Artemisia Gentileschi

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Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612-21) Oil on canvas 199 x 162 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Artemisia Gentileschi (July 8, 1593 - 1653) is today considered one of the most accomplished Early Baroque painters in the generation influenced by Caravaggio (the "Caravaggisti"). Remarkably, in an era when women painters were not easily accepted, she became the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia dell' Arte del Disegno in Florence. She was also the first female artist to paint history and religious paintings, at a time when such heroic themes were considered beyond a mere woman's reach.

Contents

Biography

The Roman Beginning

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome, on July 8 1593, the first child of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, one of the greatest representatives of the school of Caravaggio. Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father's workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked along side her. She learned drawing, how to mix color and how to paint. Since her father's style took heavily inspiration from Caravaggio during that period, her style was just as heavily influenced in turn.

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Susanna and the Elders, Sch?rn Collection, Pommersfelden

The first work of the young 17-years old Artemisia (even if many suspect that she was helped by her father) was the Susanna e i Vecchioni ("Susanna and the Elders") (1610), located in the Sch?rn collection in Pommersfelden. The picture shows how, under parental guidance, Artemisia assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the language of the Bologna school (which had Annibale Carracci among its major artists).

In 1612, despite her early talent, Artemisia was denied access to the all-male professional academies for art. At the time, her farther was working with Agostino Tassi to decoration of the "volte" of Casino della Rose inside the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace in Rome, so Orazio hired the Tuscan painter to tutor his daughter privately. The unfortunate effect was that Artemisia was raped by Tassi. Even though Tassi initially promised to marry Artemisia in order to restore her reputation, he later reneged on his promise and Orazio reported Tassi to the authorities.

In the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had allegedly planned to murder his wife, had committed incest with his sister-in-law and planned to steal some of Orazio?s paintings. During the trial Artemisia was given a gynecological examination and was tortured using a device made of thongs wrapped around the fingers and tighted by degrees — a particularly cruel torture to a painter. Both procedures were used to corroborate the truth of her allegation, the torture device in the belief that if a person can tell the same story under torture as without it, the story must be true. At the end of the trial Tassi was imprisoned for just one year. The trial has subsequently influenced the feminist view of Atermisia Gentileschi during the 20th century

The painting representing Giuditta che decapita Oloferne ("Giuditta decapitating Oloferne") (1612-13), stored in the Capodimonte Museum of Naples, is impressive for the violence portrayed, and was interpreted as a wish of psycological revenge for the violence Artemisia had suffered.

One month after the trial, in order to restore her honor, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. Shortly afterwards the couple moved to Florence, where Artemisia received a commission for a painting at Casa Buonarroti and became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the Medici and Charles I. During this period, Artemisia also painted the Madonna col Bambino ("The Virgin Mary with Baby"), currently in the Spada Gallery, Rome.

Whilst in Florence, Artemisia and Pierantonio had four sons and one daughter. But only the daughter, Prudenzia, survived to adulthood — following her mother's return to Rome in 1621 and later move to Naples. After her mother's death in 1651, Prudenzia slipped into obscurity and little is known of her subsequent life.

The Florentine Period (1614-1620)

In Florence, Artemisia enjoyed huge success. She was accepted in the Accademia del Disegno ("Academy of Drawing") (she was the first woman to have such privilege); She demonstrated to being able to mantain good relations with the most respected artists of her time, like Cristofano Allori, and to be able to conquer the favours and the protection of influential people, starting from Granduke Cosimo II de' Medici and expecially of the Granduchess Cristina. She was in good relationship with Galileo Galilei with whom she reimained in epistolar contact for a long time. Among her estimators there was Buonarroti the young (nephew of the great Michelangelo): busy with construction of a maison to celebrate the notable ancestor, he asked Artemisia to realize a painting to decorate the ceiling of the gallery of paintings.

The painting represents an allegory of Allegoria dell'Inclinazione ("Allegory of the Inclination") (natural talent), presented under the form of a young nude woman who holds a compass. It is believed that the attractive woman resembles Artemisia itself, who - as the mundan informations of the period say - was extremely beautiful. Actually it happens often, in her paintings, that the appearance of the curvy and energetic heroines is similar to her portraits and selfportraits: often those who ordered her paintings wished to have an image of the author, whose fame was rising. The success and the fashion radiating from her figure fueled many voices about her private life.

From this period we remember the La Conversione della Maddalena ("The Conversion of Maddalene") and the Giuditta con la sua ancella ("Judith with her Handmaid") of Pitti Palace and a second one, a larger version of the Giuditta che decapita Oloferne ("Judith who decapitates Oloferne") in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence.

Despite the success, due to an excess of expenses by her and her husband, the Florentine period was full of problems with creditors and with her husband. These problems lead to her return to Rome in 1621.

Again in Rome and after in Venezia (1621-1630)

Artemisia arrived in Rome the same year her father Orazio departed for Genoa. It is commonly believed that Artemisia followed her father (and that would explain the persistance of a resemblance of style which, even today, makes difficult to understand exactly who of the two made some paintings), but there is not enough proof to prove that.

