The Vengeance of Artemisia Gentileschi

The Renaissance Era Painter Had Her Share of #MeToo Moments

By  Jenni Murray

I’ve long been a fan of a great crime story, whether in book form or as a television series, and a recent favorite has been Endeavour. It’s inspired by Colin Dexter’s character Morse, the Oxford detective who loves a vintage car, listens to opera, is classically educated and partial to a good pint of beer. In the original television series John Thaw played the detective from middle age to his death, and he was never anything but Morse; his first name was never revealed. Endeavour is the young Morse, played by Shaun Evans, learning his trade as a detective constable, then sergeant, and already quite brilliant at solving Oxford’s many murders.

Only a couple of weeks ago, as I was buried in research for this book, I switched on the television on a Sunday evening to enjoy an hour or so’s relaxation with Morse. Three murders of men—a taxi driver, an academic and an art dealer—followed in quick succession and the methods of killing were brutal. The first victim was shot and then had a metal bar drilled into his ear; the second, a history don, was stabbed in both eyes with a steak knife; the third was decapitated. The body was left in his bed, the head concealed under a silver cloche.

Morse solved the mystery thanks to his great interest in art. The eureka moment came as he was flicking through a book of the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi. It turned out the murders had been committed by a latter-day Gentileschi (the story is set in the 1960s). The murderer, Ruth Astor, was exacting her revenge on the men, who had been at a Bullingdon-style private members’ club where she and a friend were waitresses. The men had become drunk and violent; Ruth had been thrown across the table, gang-raped and had wine poured over her face and head.

The rape, and the desire to avenge herself, were a parallel to what we know was the inspiration for so many paintings by the extraordinary Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. She didn’t actually murder the man who violated her, but she turned the horror of her own life into scenes of women’s vengeance on the men at whose hands they had suffered. She used biblical stories to portray, in exquisite paintings, her fury at the sexual violence she herself had endured. I was delighted to see her marked and celebrated in an acclaimed television programme.

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Artemisia was well known as an artist of the Italian Baroque in her day and was considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation that followed Caravaggio. In an era when it was tough for a woman to become anything other than a wife or a nun, she was the first woman admitted to the prestigious Accademia delle Arte del Disegno in Florence, and she counted dukes, princes, cardinals and kings among her clients. She wrote of her success to her friend, the astronomer Galileo, in 1635. “I have seen myself honoured by all the kings and rulers of Europe to whom I have sent my works, not only with great gifts, but also with most favoured letters, which I keep with me.”

But, as has happened to so many great women of the past, she disappeared from public consciousness, from museums, catalogues and exhibitions for some four hundred years. Ripe for rediscovery, she was put back in her rightful place by the women’s movement in the twentieth century. Endeavour is not the only popular work in which Artemisia has appeared in the 21st century. After centuries of neglect there came articles about her in the New York Times, a popular novel (The Passion of Artemisia, written by Susan Vreeland), a play, Lapis Blue, Blood Red, appeared on Broadway and one of her paintings appeared in a play, Painted Lady, starring Helen Mirren.

“[Gentileschi] didn’t actually murder the man who violated her, but she turned the horror of her own life into scenes of women’s vengeance on the men at whose hands they had suffered.”

Perhaps the most important signal of her appreciation as a great artist by a modern audience was the exhibition in 2002 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She shared the billing with her father, Orazio but it was Artemisia’s art that inspired the New York Times to describe her as “this season’s ‘it’ girl.”

Artemisia was born in July 1593. She was the eldest child of Orazio Gentileschi, a Tuscan painter, and his wife Prudentia Montone. She was only 12 when her mother died in childbirth in 1605. Her father harbored no artistic ambitions for his only daughter; he fully expected she would become a nun. As a lone father, he had to keep the children with him in his studio while he worked, and Artemisia showed herself a quick learner. Under her father’s tutelage she displayed a precocious talent for drawing, mixing color and painting and, like him, she was drawn to Caravaggio’s dramatic style. By the time she was 15 it was obvious to her father that his daughter demonstrated a much greater natural talent than the brothers who served the same apprenticeship in their father’s workshop.

Nevertheless, Artemisia was only too well aware that she would have to fight for her father’s support if she, rather than her brothers, was to become a professional painter rather than a dabbling amateur. She was clearly conscious that she had to resist any traditional attitudes and psychological submission to what she saw as brainwashing and jealousy of her obvious talent.

