Saturday, July 08, 2006


Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few female painters of the Renaissance, was born on this day in 1593 in Rome.

Artemisia lost her mother at 12 and spent most of her adolescence learning in the workshop of her father, Orazio Gentileschi, a significant painter and follower of Caravaggio. At 17, as she was feeling her power as her father's finest pupil, she was raped by another artist in her father's studio, Agostino Tassi. Tassi was acquitted in the ensuing trial, during which her father's property was threatened and, most significantly, Artemisia was subjected to her own trial by ordeal -- she was put to the thumbscrew as a test of her veracity. She later married an obscure painter, a relationship which gave her the ability to practice her art in a man's world without further fear of scandal.

Her art, however, is distinctive for its feminine point of view, and perhaps even more so for its personal content, so temptingly equated with her biographical facts. Among her favorite subjects is Susannah and the Elders (first painted in 1610), a biblical tale in which a young girl is sexually harassed by some men in her community. Most male painters employed the subject as an opportunity to display the female form and usually showed Susannah as a flirtatious participant in the event; Artemisia also painted Susannah in the nude, but (according to some scholars) painted her as a self-portrait, and showed Susannah's anguish at the behavior of the men.

Her treatment of another biblical subject, Judith slaying Holofernes (c.1625), is Caravaggesque in its lighting effects, but is almost clinically violent in its depiction of two women, Judith and her maid Abra, slicing off the head of the Assyrian general.

Artemisia died in 1642. Her works were largely ignored until they began to be noticed by feminist art historians in the 1970s. Since then, she has become an icon of woman's history, and has been the subject of several fictional works, including Agnes Merlet's film Artemisia (1998) and Susan Vreeland's novel The Passion of Artemisia (2001).

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