• The Vengeance of Artemisia Gentileschi

    The Renaissance Era Painter Had Her Share of #MeToo Moments

    Her first two versions of the Judith story were painted early in her career, in 1612 and 1614, not long after she was raped. You have only to look at the expressions on the faces of the women and the power of Artemisia’s brushstrokes to know that anger and revenge were her motivations. Her Judith is not the pretty pretty, rather delicate woman seen in work painted by her male contemporaries. She’s strong and powerful woman, not unlike the Susanna of Susanna and the Elders, thought to have been painted using Artemisia’s own image in the mirror.

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    Artemisia had been let down by the woman, Tuzia, left by her father to chaperone her before the attack by Tassi. In these paintings she imagines a sisterhood among women as the two work closely together. In Judith Slaying Holofernes, the strong arms and hands of her maid hold down the man lying on his back on the bed. He has no chance of pushing her away, although he tries. Judith wields the sword like a hefty professional. Neither woman appears remotely shocked or horrified as the blood pours from their victim’s neck. They are just determined to get the job done.

    In Judith and her Maidservant we see the same two powerful women conspiring to carry away in a basket the head of the man they have assassinated. For me this is the manifestation of the endless hours a once-powerless woman spent asking what she might have done to save herself. She expressed her fury and what she might have liked to have done in the way she knew best—with her paintbrush.

    In 1638 Artemisia was drawn to London and the court of Charles I. Her father Orazio was already there as a court painter, so he and his daughter were again in harness after a 17-year separation. She was, though, not there only to help him. She had been invited by King Charles himself, a request based not on her father’s reputation but rather on her eminence as an artist. It was in London that she painted one of her best-known and most beautiful works, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. It hangs in the Royal Collection.

    Her father died in 1639. Artemisia had left England by 1642, just as the Civil War was beginning. In 1649 she was back in Naples, working again with her former patron, Don Antonio Ruffo, and, no doubt, still complaining about the lack of equal pay for work of equal value. Plus ça change!

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    The date of her death is not certain. Some have placed it in 1652 or 1653, others have speculated that she died in the Naples plague of 1656, but there are no works dated during this period and no records I could find of her death.

    “Her Judith is not the pretty pretty, rather delicate woman seen in work painted by her male contemporaries. She’s strong and powerful woman, not unlike the Susanna of Susanna and the Elders, thought to have been painted using Artemisia’s own image in the mirror.”

    I’m no professional art critic. I only know what I see and what excites me but I know in my heart she’s a truly great painter and, thank goodness, there are critics who agree with me. Roberto Longhi, an important Italian critic, described her in 1916 as “the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing, and other fundamentals”. And, of her style in the portrayal of women, he wrote, “There are about 57 works by Artemisia Gentileschi and 94 per cent (49 works) feature women as protagonists or equal to men.” Another critic said of her in the 19th century, “No one would have imagined it was the work of a woman. The brush work was bold and certain, and there was no sign of timidness.” It may seem surprising that it should be assumed that the work of a woman would somehow have a distinctly feminine style that’s softer, prettier and more hesitant than work that’s painted by a man. When I compare Artemisia with Caravaggio, whose realistic style influenced her, I simply can’t see it. There’s strength and brutality in the work of both artists. Maybe I would have to concede the focus is somewhat different, although it’s not Artemisia who gives the impression that a woman is weaker than a man.

    In Caravaggio’s painting of Judith and her maidservant slaying Holofernes a pretty, slim and rather delicate Judith looks barely capable of wielding the sword with which she’s slicing off the still-screaming head. Her maidservant, who looks on from behind, is portrayed as a bit of a wrinkled old hag. In Artemisia’s depiction of the same subject the two powerfully built young women work together to complete their task.

    I have no doubt that much of her work was inspired by events that could only have happened to a woman, particularly the terrible sexual violence she experienced as a teenager, but it would be wrong to assume her fame and appreciation was purely a result of her notoriety and vengefulness. Yes, she was a victim who fought back through her work but as an artist she is wonderful. She may have complained about equal pay but patronage came to her thick and fast. Michelangelo, supported by the Medici, had established the Renaissance principle that great wealth should support great art. Like her contemporaries, Artemisia was a considered a real artist, worthy of financial backing and not merely a jobbing tradeswoman.

    What I love about her is the way she painted other women as she saw them: courageous, resourceful, rebellious and strong. And she painted them beautifully. While her Susannas and her Judiths have delighted me for precisely those reasons, I have to confess one of her more tender portraits is my favourite. Her Madonna and Child shows us a rather buxom Mary, dressed in pink rather than the traditional blue, halo around her head and her feet somewhat inelegantly wide apart, to balance her solid little boy on her lap. She gazes down lovingly on her golden-haired child and offers her nipple as he reaches up and touches her face. It’s a picture of an adoring mother preparing to breastfeed, with no hint of salacious intent for the titillation of the viewer. It’s captivating and, I think, could only have been painted by a woman. As she once declared herself, “The works will speak for themselves.” They do!

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    From A History of the World in 21 Women. Used with permission of Oneworld Publications. Copyright © 2018 by Jenni Murray.

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    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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