Artemisia Gentileschi

The Renaissance was a period of rebirth throughout Italy and the rest of Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. During this time there were many groundbreaking developments in science, medicine, literature, religion, and art. Humanism was also a very prominent philosophy that came to the forefront of the world during this time of rebirth. Humanism is a philosophy that revolves around man. Its focus is materialistic, as opposed to a more spiritual and other worldly focus. It is about trying to be the best human being on earth; using what there is and what can be obtained. Many different areas of expertise were influenced by this way of thinking; one of them being art. The most notable female artist during this time period was Artemisia Gentileschi. Artemisia was born in Rome in 1593 and lived until around 1654. She studied under her father Orazio Gentileschi and then Agostino Tassi after being rejected by many art schools (Parker). Artemisia Gentileschi embodies the humanist characteristics of the time and is a Renaissance artist because of her attention to detail and ability to portray the scenes in such a way that invoke strong emotions within the viewer.

One of her fully independent and mature works of art is Judith and the Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, completed in 1625 (Jason 532). In the Book of Judith there is a time when Holofernes invites Judith to his tent after a battle victory. When Holofernes falls asleep, Judith cuts off his head. This painting captures the moment right after Judith beheads Holofernes, her maidservant putting the head in a sack. The atmosphere is thickened by heavy darks and a feeble candle that is the only source of light in the work. Having the candle as the only source of light in the room puts to use a device within the painting where “a single source of illumination…partly or wholly concealed by an object in front of it or, as in this case, intercepted by an object-casting an abrupt shade” (Tansey 839). This device is used by Gentileschi to have the painting appear realistic (Tansey 839). Therefore showing her attention to detail and want for accuracy; her attempt at portraying the figures in her paintings as human as possible.

While Gentileschi was studying under Agostino Tassi in his workshop she, being the only woman, faced a large amount of sexual harassment from the other painters. Around the time she was 17 years old she was raped by Tassi. All of this greatly influenced her work at that point in time and even years later. Susanna and the Elders was completed in 1610 when Gentileschi was about 17 years old, right before Tassi’s rape, and suggests the sexual harassment she was facing in the studio (Parker). Gentileschi’s depiction of this biblical story of Susanna being harassed by the elders of the community is the “most insightful reading of the story” (Harris). Unlike many male artists that had painted the same scene, Gentileschi paints from Susanna’s perspective, and shows her as a vulnerable and frightened young woman. She also shows the men as large, menacing, and looming creatures. Susanna and the Elders shows Gentileschi’s advanced construction and color along with impressive anatomical accuracy. This work also “drew attention to her professional promise and willingness to experiment with psychological dynamics” (Parker). The amount of emotion she poured into her work, along with the emotions this work portrays, is just one example of how humanist Gentileschi is.

In the majority of her paintings there is a suggested malcontent towards men (Janson 532). Jael and Sisera was completed by Gentileschi in 1620. It shows a woman, Jael, slaying an aggressor, Sisera. This act “fulfilled the prediction of Debora, prophetess and Israelite leader, who foresaw that a woman would slay Sisera” (Parker). To many, Sisera’s face has an uncanny resemblance to Caravaggio and many wonder if Gentileschi suggesting that she was superior to the man who greatly influenced her style and was the long-time leader of Roman art. Others believe that Sisera’s face looks more like Tassi’s, and wonder if this was the true intention of Gentileschi, a form of revenge on the perpetrator of her rape (Parker). The idea of revenge is very selfish, and in a way, humanist. The viewer is able to clearly see the how much time and effort and thought that was poured into this work, and is evoked with strong emotions themselves as well.

Being one of few women during this time period to not restrict herself to portraits caused for a lot of ridicule and hard work on her part to make a name for herself (Harrison). In a lot of her paintings you can see the underlying message about the sexual harassment she faced in her early years before and after Tassi’s rape. Even in her later years when she was being commissioned by many prominent figures to paint for them, she was still cheated out of a payment: “…having done a drawing of souls in Purgatory for the Bishop of St. Gata, he… commissioned another painter to do the painting using my work” (Janson 620). Gentileschi herself realizes this, continuing in her letter here that “if I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way” (Janson 620). This shows that even though she faced much adversity, she was able to overturn it all into an advantage. The emotions she received from those oppressors Gentileschi released into her paintings.

Many artists of that day did not like to focus on the female nude, Gentileschi did not shy away from this area and instead used it quite a bit to show off her skills (Harris) even if the female models gave her “quite the headache” (Janson 620). Gentileschi “brings the story to life to a degree that makes elegant finish irrelevant” (Harris). This need for being anatomically correct is humanist in theory. While the scene may be biblical, the focus is on the subjects: their facial expressions, what they’re wearing, and how real they look. Humanism, again, is a philosophy revolving around man and the material world. Paintings during this time period were not specifically made for the glory of God, as was the norm in the Medieval Ages, and Gentileschi’s work was no exception.

Having to overcome stereotypes and close-mindedness is no easy task. Yet Artemisia Gentileschi believed in herself and her abilities and was able to emerge as one of the more prominent Renaissance and humanist artists even though her work focuses on biblical literature. Gentileschi went on to pursue her career in Florence, Naples, throughout Rome, and Venice before dying around 1654. She embodies the ideas of humanist philosophy with her intense attention to detail and ability to evoke strong emotions through perspective.

Works Cited

  • The Art and Life of Artemisia Gentileschi. Christine Parker, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.
  • Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Judith W. Mann. "Gentileschi: (2) Artemisia Gentileschi." Oxford Art Online. Oxford UP, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.
  • Janson, H. W., and Anthony Janson. History of Art: Sixth Edition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. Print.
  • Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Print.
  • Tansey, Richard G., and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: Tenth Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace College, 1996. Print.

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