: KARNAC.
Robin, D. (2013). Women on the move: Trends in Anglophone studies of women in the Italian Renaissance. I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 16(1/2), 13-25.