We Remember the Talent of Artemisia Gentileschi

Photo of painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Lute Player (c. 1615-17). Located at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT

Happy birthday, Artemisia Gentileschi! Today, we are proud to celebrate the applauded Italian Renaissance painter on this, what would be her 431st birthday. Artemisia’s achievements are legendary: on the Museum of Art’s website, she is referred to as “the most famous woman painter of the seventeenth century.” Unfortunately, Artemisia is most remembered by the sexual assault she suffered at the hands of an instructor and ensuing trial, but we at FF2 choose to highlight today Artemisia’s unparalleled talents. A shining example of women’s achievements, Artemisia has represented so much to so many fellow women artists throughout the centuries since her birth.

About Artemisia Gentileschi

Born on July 8, 1593 in Rome, Artemisia spent her younger years living and learning in her father, Orazio Gentileschi’s, home. Also a painter by trade, Orazio’s natural-looking technique helped to shape Artemisia’s own blossoming style. However, Artemisia quickly took this realism much further, specifically in her painted depictions of women. FF2 Media’s Roza Melkumyan calls Artemisia a “force of nature” even in her early years. Roza writes, “Artemisia was known for her skill at depicting the female figure with great naturalism, and for using color to express depth and drama.”

Orazio happily nurtured his young daughter’s clear interest in and aptitude for the arts. Artemisia would go on to work alongside him in later years. His support included the hiring of many tutors for Artemisia. As a very young teenager, she was already churning out masterful work. Unfortunately, this is how Artemisia would come into contact with her attacker. There are many, many resources online which detail what Artemisia was put through by this man. Additionally, they explore the resulting revictimization and physical torture at the hands of the legal system. 

The Fires of Lust by Katherine Harvey

All of us know that Artemisia’s story is tragically similar to the stories of so many other victims. I would invite anyone interested in learning more about the challenges faced by victims of sexual violence in the medieval period to read Dr. Katherine Harvey’s book The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages. Throughout its chapters, Katherine does not only debunk many modern misconceptions about medieval sexuality, but also offers glances into long-ago women’s real lives and struggles. Surprisingly, I did not come away from reading Katherine’s work feeling overwhelming gratitude to be living in the 21st century as I thought I might. Instead, the book reminded me of the persistent similarities in women’s situations through all eras — and how far we still have to go. 

Far from deterring her artistic desires, Artemisia’s painting skills and professional life flourished in Florence after the completion of her trial. Over the course of her career, Artemisia painted for renowned patrons, including the Medicis as well as England’s King Charles I. Artemisia worked throughout Italy as well as internationally, and created dozens of magnificent paintings throughout her long and illustrious career. She also represents the very first woman to gain membership to Florence’s Academi di Arte del Disegno. 

Artemisia Gentileschi's painting Susanna and the Elders
Click image to enlarge.

Artemisia’s monumental talent

Though Artemisia of course faced challenges and barriers on the basis of her sex throughout her career, her monumental talent could not go overlooked by the art world. In one particularly compelling anecdote, Michelangelo’s great-nephew commissioned Artemisia to paint part of the ceiling of Florence’s Casa Buonarrati. Allegedly, Artemisia completed the task while heavily pregnant, and afterwards received a larger payment than any of her male counterparts.

Artemisia’s most famous works include Judith Slaying Holofernes, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, and, recently in the news, Hercules and Omphale. Two years ago, experts identified a painting badly damaged in Beirut’s tragic 2020 explosion as Artemisia’s Hercules and Omphale. Roza writes a moving tribute to Artemisia’s talents, as well as the idea of renewal and restoration in the face of destruction. I would encourage anyone even slightly intrigued by Artemisia’s work to read the feature here.

The continuing impact of Artemisia

Artemisia’s impact does not extend to her works alone. Rather, her life and paintings have inspired countless other women artists who have followed in her confident footsteps. Mary Ann Evans, who penned her classic novels under the more often remembered name of George Eliot, used much of Artemisia’s story to craft her 1862 novel Romola. In 1979, visual artist and feminist Judy Chicago crafted a place setting for Artemisia as part of her mixed media installation The Dinner Party. In a SWAN on Judy, FF2 contributor Julia Lasker describes The Dinner Party as featuring “a large, triangular table with place settings for various strong women throughout history…Each setting is unique, designed to reflect each woman, reasserting their place in the narrative.” Artemisia’s own setting in The Dinner Party reflects her profound impact on both fellow women artists and collective culture at large.

A master at her craft and early exemplar of women’s capabilities, Artemisia Gentileschi must be remembered today for her life’s work—her art. Though her personal history is an inspiring one of resilience, we must not remember her only for her trauma. On this, her birthday, I invite anyone reading this post to search out one of Artemisia’s many works. Allow your eyes to rove over each small detail. Gaze on every inch of rich, pooling fabric cascading across her subject’s bodies. Delight in each sloping wrinkle on an old woman’s face. Truly feel the stories she is telling, and remember Artemisia Gentileschi.

© Reese Alexander (7/8/24) – Special for FF2 Media

Photo of painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Lute Player (c. 1615-17). Located at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read about the recent discovery and restoration of Artemisia’s painting Hercules and Omphale by FF2 Media’s Rosa Melkumyan.

Explore FF2 Media’s profile on artist Judy Chicago written by Julia Lasker.

Learn more about Judy’s Atmospheres exhibit by Katherine Factor on FF2 Media.

Read Allison Green’s feature on Judy’s Herstory exhibit on FF2 Media.

Check out Artemisia’s Esther before Ahasuerus, housed at the MET.

Find out more about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party and Artemisia’s place setting at it.

Order Dr. Katherine Harvey’s The Fires of Lust here.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo & Bottom Photo: Photo of painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Lute Player (c. 1615-17). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Taken at an exhibition featuring the works of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later) at the National Gallery, London, UK on September 30, 2020. Image Credit: Malcolm Park / Alamy Live News. Image ID: 2CWBMT2. Crop provided by Jan Lisa Huttner.

Middle Photo: Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Susanna and the Elders, taken from Wikipedia.

Tags: Artemisia Gentileschi, Dr. Katherine Harvey, George Eliot, Hercules and Omphale, Judith Slaying Holofernes, Judy Chiacgo, Mary Ann Evans, Romola, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, The Dinner Party, The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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