This article mentions rape.
Lots of our art history knowledge unfortunately centers around men’s craft. That’s a theme that persists, but it holds especially true when we look into time periods before modernism. One woman—the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century—did a great job of dismantling our idea that the art world is a boy’s club. Her name is Artemisia Gentileschi.
Born in Rome, she is the only daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, under whom she trained. Gentileschi’s first signed and dated painting Susanna and the Elders was created in 1610 when she was just 17. The work depicts a biblical scene: two men spy on Susanna while she bathes, the men attempt to blackmail her into having sexual relations with them.
The dynamic motion of Susanna’s body clearly indicates discomfort, while the painting’s composition places a female figure at its center. Contrasting previous depictions of Susanna, here she exhibits discomfort of being accosted into sexual relations. Figures contemporary to hers present a more demure and stoic figure (see Sir Peter Lely’s rendition of the same scene below.)
Artemisia Gentileschi. Susanna and the Elders. c. 1610.
Sir Peter Lely. Susanna and the Elders. c.1650–5
Let’s talk about one of Gentileschi’s famous pieces: Judith Slaying Holofernes. In 1611, painter Agosting Tassi raped Artemisia Gentileschi. Trials began in 1612. While Tassi was found guilty and banished from Rome, punishment wasn’t really enforced. This incident informs Gentileschi’s later work, providing us with a truly powerful female perspective.
While others depicted this scene before her, Gentileschi focuses on the act of the beheading itself, rather than Judith’s beauty. She makes the servant in the scene an active participant in Holofernes’ killing. Does this surround a larger theme of, perhaps, killing off the entire patriarchy?
Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Beheading Holofernes. c. 1612-1613
We see raw emotion. We see a woman’s ability to take matters into her own hands. Gentileschi allows onlookers to understand a new perspective. And that representation matters in the grand scheme of art history.
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