Artemisia remained in Rome, trying to find an home and raising her daughters. In addition to Prudenzia (born from the marriage with Pierantonio Stiattesi) she had another natural daughter, probably born in 1627. Artemisia tried, with almost no success, to teach them the art of painting.

Rome in that period was highly influenced by the style of Caravaggio (many similarities in fact do exist between her style and the style of Simon Vouet), but during the papacy of Pope Urbano VIII both the classicism of the Bolognese school and the barocco style of Pietro da Cortona were highly succesful as well. Artemisia demonstrated to have enough expertise to pick the artistic novelties of the period and enough determination to live as a protagonist during this wonderful artistic period of Rome, full of artists from all Europe.

Artemisia joined the Accademy of Desiosi. She was celebrated with a portrait carrying the incision "Pincturare miraculum invidendum facilius quam imitandum". In the same period she became friend with Cassiano dal Pozzo, a humanist, collector and lover of arts. However, despite her artistic reputation, her strong personality and her numerous good relationships, staying in Rome was not as lucrative as she hoped. The appreciation of her art was narrowed down to portraits and to her ability with biblical heroines: she no longer got the rich commissions of fresco paintings and altars. It is very difficult, due to the absence of enough documentation, to follow the movements of Artemisia in this period. It is certain that between 1627 and 1630 she moved to Venice, perhaps in search of richer commissions, as she received numerous letters of appreciation from intellectuals during her stay in Venice.

Although it is pretty difficult to date her paintings, it is possible to assign to this period the Ritratto di gonfaloniere ("Portrait of Gonfaloniere"), today in Bologna (only known example of her capacity as portrait painter); the Giuditta con la sua ancella, ("Judith with her maidservant") today at the Detroit Institute of Arts (notable for her mastery of the "chiaroscuro" effects of the candle lights, for which Gerrit van Honthorst, Trophime Bigot, and many others were also famous in Rome); the "Venere Dormiente" ("The Sleeping Venus"), today at Princeton; the "Ester ed Assuero" ("Ester and Assuero") located at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (testimony of her assimilation of the venetian luministic lessons)

Naples and the english period (1630-1653)

In 1630 Artemisia moved to Napoles, a city rich with workshops and art lovers, in search of new and more lucrative job opportunities. Many other artists, including Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, Simon Vouet had stayed in Naples for some time in their lifes, and at that time, Jusepe de Ribera, Massimo Stanzione were working there and later, Domenichino, Giovanni Lanfranco and many others. The Neapolitan debut of Artemisa is represented by the Annunciation in the Capodimonte Museum. Later she permanently relocated to Naples and stayed there - except for only a brief trip to London and some other journeys - for the rest of her life. Naples was for Artemisia some kind of second homeland where she took care of her family (both her daughters got married in Naples). She received letters of appreciation, was in good relations with the Vicere' Duca d'Alcalࠡnd started relations with many renowned artists, among them Massimo Stanzone, with whom she started an artistic collaboration based on a real friendship and artistic similarities.

In Naples for the first time Artemisia started working on paintings in a cathedral, dedicated to San Gennaro nell'anfiteatro di Pozzuoli ("Saint Gennaro in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli") in Pozzuoli. During her first Neapolitan period she painted Nascita di San Giovanni Battista ("Birth of Saint Giovanni Battista") located in the Del Prado Museum in Madrid, and Corisca e il satiro ("Corisca and the satire"), in a private collection. In these paintings Artemisia again demonstrates her ability to renew herself with the novelties of the period and handle different subjects insted of the usual Judith, Susanna, Betsabee, and Maddelene penitenti, for which she was still known anyway.

In 1638 Artemisia joined her father in London at the court of Charles I of England, where Orazio became court painter and received the important job of decorating a ceiling (allegory of Trionfo della pace e delle Arti ("Triumph of the peace and the Arts") in the Casa delle Delizie of queen Enrichetta Maria in Greenwick.

After so much time, father and daughter were again working together, but probably helping her father was not her only reason. But it is sure that Charles I convoked her in his court, and it was not possible to refuse. Orazio suddenly died in 1639. Charles I was a fanatical collector, willing to ruin public finances to follow his artistic wishes. The fame of Artemisia probably intrigued him, and it is not a coincidence that his collection included a painting of great suggestion, the Autoritratto in veste di Pittura. In london, Artemisia had an autonomous activity which she continued to follow for a while even after the her father's death (although there are no known works assignable with certainty to this period). We know that in 1642, when the civil war was just starting, Artemisia had already left England. Nothing much is know about her subsquent movements. Historians know that in 1649 she was in Naples again, corresponding with Don Anontio Ruffo of Sicily who became her mentor and good committent during this second neapolitan period. The last known letter to her mentor is dated 1650 and makes clear that she was still fully active. Artemisia died in 1653.

Some works in this period are Susanna e i vecchioni ("Susanna and the elders" today in Brno and Madonna e Bambino con rosario ("Virgin Mary and Baby with Rosary") today in El Escorial.

