TW: discussion of sexual assault
Artemisia Gentileschi seemed to be driven by an unseen, all consuming fire. As a female artist in 17th century Italy, Artemisia never allowed her gender to keep her away from her rightful place among the renowned, but instead allowed it to guide and fuel her life's greatest works. The tragedies and horrors she faced as a young woman ignited something within her, or at least threw more kindling on the fire. Somehow she created the most passionate and powerful artworks to come out of the baroque era with the wreckage.
The eldest born and only daughter of famed painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia showed early on that she was a step ahead and more passionate than her brothers when it came to painting. She grew up learning how to mix colors, sketch, and create pieces of her own. Finally, one day her father took notice of how skilled his daughter truly was.
From that point forward, Artemisia had earned not only her fathers interest, but his financial aid, as well. Following the death of his wife, he knew he would not be able to keep teaching Artemisia while working and looking after his other children. Orazio started calling in favors from fellow painters to come teach his daughter the skills and lessons she needed to succeed in this profession.
A famed landscape and seascape painter from Perugia, Agostino Tassi was working on decorating the vaults of the Casino delle Muse with Artemisias’ father when he was asked to tutor her. Tassi took up the offer and quickly began his visits to the Gentileschi household. These tutor sessions were frequently unsupervised and left Artemisia alone for hours with Tassi. Typically they worked on developing her skills, but in one such session, Tassi took advantage of her isolation, raping Artemisa.
The graphic details of the assault, while spoken of and written down by Artemisia, will not be repeated in this recollection of the artist's life. Instead, the impact and aftermath on her world and work will be discussed.
After the assault, Orazio attempted to marry his daughter off to her assaulter, hoping that their union would save her reputation, as well as secure her future. Tassi agreed to the marriage at first. After nine months of continuous relations with Artemisia (whether they were consensual or not is unknown) he recanted his promise, causing Orazio to press charges against him.
The trial touched on many disputes between the Gentileschi’s and Tassi, but focused primarily on Artemisia’s assault. The fact that her “virginity was stolen,” according to her father, was the only reason they were able to press charges. The court did not deem the horrific acts done to an unwilling 17 year old worthy of attention alone, but understood this theft as a worthy enough cause to be taken to trial.
While on trial, the court had the young woman testify on her own behalf. To ensure that her account was truthful and honest, they tortured her using an instrument known as a thumb screw, a device which could have permanently damaged the artist's fingers. Miraculously, the device only scarred her mentally and confirmed her story to the court.
The jury deliberated for months after the trial, eventually giving Tassi a guilty sentence. He was exiled from Italy and demanded never to return. This act would never be fulfilled sadly, on account of the Pope at the time being a rather large fan of the abusers' work, and vetoing the court in favor of keeping the painter around for his own personal enjoyment.
Despite these horrors and the unfulfilled verdict, Orazio continued to search for an eligible husband for Artemisia. Eventually, he stumbled upon another painter named Pierantonio Stiattesi. Only a month after the trial, he and Artemisia married and left for Florence. Artemisia and Stiattesi’s relationship was rocky. The couple had five children together, but only two survived. Stiattesi’s troublesome spending habits put the family in rocky situations. However, Artemisia's time in Florence was the start and height of her career.
There she became well known and influential on the culture. Her work grew in addition to her patronage, even allowing her to obtain a broader education during her six years there. Learning to read and write, she was able to participate in the arts of Florence, as well as mingle with some of the greatest minds there, including Galileo Galilei – who many historians speculate impacted her work.
While her relationship with her husband was less than perfect, there were two men in her life who seemingly kept her stable. One of those men was her first and most dedicated patron, Cosimo II de’ Medici, Tuscany's Grand Duke. Artemisia lived off the commission earnings given to her by the Duke in her frugal beginnings. Further, this connection gave her a fighting chance to gain clientele and that she did – towards the end of her life, she was commissioned by King Philip IV of Spain.
The second man in Artemisia’s life who kept her going was her lover: Francesco Maria Maringhi, a rich scion. Francesco kept Artemisia afloat financially when her husband would spend their savings haphazardly, ensuring that she and her children were fed. Historians are able, through letters exchanged between Artemisia and Francesco, to craft a more holistic image of the true personality woman behind her work, her words depicting a bold, witty, passionate woman who continually fought for her destiny and the acclaim she deserved.
More important than the tragedy and intrigue that lies inside of Artemisia's personal life is her work. The bright, rich colors in which Artemisa painted contrasted heavily with the realistic shadows in her work, making those depicted look more lifelike than other pieces of the time. Gentileschi was known for painting women in positions of power or dominance over men. Her most famous piece shows a biblical woman cutting off a man's head as he wakes up from sleep, as the man had planned on ransacking her town when he woke up.
In the painting, Judith stands in the place of Artemisia and Holofernes represents Tassi. Through this work, the artist depicted her revenge on the man who took her youth away with seemingly no repercussions. The piece also, purposefully or unpurposefully, recalls an action Artemisia claimed to have taken on the man during her trial. The young woman stood up to the court and proclaimed without hesitation that once Tassi had gotten off her, she “...Went to the table drawer and took a knife and moved toward Agostino, saying, ‘I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonored me.”
Another famous piece of hers is “Allegory of inclination.” A commission requested by the younger relative of Michelangelo, the piece was crafted on the roof of the Casa Buonarroti museum, a space dedicated to Michelangelo’s work inside of his old home. She was the only woman hired at the time and was profoundly pregnant during the piece's creation. She persevered despite her challenges, creating a beautiful portrait of a woman nude except for a cloth, sitting on a cloud and holding a compass.
The piece is much lighter than the rest of her work, done in more pale yellows, creams, and blues. Many speculate that the woman was once again intended to resemble Artemisa, as her body shape and face were thought similar to that of the painted woman.
Artemisia consistently exceeded her male counterparts throughout her life when it came to her work, proving that women could not only be depicted in art, but also be successful creators of art itself on par with the men of the time. She was put on a pedestal, equal to those who would seek to hold her back. Despite her life's tragedies, she was continually fueled by a sense of rebellion which compelled her to be better than any expected.
Artemisia defied any stipulations or roles expected of her due to her gender, using what most at the time would consider a hindrance to persevere forward in her life. She pushed herself to where she is today, recognized as a patron saint of female artists and a woman known not just for her sorrows, but for her passionate dedication to herself and her craft.