An essay about Artemesia Gentileschi...

How did Artemisia Gentileschi use subject matter to explore the strength and independence of Women?

Artemisia Gentileschi was one of very few commissioned female artists practising in the seventeenth century. Throughout her career, she produced a number of paintings containing strong female individuals as her subject matter, as well as portraying herself in many images as female martyrs and saints. As a result of the rape and trauma she faced in her teenage years, Gentileschi focused on the strength and heroism of women in her art as well as highlighting a female dominance over her male counterparts. Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting juxtaposes two themes which were essentially unavailable for male artists to paint. Her representation of herself in this portrait shows her as an active artist at work and ignores the contemporary function of a female portrait. Artemisia Gentileschi produced other works which further asserted female strength over men such as her famous painting of Judith slaying Holofernes. This image has been reinterpreted as being a metaphor for castration, yet to Gentileschi, it presents a concept of female heroine over men which was frowned upon at the time as the Old Testament defined being ‘defeated by a woman [as] explicitly humiliating’.[1] Her subject matters tend to display women by themselves and in moments of strengths or women who are being or have been, violated by men as a way symbolise the female fight against men.[2]

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting was painted in 1638-9 and is based on a description from Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1611) which became an important reference for seventeenth-century painters. The painting is significant to the theme of women as Gentileschi shows herself in the act of painting. This is controversial at the time as it dishonoured the acceptable function of females in portraiture as they were meant to depict images of ideal beauty and commemorative or donor portraits.[1] Gentileschi has rather depicted herself in a way which was reserved for men. She has shown herself in her active profession as well as using this self-portrait as a way to advertise the status of herself as an artist. The painting juxtaposes self-portraiture to the personification of art. The interaction of this subject matter essentially gives her superiority over her male counterparts due to their inability to use these two themes in one painting. This painting was based on a description from Cesare’s Ripa which set forth the attributes of the female personification of art.[2] The allegorical personification of the arts are always shown as women, therefore Gentileschi is not only showing herself as a painter, her profession, but she is also relating herself directly to the personification of the arts and using this idea to advertise her ability as an artist. The symbols in the painting are also key in highlighting the self-advertisement in this image, as the golden chain around her neck with the pendant mask represents imitation and her messy hair symbolises the divine hysteria of artists which mirrors the description in Ripa’s Iconologia.[3] In terms of the skill used in this painting, the application of paint on her clothing is known as cangiante as the green on her dress is made up of many different colours and seems to have a metallic reaction to the light. Her ability as an artist is evident and it was also respected by her contemporaries, furthermore, her confidence in herself is not only shown through this self-portrait but also through letters she wrote. A letter she wrote to Antonio Ruffo, 7th August 1649, validates her self-confidence as she writes,” I will show Your Most Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.”[4] The identification of her gender in this letter as well as the assertive and blunt nature of this particular sentence highlights her confidence in her skill, therefore showing herself to her patrons as an independent and strong woman.

Another female artist from the time was Sofonisba Anguissola who painted Self-Portrait at the Easel in the late 1550s. Even though this is produced prior to the work by Gentileschi there is a difference between their self-representations as working female artists in a male-dominated society. In the self-portrait of Anguissola, she turns her gaze directly out at the viewer holding her brush so that the tip draws the viewers eye onto her painting which depicts a scene of Madonna and Christ. The use of a religious subject matter within her self-portrait highlights the kind of work in which Anguissola wants to connect to her reputation. It insinuates that even though she is female she is painting virtuous and religious scenes. This differs from Gentileschi who has not seemly posed for a portrait but rather shown herself with her attention diverted from the viewer and promoting the act of painting as something hard and requiring great energy.[1] Gentileschi’s self-portrait explicitly reverses the role of a woman and through testaments from the time it is clear of the expectations in which a woman was meant to meet. Giuliano de’ Medici describes the necessities of a woman to his guests one evening at the Palazzo de Urbino, stating that:” a woman should in no way resemble a man as regards her ways, manners, words, gestures, and bearing.”[2] Gentileschi abolishes this expectation as she advertises her work in a way where she is depicted as an independent and individual self-acclaimed painter. Furthermore, it is known that she had a stable reputation as a portrait artist and according to Horace Walpole, she excelled her father whilst in England and even “drew some of the royal family and many of the nobility”.[3]

The life of Artemisia Gentileschi sometimes seems to overshadow her artwork due to the tainting of her name after her rape trial. Agostino Tassi raped the 16-year-old Gentileschi in 1612. Ultimately, Gentileschi won the case but only after she was put under torture in order to check if she was telling the truth. This experience would have emotionally and physically scarred Gentileschi, and when looking at her depictions of heroic women there is a sense that her chosen subject matters are deliberate in mirroring her own experience. Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria shows how she contrasts herself with a heroic and martyred woman. Due to the stylistic qualities of this painting, it has been attributed to the earlier part of Gentileschi’s career, 1616, and therefore demonstrates an active and passive reaction to the events which happened four years before.[1] Saint Catherine of Alexandria is also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel as she survived being tied to a wheel with iron spikes. Gentileschi depicts herself with her hand resting on the wheel and holding a palm frond which represents martyrdom. The association with herself and Saint Catherine here can be linked back to the trauma in which Gentileschi undertook. This link is something which seems to be continuous throughout her depictions of women in her art with the most infamous example being her painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes.

