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Artemisia Gentileschi biography

The following text about the female artist Artemisia Gentileschi has been previously published in the Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s career as a painter spanned four decades, during which she demonstrated flexibility in adapting her style from the intense Caravaggism of her early Roman years to the greater classicism of her late life in Naples. Although she traveled both within Italy and to England, worked for important patrons and was lauded by contemporaries, her artistic education and production was limited by her gender. The expectations of what a female artist should produce influenced her contemporaries to praise her portraits and still-lifes. On the other hand, the surviving works show that Artemisia, for reasons of patronage or personal preference, specialized in depicting heroic, often nude, females. Recent studies* (2000-2007 circa) have revealed Artemisia’s role as an important Baroque artist with a relatively well-documented biography. [Please note: this article has not been updated to reflect research carried out about Artemisia between 2007 and 2015.]

Rome, 1593-1613

Born in Rome on July 8, 1593 to the artist Orazio Gentileschi and his wife Prudentia Montoni, Artemisia had three brothers but was the only sibling who demonstrated artistic talent. Artemisia learned to paint from her father and developed a similar technique and style. Her first signed and dated work, the Pommersfelden Susanna and the Elders of 1610, indicates a precocious understanding of gesture, composition and lighting. The detailed and un-idealistic rendering of the female body points to a feminine sensibility not present in the nudes by her father. Despite this, the sophistication of the work has caused some scholars to suggest that Gentileschi senior contributed to its design or execution.

Pommersfelden Susanna and the Elders

Pommersfelden Susanna and the Elders

To supplement paternal instruction, Orazio hired his friend Agostino Tassi to tutor Artemisia in perspective. Tassi raped Artemisia in May of 1611, a fact attested to by trial records (1612). This rape has been read as a defining factor in the young artist’s life, though the extent of its influence on her art has been questioned. Much attention has been given to her frequent creation of violent images involving heroic women. The Naples Judith Slaying Holofernes, a work that shows raw violence of a woman against a man, has been dated to the period around the rape and trial. Unlike male artists’ treatments of this subject, Artemisia’s rendering shows a strong and determined Judith. Emotion is heightened by stylistic elements like chiaroscuro, alternating bright colors, and strong diagonals leading towards the central action.

Florence, 1613-1620

Immediately after Tassi’s conviction, Artemisia was married to the Florentine artist Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi and the couple moved to Florence, where Artemisia’s artist-uncle, Aurelio Lomi, lived. During her stay in Florence she signed works “Artemisia Lomi” to emphasize this relationship. By 1615 or 16, Artemisia had secured two important patrons: Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, for whom she painted an Allegory of Inclination (part of a larger programme in the Casa Buonarroti), and Grand Duke Cosimo II, who may have been instrumental in Artemisia’s becoming the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious Accademia del Disegno (1616).

Penitent Magdalen (Pitti)

Penitent Magdalen (Pitti)

During her Florentine period, Artemisia adapted to the patronage and stylistic preferences of the city, but continued to specialize in images of women. Two of the female saints depicted are Medici namesakes: Artemisia painted two Mary Magdalenes (Los Angeles, Sneider Collection; Florence, Pitti) that are believed to have been for the Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena of Austria, and a Saint Catherine (Florence, Uffizi) has been seen as homage to Caterina de’Medici. The works from this period take on a more detailed and decorative style in keeping with the courtly atmosphere of Grand Ducal Florence. The prominent “Artemisia gold” dress of the Penitent Magdalen (Pitti), in which light luxuriates upon its surface, contrasts with the saint’s fervently pious expression.

Judith and Holofernes (Uffizi)

Judith and Holofernes (Uffizi)

Another gold dress – Artemisia’s signature color – features in the second Judith and Holofernes (Uffizi), painted for the Duke and executed either at the end of the Florentine period or just after the artist’s return to Rome. This image is a variation on the painting in Naples of the same subject. In the Uffizi work, Artemisia diminishes the chiaroscuro of the earlier piece to create a visually and emotionally unified triad of figures. More even light also allows her to show greater detail, both in decorative elements like the brocade of Judith’s dress and her elaborate cameo bracelet and in unpleasant aspects like the squirting blood that not only runs down the bed but shoots outwards in beads. In Florence, Artemisia did paint images of saints and a few Madonnas, but the Judith and Holofernes and the roughly contemporary Jael and Sisera have received more attention in recent literature because they continue the iconographic trend of heroic females established in her early work.

Rome, 1620-1629

In 1620 or 1621, Artemisia returned to Rome with her husband and daughter, the only one of four children born in Florence that survived (she may have had another daughter later). Census records show that Stiattesi was absent from their home by 1623 and Artemisia was head of the household. During this decade, Artemisia may have traveled to Genova to help her father who was working there, and she was certainly in Venice in 1627. Few works are securely datable to the period 1620-8, but some trends can be observed. Artemisia continued to specialize primarily in images of women, but two reclining nudes in the Venetian mode – the Princeton Venus and Cupid and a Cleopatra (ex-London) – have an erotic charge that appeals to the male gaze.