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Her first painting is testament to her awareness of the sexual politics of the position in which she, and indeed any woman who attempted to break away from convention, might find herself. Her paintings are often inspired by biblical stories; this first one, completed when she was only seventeen, followed this source. Like Caravaggio, she chose not to paint in an idealized style but to make the people in her work look real, fleshy and passionately involved in the events being portrayed. She used live models and, in the case of Susanna and the Elders, it’s likely she included a self-portrait, looking at her own face reflected in a mirror.

The painting depicts the story of Susanna, from the book of Daniel. She’s a virtuous wife who is sexually harassed by the elders in her community. It was common for all painters of the period to use the same run of biblical stories as their inspiration. In works on a similar theme by male artists, Susanna is generally depicted as “asking for it,” appearing flirtatiously coy and seductive. In Artemisia’s painting, Susanna sits naked apart from a white cloth across her lap. Above her are two old men, lasciviousness oozing from every pore. She twists her head away from their pointing fingers, her hands raised in a gesture that clearly indicates, “Go away and leave me alone.” Her face shows fear and vulnerability as the men lean over the wall towards her, whisper to each other and leer. No one who stands before this painting could doubt that the men’s attentions are unwelcome.

No other painting I’ve seen on the subject contains any hint that the uninvited lecherous attentions of two nasty old men might have been traumatic for Susanna. Isn’t it interesting that it took until the 21st century for women to come together and say “Me too,” as the similarly disgusting behavior of the film producer Harvey Weinstein came to light. Artemisia Gentileschi got it in 1610 and wasn’t afraid to make it known that treating women as sexual objects was really not on.

This painting was to prove somewhat prophetic. Artemisia’s father, as might be expected, kept his daughter confined to the house and often left her at home alone as he went about his business. As the house doubled as his studio it was not unusual for friends and fellow artists to pop in from time to time. One fateful day Orazio left his 17-year-old daughter in the care of a family friend, Tuzia Medaglia, who was there with her infant son.

Artemisia was raped. The man responsible, a fellow painter, Agostino Tassi, was tried for his crime. The court report of the case brought by Orazio in 1612 describes what happened from his perspective:

Agostino, having found the door of Artemisia’s house open, entered the house as an ungreeted guest and went to Artemisia. He found her painting and with her was Tuzia, who held her son on her lap. As he approached Artemisia he ordered Tuzia to go upstairs because he wanted to speak to Artemisia in private. Tuzia stood up immediately and went upstairs. On that very day Agostino deflowered Artemisia and left.

Artemisia was questioned at home by two magistrates who ordered her to swear to tell the truth. She told them what happened in staggering detail. She had told Agostino that she was a virgin and that any rumors about her having been engaged in sexual activities were untrue. Any man who desired her, she said, would have to marry her and put a ring on her finger. He continued to press his case even though he was already married:

When he found me painting he said, “Not so much painting, not so much painting” and he grabbed the palette and brushes from my hands and threw them around, saying to Tuzia “Get out of here.” And when I said to Tuzia not to go and not leave me as I had previously signaled to her, she said, “I don’t want to stay here and argue. I want to go about my own business.” . . . As soon as she was gone he took my hand and said “Let’s walk together a while, because I hate sitting down.” . . .

After we had walked around two or three times, each time going by the bedroom door, when we were in front of the bedroom door, he pushed me in and locked the door.

He then threw me onto the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them. Lifting my clothes, which he had a great deal of trouble doing, he placed a hand with a handkerchief at my throat and on my mouth to keep me from screaming. He let go of my hands, which he had been holding with his other hand, and, having previously put both knees between my legs with his penis pointed at my vagina he began to push it inside.

I felt a strong burning and it hurt very much, but because he held my mouth I couldn’t cry out. However I tried to scream as best I could, calling Tuzia. I scratched his face and pulled his hair and before he penetrated me again I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh. All this didn’t bother him at all, and he continued to do his business, which kept him on top of me for a while, holding his penis inside my vagina. And after he had done his business he got off me. When I saw myself free, I went to the table drawer and took a knife and moved towards Agostino saying “I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonored me’” He opened his coat and said “Here I am,” and I threw the knife at him and he shielded himself, otherwise I would have hurt him and might have easily killed him. And the said Agostino then fastened his coat. I was crying and suffering over the wrong he had done me, and to pacify me he said, “Give me your hand, I promise to marry you as soon as I get out of the labyrinth I am in.” . . . This is all that happened between Agostino and me.

