Some centuries ago, the world of art was traditionally dominated by men. Few women could make a successful career in art until 19th century. Still, there is one female artist who achieved excellent results already in the 17th century. Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian artist, was not considered a significant figure in art until 1970. At that time, her role in art and society was reconsidered. Harris (as cited in Buckley, 2013, p. 832) claimed 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.” A follower of Caravaggio’s naturalistic tradition, she brought it to a new level. However, at present her name and creative work is referred to as related to feministic tradition. Thus, what are the reasons for Artemisia Gentileschi to be treated as an early feminist?
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Since the beginning of her artistic career, Artemisia Gentileschi challenged Counter-Reformation taboos of that time. For example, she made her first performance as an artist with a painting Susanna and the Elders, which was a challenge, because female artists of that time were allowed to paint portraits and still life (Poggioli, 2016). Thus, breaking traditions of art of that time, Artemisia Gentileschi made a significant contribution not only to artistic heritage, but to further perception of a woman. In her works, a woman appears to be strong and powerful. For example, her famous painting Judith Slaying Holofernes, depicts females who are physically powerful and superior over a male. This piece of art depicts a scene of violence, which is also not typical of traditional female painting of the 17th century.
Probably, further life and development of Artemisia Gentileschi as an artist was influenced by a sad fact that she was raped at the age of 17 (Buckley, 2013). Some researchers say that her works during and after the trial could be interpreted “as symbolic revenge against the man who raped her” (Poggioli, 2016, para. 14). Moreover, it is generally considered that her works of that period were characterized with the topics of freedom and defiance. Her painting Susanna and the Elders that was mentioned above is also frequently treated as influenced by the rape. It depicts a beautiful girl in a bath and two old lascivious men who spy her. Some researchers of Artemisia’s heritage believe that this painting depicts herself, and the two men are her farther and the man who raped her (Buckley, 2013). Still, at the time they were created, her paintings were not interpreted in the feminist context.
Generally speaking, there can be different treatments of Artemisia Gentileschi’s heritage. However, the researchers agree that she started a new direction in painting and opened a door to women into art. Being the first women admitted to the academy of design, she gave a good example to her followers. Being almost forgotten after her death, she came back to life when her paintings were rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century. At that time the critics agreed that Artemisia Gentileschi as a great female artist in a world dominated by men, made a significant contribution not only to the history of art, but also created a precedent for the development of the contemporary feminist movement.
Buckley, P. (2013). Artemisia Gentileschi, 1593–1653. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170(8), 832-833. Web.
Poggioli, S. (2016). Long seen as victim, 17th century Italian painter emerges as feminist icon. Web.