Venus and Cupid (Princeton=

Venus and Cupid (Princeton)

Three portraits also date to this period; two are lost, but the Portrait of a Condottiere (Bologna) is signed and dated 1622. Stylistically, the reencounter with Roman Caravaggism led Artemisia to return to this style that had previously influenced both her and her father, while she did not lose the sophistication and decorative manner learned in Florence. Garrard dates the Metropolitan Museum’s Esther before Ahasuerus to Artemisia’s Roman period. This painting is consistent with these stylistic observations due to the jaunty, Caravaggesque male figure in conjunction with Esther’s ornate dress and jewelry, although the evenly diffused light may point to a later date.

Naples, 1629-1652/3

Birth and Naming of Saint John the Baptist

Birth and Naming of Saint John the Baptist

With promises of certain patronage, Artemisia transferred to Spanish-owned Naples. Here, her patrons were the Duque de Alcalá (Spanish Viceroy), the Roman collector Cassiano dal Pozzo and later, Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily. Aside from a trip to England to assist her ailing father with a ceiling decoration for the Queen’s House at Greenwich (1638-41), Artemisia spent the rest of her life in Naples. The conservatism of this city and a growing appreciation for the more classicizing Bolognese style forced Artemisia to evolve once again. Her remarkable adaptability is demonstrated in her collaboration, in the 1630’s, with Massimo Stanzione and Paolo Finoglio in two religious history cycles, the Birth and Naming of Saint John the Baptist for the Hermitage of San Juan at Buen Retiro (now Prado, Madrid) and a series of canvases for the choir at the Duomo of Pozzuoli. In the interest of creating unified cycles, the artists adapted their styles to one another and perhaps intervened on each others’ canvases. The style of Artemisia’s later works was more influential than her more personal early manner, and can be seen reflected in the art of Cavallino, Guarino and others. Artemisia died in Naples in 1652 or 1653.

Critical reception

While Artemisia is not mentioned in all the biographies of artists at the time, this could be due to the fact that Artemisia produced few publicly accessible frescoes and altarpieces. She is given a section in Baldinucci’s Notizie, alongside her father and uncle. Her vast patronage network and her admission to the Florentine Accademia point to an appreciation by contemporaries that, furthermore, was expressed from her Rome period onwards in the form of portraits and poems. Two epitaphs dating to 1653 belittle Artemisia’s success by making reference to her sexuality.

The twentieth century rediscovered Artemisia. Longhi, in an article of 1916, attempts to distinguish Artemisia’s work from her father’s, and hence opened up a new subject for connoisseurship. Garrard (1989 and 2001) suggests that the general female experience, and Artemisia’s specific biographical experience, produce an emotional indicator that can be used amongst other factors to distinguish Artemisia’s art. Other methods have also been applied including psychoanalysis, semiotics and social history. Bissel (1999) focuses on documents and patronage in the first catalogue raisonée of Artemisia’s works; it has been suggested that this traditional art-historical format is unable to incorporate the feminist sensibility necessary to deal with a female artist. Artemisia has recently inspired biographical fictions, some more accurate than others, in the form of novels (Banti, 1947; Lapierre, 1998 and others), plays, and a controversial film (Merlet, 1998).

Bibliography

Primary sources

Baldinucci, Filippo. Notizie dei professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua…, ed. F. Ranalli (Florence, 1845–7): III, 713-16.

Menzio, Eva (ed.), Lettere / Artemisia Gentileschi; precedute da Atti di un processo per stupro (Milano: Abscondita, 2004).

Secondary sources

Bal, Mieke. The Artemisia files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Bissel, R. Ward. “Artemesia Gentileschi: A New Documented Chronology,” Art Bulletin 50/2 (1968): 153-68.

“      Artemesia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art (University Park (PA): The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).

Christiansen, Keith and Judith W. Mann (ed.). Orazio e Artemisia Gentileschi (Milan: Skira, 2001).

Cohen, Elizabeth S. “The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History,” Sixteenth Century Journal XXXI/1 (2000): 46-75.

Garrard, Mary D. Artemesia Gentileschi. The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

“     Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622. The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Harris, Ann Sutherland. “Artemisia Gentileschi: The Literate Illiterate or Learning from Example,” Docere, delectare, movere: affetti, devozione e retorica nel linguaggio artistico del primo barocco romano (Rome: Edizioni De Luca, 1998).

Longhi, Roberto, “Gentileschi, padre e figlia,” L’Arte xix (1916): 245–314.

Pollock, Griselda. “Review of Mary Garrard’s Artemisia Gentileschi,” Art Bulletin 72/3 (1990): 499-505.

Spear, Richard. “Artemisia Gentileschi: Ten Years of Fact and Fiction,” Art Bulletin 82 (2000): 568-77.

Fiction

Banti, Anna, Artemisia (European Women Writers).

Lapierre, Alexandra. Artemisia. Un duel pour l’immortalité (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1998).

Merlet, Agnès. Artemisia (Miramax Films, 1998).

Vreeland, Susan, The Passion of Artemisia: A Novel.

COPYRIGHT: This article is copyright ABC-CLIO 2007, and is my contribution to the Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance.

All photos creative commons from Wikipedia.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.