Was Artemisia Gentileschi a feminist?

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

To put it bluntly, no she was not. However I have just seen the Artemisia exhibition at the National Gallery and it is quite clear as to why people think she is. Could that be possible? A seventeenth century feminist? Is there a chance that she was replicating her personal trauma of being raped through her paintings? Was she the first female heroine?

We will never know exactly what was going on through her head when she was painting Judith beheading Holofernes, maybe it was a pictorial representation of her revenge to Agostino Tassi for raping her when she was 17. Or was it just a popular subject matter and the concept of female power over men just did not exist. Before she was married she couldn't even walk down the streets unaccompanied, so how would she be able to fathom the thought of female independence, or the injustice in which she faced. The problem with her rape case was not the injustice to her but rather to the reputation of her father and his family name. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi, was an artist himself and that was the solo reason as to why Artemisia was able to receive the training that she did. Woman were not expected to have a name or career for themselves, the thought wouldn't even cross their minds. Artemisia was established in her own right, however, was the reason she painted so many female subject matters the mere perversion of her male patrons. Oh yes because female patrons weren't really a thing either (unless you were a royal). Was the idea of a female artist painting a female subject matter just fetishized by the men she was painting for?

The painting that I was most excited to see was her 'Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting', also known as the 'pittura'. This painting, as I spoke about in a previous art blog, is a subject matter which is unavailable for male artists to paint. The personification of art is a woman and as a female artist she took advantage of this.

Going back to the title of this piece. The female subject could have just been the fact that painting your own gender is actually a lot easier. As a woman, painting a female nude won't be something that is up to the imagination because you can take off your clothes and stand in front of the mirror. Bingo, a naked woman is looking straight at you. So maybe the accessibility of her own female form was the true catalyst of why she portrayed so many women in her paintings.

She did state that she was equal to her male counterparts in letters she wrote when she was in Naples in 1649, writing that she possessed, '‘the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman". This reminds me of that speech by Elizabeth I of England when she said,' I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.' Artemisia was a popular and well established artist during her time and now she has been rediscovered and converted into a feminist symbol. That conversion is a product of our contemporary way of thinking rather than a sub-motive to her works at her time.

I would highly recommend going to this exhibition as it is a brilliant biographical approach to a unique anomaly during the Renaissance. A female master, with a tragic story and a beautiful talent.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638-39

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