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Mon 16 September 2019
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Mike Stuchbery on a renaissance artist who overcame the predatory sexism of her day and survives as an emblem of feminist persistence.

In one of the great public art moves in recent years, a baroque painting has been touring the UK from the National Gallery’s collection, appearing in the least expected places – a school, a prison, a GP’s surgery.

Accompanying the £3.6 million self-portrait of the artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, is a tale of transformation, courage and defiance that blazes down the centuries.


Early Talent

Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593 into an artist’s family.

Her father, Orazio, had a thriving studio in which the young woman learned from not only her father, but others working on a steady stream of commissions.

Gentileschi was already showing precocious talent aged 17, creating biblical scenes that demonstrate a more naturalistic, expressive hand than many of her older contemporaries. In fact, she was considered a drawcard for the studio.

Gentileschi has come to stand both as a feminist icon and a fierce avatar of perseverance, a symbol of willpower and determination.

The next year, in 1611, when Orazio was called away for a commission, another artist, Agostini Tassi was hired to supervise her artistic education.

Tassi, a painter of landscapes, had a considerable reputation for attacking women, so it is puzzling why Orazio would have chosen him to tutor Artemisia.


Betrayal

True to loathsome form, during these sessions, Tassi raped Gentileschi, telling her that he planned to marry her.

The charade was kept up for months before it became clear that Tassi had no intention of doing so.

At this point, Orazio, who had returned, took Tassi to court. During the trial, Tassi’s record of rape, incest and attempted murder was verified and he was eventually sentenced to prison, albeit briefly.

Gentileschi, meanwhile, was subjected to the most degrading and abhorrent treatment during the course of the trial.

Due to the niceties of Roman civil law, if she was not a virgin, the charges against Tassi would be dropped. Therefore she was questioned, examined and even tortured with thumbscrews in order to ascertain her virginity.

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Tassi also constantly slandered Gentileschi during the trial, calling her “an insatiable whore” and making factually incorrect statement regarding her abilities.

Following the trial, Orazio married off Gentileschi, perhaps to secure her reputation, and the pair moved to Florence, where they had a daughter, Prudentia.


Rebirth

This is where Artemisia’s fightback began.

In 1616, she was admitted to the city’s Academy of Design – an almost unthinkable honour for a woman.

Soon after, major commissions came flooding in from luminaries from the Stuart court to the Medicis. The latter, Duke Cosimo II in particular, were frequent customers.

There were many who refused to believe that this woman was creating such forceful, masterful pieces, while running her own studio.

Over the next few years, Artimesia moved between cities such as Venice, Genoa and back to Rome, taking commissions that played to her strengths – portraits and biblical scenes that featured martyrs, suicides and defiant women.

One such motif she would return to more than once was the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. In the tale, Judith, a beautiful woman, is able to save her city from an Assyrian general by seducing him before decapitating him.

National Museum of CapodimonteNaples, Italy, Florence

Speaking of seduction, during this period Gentileschi found time for a passionate affair with a nobleman, Francesco Maria Maringhi. Strangely enough, her husband consented.

Eventually, Gentileschi left her husband and opened her own studio in Rome, which employed a number of painters. Again, this was a remarkable achievement for a woman at the time.

The sheer breadth and quality of her work was remarked upon during her lifetime, although she did have her critics.

There were many who refused to believe that this woman was creating such forceful, masterful pieces, while running her own studio.


Reappraisal

Indeed, following her death, presumably from plague, in 1656, many of her pieces were attributed to men.

Her reputation was dimmed for centuries, before scholars and art historians began to piece together her story, and identify her works.

It was not until the second half of the 20th Century that she began to receive the attention and critical reception she deserved in life.

While undoubtedly a human being, with her flaws and quirks, Gentileschi has come to stand both as a feminist icon and a fierce avatar of perseverance, a symbol of willpower and determination.

Therefore, her self-portrait, in which she presents as St Catherine, who broke the wheel that she was strapped on, is the perfect painting to travel the country, inspiring those who come across her.

Defiant, unbowed, unbroken.

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