Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1656) is considered among the most accomplished seventeenth-century Western artists, and the most celebrated woman painter of that era. She was often overlooked in favor of male contemporaries; however, recognition of her achievements and her standing in the history of art have changed over the centuries. New documents and the emergence of new paintings in the last 20 years have enhanced our understanding of her art.
The daughter of the well-known painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia trained from an early age in her father’s workshop. Both father and daughter were influenced by Caravaggio. Whereas Orazio’s paintings are highly idealized, Artemisia’s are more naturalistic. She was skilled in rendering surface textures and light reflections. Her first known painting, Susanna and the Elders, signed and dated 1610, is extremely accomplished and addresses two recurring themes in her art: women heroines and the female nude. Two other well-known works are Judith Slaying Holofernes and Judith and Her Maidservant. Many of her women appear to be self-portraits or “near” self-portraits.
For a long time, her achievements as an artist were overshadowed by the story of her rape at the age of 17 by Agostino Tassi, an artist colleague of her father’s. Orazio pressed charges against Tassi. During the trial, Artemisia was tortured by the sibille, which tightened ropes around her fingers to test the veracity of her testimony. Tassi was condemned and sentenced to exile from Rome, but the sentence was never enforced. Beginning in the 1970s, feminist studies increased interest in Artemisia Gentileschi focusing on her rape and mistreatment and seeing “revenge” in her strong female characters and their willingness to rebel against men. It is true that her characters lack stereotypical “feminine” traits, such as sensitivity, timidness, and weakness. Over time, the analysis of her paintings broadened to see the political courage in her female figures and to understand her depictions of death and loss.
After the rape trial, Artemisia moved to Florence where she became quite successful as a court painter. She enjoyed the patronage of the Medici family and frequented the cultivated circle of Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger. She became the first woman accepted into Florence’s celebrated Academy of the Arts of Drawing. She learned to read and write in Florence and attended musical and theatrical performances, which probably influenced her representation of biblical and mythological figures in contemporary, often lavish, dress.
Artemisia also lived in Venice, London, and Naples. It was in Venice that she probably painted Lucretia, a recently rediscovered work that had been in private collections until it was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2021. In this painting, Lucretia emerges from the shadows and grasps a dagger, aiming it at her chest. The radiance of her skin, the pearls in her hair, the rich fabrics contrast with the horror that is about to happen. According to Roman history, Lucretia was the wife of a nobleman; she was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the King of Rome. Proclaiming her innocence, she stabbed herself to death. Anger and grief over her death led to a rebellion that drove the Tarquins from Rome and marked the foundation of the Roman Republic.
Lucretia became a favorite subject in Renaissance and Baroque art as a symbol of female strength. Her story most likely also resonated with Artemisia, who often depicted donne forti (strong women) in her work. It shaped her artistic persona as an independent and successful painter in a world dominated by men. She approached her subjects with great empathy and translated their experiences into emotionally complex paintings.