Artistic profile

A research paper of Roberto Longhi, an important italian critic, dated 1916, named Gentileschi padre e figlia (Gentileschi father and daughter) pointed out the artistic merits of Artemisia Gentileschi in the sphere of the caravaggeschi in the first half of the XVII century. Longhi said about Artemisia, using an unintentionally misogynist tone "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing and other fundamentals...". Longhi wrote about the most famous painting of Artemisia, the Giuditta che decapita Oloferne of Uffizi Gallery of Florence: "Who could think in fact that over a sheet so candid, a so brutal and terrible massacre could happen [...] but - it's natural to say - this is a terrible woman! A woman painted all this?" and added "...there's nothing sadic here, instead what strikes the most is the impassibility of the painter, who was even able to notice how the blood, spurting with violence, can decorate with two drops the central spurt! Incredible I tell you! And also please give Mrs. Schiattesi - the conjugal name of Artemisia - the chance to choose the hilt of the sword! At last don't you think that the only aim of Giuditta is to move away to avoid the blood which could stain her dress? We think anyway that that is a dress of Casa Gentileschi, the finest wardrobe in the Europe during 600, after Van Dyck".

The interest toward the artistic figure of Artemisia, which was pretty weak despite the work of Longhi, increased thanks to feminist studies, which clearly underlined, starting from her raping and the subsequent biography, the expressive strenght her pictorial language showed when the painted subjects were the famous biblical heroines, who seems always willing to manifest their rebellion against the condition of the women. In a research paper from the catalogue of the exhibition "Orazio e Artemisia Gentileschi" which took place in Rome in 2001 (and after in New York), Judith W. Mann gives a rather feministic opinion. "An opinion like that presupposes that the full creative potential of Artemisia is only about strong capable women, at the point that seems impossible to imagine her busy doing conventional religious images, like a Virgin Mary with a Baby or a virgin submissively waiting for the Annunciation; and besided it is said that the artist refused to modify her personal interpretation of those subjects to conform to the preferences of a client base presumably composed by males. The stereotype caused a double restrictive effect: it both induced the critics to doubt about the attribution of the paintings not corresponding to described model, and to give an inferior value to the ones not found on the cliche"

The most recent critic, starting from the difficult reconstruction of the entire catalogue of the Gentileschi, tried to give a less reductive reading of the career of Artemisia, placing it more accurately on the context of the different artistic enviroments which the painter actively partecipated in. A reading like this gives us back the figure of an artist who fought with determination, using the weapon of personality and of the artistic qualities, against the prejudices who were expressed against the women painters; being able to introduce herself productively in the circle of the most respected painters of her time, embracing a series of pictoric genres which were probably more ample and varieated than her paintings tell us.

Works

The woman and the painter

For a woman, at the beginning of the XVII century, being a painter like Artemisia represented an uncommon and difficult choice, but also not an exceptional one. Before Artemisia, between the end of the 1500 and the beginning of 1600 other woman painters started with success their activity. We can mention Sofonisba Anguissola (Born in Cremona around 1530 - Palermo around 1625), who was called in Spain by Philip II of Spain; Lavinia Fontana (Bologna, 1552 - Rome 1614) who departed for Rome by invitation of Pope Clemente VIII, Fede Galizia (Milano or Trento, 1578 - Milano 1630) who painted, among all her works, great still lifes and a beautiful Giuditta con la testa di Oloferne ("Giuditta with the head of Oloferne). Other women painters, more or less famous, began their career while Artemisia was alive. If we judge their artistic merits, the statement of Roberto Longhi, "[Artemisia was] the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting..." sounds rather unfair.

Artemisia in Popular Culture

Despite the fact that there were other female painters in the Renaissance, there is something, both in the art and the biography of Artemisia Gentileschi, something that makes her expecially fascinating and that explains the interest of some writers (males and females) towards her.

The first writer who wrote a novel around the figure of Artemisia was Anna Banti, wife of Roberto Longhi. Her first draft of the manuscripts, dated 1944, got lost during the war. The decision to starts again with the book, called Artemisia, writing in a much different form, happened three years later. Anna Banti maintains a dialogue with Artemisia in her book, in a "open diary" form where she tries to understand why she finds Artemisia so fascinating.

More than fifty years later, in 1999, the French writer Alexandra Lapierre became fascinated about Artemisia and wrote a novel about her, derived from scrupulous study of the painter and the historical context of her work. The psychological research between the lines of the novel, to understand the relation between Artemisia the woman and Artemisia the painter, ends with describing as "leit motiv" the relation between her and her father, composed by both love not sufficiently expressed and a latent professional rivalry.

Another novel, recently published in Italy, by Susan Vreeland (The Passion of Artemisa), positions itself in the wave of the popularity of the feministic figure of Artemisia Gentileschi, seemingly exploiting the the recent success of historical novels based on famous artwork.

The 1997 film Artemisia, directed by Agn賠Merlet and starring Valentina Cervi, was based on this painter's life.

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