In the 17th century rape was considered more of a crime against the family’s honor than as the violation of a woman, and it was only when Tassi went back on his promise to marry Artemisia that her father decided to bring the charges against him to court. When Artemisia appeared in the court to give her evidence she was tortured with thumbscrews—a primitive form of lie detector test. As they were tightened around her fingers she cried out to Tassi: “This is the ring you gave me and these are your promises.”

Clearly she passed the test and was believed. Not always the case even today when a woman gives details of her sexual assault. Tassi was convicted and sentenced to be banished from Rome for five years, although there’s no evidence the punishment was ever carried out. Artemisia’s father’s response to the scandal was to marry his daughter off to a minor Florentine painter, Pierantonio Stiatessi. The couple moved to Florence, bearing a request for patronage for the talented young painter, written by her father, Orazio and addressed to the grand duchess of Tuscany. He wrote “[She] has in three years become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer; indeed she has produced works which demonstrate a level of understanding that perhaps even the principal masters of the profession have not attained.”

“No other painting I’ve seen on the subject contains any hint that the uninvited lecherous attentions of two nasty old men might have been traumatic for Susanna.”

Her time in Florence made her famous, and by her late twenties she had painted at least seven works for the Grand Duke Cosimo II de Medici and his family. As a family and as patrons of the art, the Medici of Florence need no introduction.

Artemisia then made the difficult decision to quit the Tuscan capital, which under the Medici had been the cradle of the Renaissance and was still, a hundred years after its flowering, a key artistic hub. She explained her decision in a letter to her father, describing “troubles at home and with my family”. She had had four children, but only one, her daughter Prudentia, had survived. Her husband was unfaithful, jealous and extravagant and in 1621 he walked out on his wife and daughter.

It was a struggle for a single mother to find commissions for her work in Rome, so she moved again. In Venice she received the patronage of Philip IV of Spain, who commissioned a painting of Achilles. Soon Artemisia found herself having to move again, this time to flee the plague, which in 1639 wiped out a third of the population. She moved on to Naples, then under Spanish rule, and had some success in painting an altarpiece and a public commission for a major church. She often complained, though, about how difficult it was for a woman to find work when she was competing in an almost exclusively male arena. A brief scan over Vasari’s Lives of Artists, regarded as the first definitive book on Renaissance art, reveals how few female artists there were. Of the numerous painters and sculptors listed in his text, only four are women—Properzia de’ Rossi, Sister Plautilla, Madonna Lucrezia and Sofonisba Anguissola. Artemisia was born some forty years after the publication of Vasari’s work but this was the background and culture against which she had to make her way.

She wrote to her last major patron, Don Antonio Ruffo, angry at always having to haggle and beg for a decent wage for her commissions, “You feel sorry for me because a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen. If I were a man I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way.” The question of unequal pay was obviously as much of an issue in the 17th century as today!

Her best-known paintings—the ones spotted by Endeavour Morse as his clue to the murders in the story of Ruth Astor—are Judith and her Maidservant and Judith Slaying Holofernes. The biblical story is set in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar, who sent his general, Holofernes, to subdue his enemies the Jews. Judith, a beautiful widow, hears that her people are on the brink of capitulating to the invaders and makes up her mind to deliver her city from the enemy. She creeps into the Assyrian camp, seduces Holofernes, waits until he is drunk and cuts off his head. The Jews regain their courage and drive the enemy away.

How much of the artist can one really read into a work of art? Some critics have argued that Artemisia’s graphic depictions of two women beheading a man and conspiratorially carrying off his head in a bloody basket were nothing more than gory examples of a subject popular with painters of the period, simply designed to appeal to wealthy patrons with a taste for violence and eroticism. Given her difficulties in getting decent payment for her work it would not be surprising if Artemisia had indeed decided to make horror an important part of her portfolio. But I don’t believe it for a second.

Jenni Murray
Jenni Murray
Jenni Murray is a journalist and broadcaster who has presented BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour since 1987. She is the author of several books, including A History of Britain in 21 Women and Memoirs of a Not So Dutiful Daughter. She lives in Hampstead Garden Suburb, North London, and the Peak District.





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