Long Seen As Victim, 17th Century Italian Painter Emerges As Feminist Icon

Dec 12, 2016
Originally published on December 13, 2016 4:12 pm

She was one of the great female protagonists of the late-Renaissance art world. Forgotten in the 18th and 19th centuries, she was rediscovered in the 20th as a feminist icon.

Thirty paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi are on view at Rome's Palazzo Braschi, in a major new exhibit running through May 7, 2017, that aims to showcase the female artist as a great painter — one of the most talented followers of Caravaggio.

The artist was born in Rome in 1593, daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi.

Orazio was a close friend and follower of the fiery Caravaggio — the inventor of the groundbreaking technique of chiaroscuro, light and darkness, that produced a new intensity and stark realism.

Orazio encouraged Artemisia to start painting early.

At the age of 17, she made her debut in the art world with Susanna and the Elders, a daring work that broke Counter-Reformation taboos at a time when female artists were confined to still life and portrait painting.

" 'I am interpreting this very important biblical story but I am doing it in a full-frontal nude,' " says Judith Mann, one of the exhibit curators, interiorizing the voice of the artist. Mann suggests Artemisia was also inspired by the contorted bodies Michelangelo had painted a century earlier on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

"So it's not just the nude at rest, it is nude twisted," she says. "So, here, 'It is very clear that I can do bodies, which means I can do narrative pictures.' "

Two years later, Artemisia was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi. Family honor had to be avenged, and the trial lasted seven months.

While she was testifying against her abuser, Artemisia's fingers were subjected to sibille — metal rings that were increasingly tightened, a courtroom practice at the time to ensure the witness was telling the truth.

Every word of the court case was transcribed, and Artemisia's testimony under torture was brutally graphic, as she described every detail of the sexual assault. Tassi was found guilty, but he never served his sentence.

Exhibit curator Mann says historians' fascination with the victim long overshadowed appreciation of her art.

"She is a phenomenon in terms of the history of art, because we really understood her life far earlier than we cared, really, about her painting," she says. "And the understanding of Artemisia as a painter, as an artist, followed the fanfare of her celebrated rape, and it made a rather skewed understanding of this artist. And now we try to go back and fill in and properly understand."

For a long time, Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings have been interpreted almost exclusively as symbolic revenge against the man who raped her.

Scholars cited her various depictions of one of her favorite topics of the time, of freedom and defiance — the biblical figure Judith, who took it upon herself to seduce the besieging general Holofernes and decapitate him in his bed.

In one canvas at the exhibit — painted after her rape and on loan from Florence's Uffizi Gallery — two women pin down a man on a bed. With one hand, Judith holds his head; with the other, she slices his throat with a long sword. The intensity of the scene is highlighted by the dripping blood soaking the white bed sheets and the man's eyes wide open — conscious, but helpless.

Art historian Mann, however, sees Artemisia more as a champion of strong women rather than a woman obsessed with violence and revenge.

Mann points to a canvas painted the year after the rape trial, Judith and Her Maidservant. Here, the head of Holofernes lies in a basket, and Judith, with serene expression and sword resting on her shoulder, is portrayed proudly as victor.

"That is not a characteristic Judith pose," says Mann. "That is something we expect of a male hero, so it is a very powerful representation; there is drama and she's got it. It's just a masterful treatment."

After the trial, Orazio married off Artemisia to one of his debtors, and they moved from Rome to Florence. There, the young artist became part of the court of Cosimo II de Medici, where Artemisia thrived, says Francesca Baldassari, another curator of the exhibit.

"Florence was intellectually stimulating, she meets Galileo, and her paintings reflect his discoveries in astronomy. Her talent and erudition grow," says Baldassari. "And she becomes the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious academy of design."

After her death in 1654, Artemisia Gentileschi was forgotten — like Caravaggio. It was not until the 20th century that these late-Renaissance artists were rediscovered and a new appreciation emerged for their Baroque style, with its expressive, non-idealized figures that give viewers a sense of participation in the drama of the scene.

A painting by Artemisia was sold at Sotheby's two years ago for more than $1 million.

But in a sign of a substantial gender gap also in the art market, a painting by her father, Orazio, was bought by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in January for more than $30 million. And yet, with her intense colors and heroines at the center of dramatic narratives, the daughter's paintings far outshine those of her father.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of the most talented followers of the great Italian artist Caravaggio in the late Renaissance art world was a woman. She was seen as a daring painter who became a victim of a violent crime and her art was seen through that lens. A new exhibit in Rome showcases her work in a different light, as that of a feminist icon. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thirty paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi are on view at Rome's Palazzo Braschi. She was born in 1593, daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Orazio was a close friend and follower of the fiery Caravaggio, the inventor of the groundbreaking technique of chiaroscuro, light and darkness, that produced a new intensity and stark realism. Orazio encouraged Artemisia to start painting early. At 17, she made her debut in the art world with "Susanna And The Elders." It was a daring work that broke Counter-Reformation taboos.

JUDITH MANN: I am interpreting this very important biblical story, but I'm doing it in a full frontal nude.

POGGIOLI: Interiorizing the voice of the artist, Judith Mann, one of the exhibit curators, suggests Artemisia was also inspired by the contorted bodies Michelangelo had painted a century earlier on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

MANN: So it's not just the nude at rest, it's the new twisted. So here it's very clear that I can do bodies, which means I can do narrative pictures.

POGGIOLI: Two years later, Artemisia was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi. Family honor had to be avenged and the trial lasted seven months. While testifying against her abuser, Artemisia's fingers were subjected to sibille - metal rings that were increasingly tightened - a courtroom practice at the time to ensure the witness was telling the truth. Artemisia's testimony under torture was brutally graphic, and Tassi was found guilty, but he never served his sentence. Curator Mann says historians' fascination with the victim long overshadowed appreciation of her art.

MANN: Because we really understood her life far earlier than we cared, really, about her painting.

POGGIOLI: Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings have been interpreted almost exclusively as symbolic revenge against the man who raped her. Scholars cite her various depictions of the biblical figure Judith, who took it upon herself to seduce the besieging general Holofernes and decapitate him in his bed. In one painting at the exhibit on loan from Florence's Uffizi Museum, two women pin down a man on a bed. With one hand, Judith holds his head still. With the other, she slices his throat with a long sword. The intensity of the scene is highlighted by the dripping blood soaking the white bedsheets and the man's eyes wide open, conscious but helpless.

Art historian Mann, however, sees Artemisia more as a champion of strong women, rather than a woman obsessed with violence and revenge. She points to a canvas painted the year after the rape trial, Judith and her maidservant Abra. Here the head of Holofernes lies in a basket. And Judith, with serene expression and sword resting on her shoulder, is portrayed proudly as victor.

MANN: That is not a characteristic Judith pose. That is something we expect of a male hero. So it's a very powerful representation and there's drama and she's got it. It's just a masterful treatment.

POGGIOLI: After the trial, Orazio married Artemisia to one of his debtors and they moved to Florence. There, the young artist became part of the court of Cosimo II de Medici where, says Francesca Baldassari, another curator of the exhibit, Artemisia thrived.

FRANCESCA BALDASSARI: (Through interpreter) Florence was intellectually stimulating. She meets Galileo and her paintings reflect his discoveries in astronomy. Her talent and erudition grow and she becomes the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious academy of design.

POGGIOLI: The Artemisia Gentileschi exhibit stays open through May 7 next year. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.