The role of women in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was abundantly clear as they were meant to essentially represent ideas of beauty rather than status or character.[1] They were viewed as man’s inferior and Marsilio Ficino, an Italian scholar and Catholic priest, said that women “should be used like chamber pots: hidden away once a man has pissed in them.”[2] However, Gentileschi’s women contradict these stereotypes of subservient females as she portrays them as strong, heroic and even superior to men. The most famous and notable example is her oil painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620. The grotesque nature of the image depicts a violent scene of Judith and her maid holding down Holofernes and beheading him. The composition is dramatic and violent with blood squirting out of Holofernes’ neck onto the chest of Judith. His pose shows a great deal of struggle and the furrowed brow of Judith conveys the concentration needed for this seemingly lengthy task. There is a sense of the purging of Holofernes’ masculinity as he is being degraded by two women and this was frowned upon, even a modern writer, Francis Marion Crawford wrote that:” The cool ferocity of some young women is awful…Is there a man who has not wakened from his dreams to find that the woman he trusted has stolen his strength...”[3] Due to Gentileschi’s experience with Tassi and the violation in which she encountered, this painting can be viewed as a response to her trauma and the decapitation of Holofernes has been reinterpreted by a psychoanalytical theorist, Julia Kristeva, who writes about the metaphorical relationship between decapitation and castration and how Gentileschi’s work combated “the phallic power of violating men”.[4] Even though this idea would have been unknown to Gentileschi, it shows still a greater understanding of female merciless and strength over men. The depiction of Judith and her maid shows their own individual strength and reasserts the idea of Gentileschi portraying female dominance.

The representation of Gentileschi in her self-portraits displays that she is equalising herself to her male counterparts as she is disregarding the intended function of female portraiture and displaying herself in a professional setting as a working and independent woman. This is further shown in the way she depicts herself as Saint Catherine which seems to be a direct response to her rape and trial in 1612 as there is a connection between Gentileschi overcoming torture in the same way that Saint Catherine of Alexandria did. Gentileschi’s depiction of female strength and independence was received differently as it contradicted the stereotypical roles of gender, yet it can be understood as an ‘inverted echo’ of her personal isolation and gained reputation from her trial therefore her presentation of Judith can be seen as even more significant in projecting herself.[1] These chosen subjects matters are all significant in depicting females in different ways, yet the commonality of them is their independence, strength and heroism over men.

Paragraph 1:

[1] Mary D. Gerrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, Oxford, 1989. 321. [2] Gianni Pappi, “Artemisia Gentileschi: Milan”, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 153, No. 1305 (December 2011), 846.

Paragraph 2: [1] Shearer West, Portraiture, Oxford, 2004, 149. [2] Dale Kent, "Women in Renaissance Florence." In Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's Ginerva De' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women, by David Allen Brown, 27. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2001. [3] Francis Marion Crawford, Soprano (1905); quoted in Herbert Pentin, Judith (The Apocrypha in English Literature) (London, 1908), 68. [4] Julia Kristeva, The Severed Head: Capital Visions, translated by Jody Gladding (New York, 2012), 78.

Paragraph 3: [1] Shearer West, Portraiture, Oxford, 2004, 155. [2] Castiglione, Baldassare. "The Third Book of the Courtier." In The Book of the Courtier, by Baldassare Castiglione, translated by George Bull, 211. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967. [3] Joachim von Sandrart, Academie Bau- Bildund Mahlerey-Künste, 1675, commentary by A. R. Peltzer (Farnsborough, Hants: Gregg, 1971), 192.

Paragraph 4:

[1] Mary D. Gerrard,Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art,Oxford, 1989. 48.

Paragraph 5: [1] Rachel D. Masters, “The Portraiture of Women During the Italian Renaissance”, Honor Thesis, 2013, 10. [2] Mary D. Gerrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, Oxford, 1989. 337. [3] Anna Reynolds, Lucy Peter, Martin Clayton, Portrait of the Artist, London: Royal Collection Trust, 2016, 178. [4] Letter to Don Antonio Ruffo, in Messina. Written in Naples, August 7, 1649.


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Garrard, Mary D. "Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting." The Art Bulletin 62, no. 1 (1980): 97-112.

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Masters, Rachel D., "The Portraiture of Women During the Italian Renaissance" (2013). Honors Theses. Paper 118.

Papi, G. "Artemisia Gentileschi." Burlington Magazine 153, no. 1305 (2011): 846-47.

Reynolds, Anna, Lucy Peter, Martin Clayton, Alessandro Nasini, Niko Munz, Sally Goodsir, Queen's Gallery (London, England), and Royal Collection Trust. 2016. Portrait of the Artist. London: Royal Collection Trust.

Rupp, Leila J. "Women Worthies and Women's History." Reviews in American History 12, no. 3 (1984): 409-13.

Servadio, Gaia. Renaissance Woman, I. B. Tauris, New York. 2005.

Straussman-Pflanzer. Violence and Virtue. Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Judith Slaying Holofernes'. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2014.

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The images below are organised in order of reference.

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