Happy Birthday Blog: Artemisa Gentileschi

Happy Birthday Blog: Artemisa Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi

Born: July 8, 1593

Rome, Italy

Known For: World Renowned Baroque Painter

For today’s HBD blog, I’m going to tell you about the 16th century feminist icon you probably have never heard of. We generally don’t think of feminist icons from the heart of Baroque painting, but Artemisia proved time and again to be one of the premier painters of her time, and fought throughout her life for bodily autonomy, financial independence, and pay equity.

This blog is broken down into two parts. First I’m going to tell you why she was an amazing lady, and then I will tell you what she is usually known for – which tells you a lot about who writes history and how we tell women’s stories. Artemisia apprenticed with the painter Agostino Tassi when she was 18 (more on that later). She eventually moved to Florence with her husband and gained the patronage of one of the most influential patrons in the history of art, Cosimo de Medici. In 1616, she became the first woman accepted to the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts.

Artemisia gained more patrons around Italy, and her innovative compositions were highly sought. One of the most fabulously feminist parts about her work is that she focused on biblical heroines, or depicting biblical stories from the female’s perspective. Of the 60 paintings attributed to her, 40 have female figures in the foreground. For those of you non-art historians who aren’t sure what that means – she put ladies in the front of the paintings. In the 16th century – she put ladies at the table, she focused on their perspective. She didn’t show them as meek, or inconsequential. The women in Gentileschi’s paintings are intentional, strong, and smart.

She had two daughters with her husband, both of which became painters. After their separation, she became the head of household, traveling around Italy and Europe with her daughters to finish commissions. In 1638, she was inducted into the Accademia del Disegno, a prestigious organization whose membership afforded her new freedoms. With this membership she was then able to buy paints and supplies without a man’s permission, she could travel independently and sign her own contracts.

From her letters to patrons, we know she fought for fair pay and equal treatment and spoke out against sexism leveled against her. Yet, this is only recently the story we tell about Artemisia. During her career she gained fame and renown throughout Europe. She was the only female follower of the enigmatic and influential Caravaggio. She is generally considered to be “one of the first female artists to have a broad, incisive impact on art of her time.”

So what happened? Why did we only start to talk about the real genius of Artemisia in the 1970s? The answer is misogyny and feminism.

Born in Rome, Artemisia was the daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Though he tried on several occasions to stifle her interest at a young age, he eventually realized her talent and apprenticed her to his friend and business partner Agostino Tassi. We know that Artemisia eventually sued Tassi for rape – and in a very public and very long trial – she was made to relive the assault and go through a form of torture to ensure she was telling the truth.

Tassi was eventually convicted, though he never went to jail. Artemisia moved to Florence with her husband and moved on, but the assault never left her or her career. Though she was relatively sought after and famous during her career, history was not as kind. After her death, she quickly fell into obscurity, and many of her paintings were attributed to her father or other male followers of Caravaggio. Even into the 20th century she was known more for being a victim of rape than for any of her remarkable paintings.

Thus we find her history begin again in the 1970s and 80s when feminist artists and art historians began to rewrite the story of her life and career. In 1976, her paintings were included in a now famous exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art “Women Artists: 1550 – 1950” co-curated by Linda Nochlin and my former lecturer/mentor Ann Sutherland Harris!! This exhibition helped shine a much needed light on many fabulous female painters, and started the process of recognition for Artemisia’s talent.

With this reinvention of the narrative, we see a more feminist and broad interpretation of Artemisia’s paintings. Forgive me for the rather long blog, but if you’ve made it this long, hopefully you can add her to your list of feminist icons and general badass broads!

Learn even more about her and her work here. And here. 

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