25 November 2016

Artemisia Gentileschi - Artist and women's day symbol

From the series - Little Great Stories of Artists

The 25th of November is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, promoted by United Nations. I wish to speak about Artemisia Gentileschi, XVII painter, known mainly for her biography, rather than for her extraordinary talent.

She was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a renown artistshe was born in Rome on the 8th of July 1593, and she was raped by her father’s friend, Agostino Tassi, a landscape painter. It was Orazio himself to ask Tassi to teach Artemisia the technique of prospective. Despite her father immediately knew what happened, the violence was kept hidden and the thing went on for a lot of time. The process began in May 1612, and Artemisia was charged with being Tassi’s lover, and therefore consenting.

Artemisia was never believed.

This dramatic fact, which ended with the predictable humiliation of Artemisia, is documented and it is often mentioned as a symbol case of secular violence against women. Her story is the one of who has been subjected to physical and psychological violence, raped and humiliated, diminished as an artist, since she was considered less praiseworthy than men. In a famous series of letters exchanged between Artemisia and the cardinal Antonio Ruffo, her client, you can see a discussion about the prices of her paintings, and the artist was accusing him of undervalue her only because she was a woman.

It was thanks to Roberto Longhi that we can see the first serious tentative to analyse the artistic production of Artemisia, in 1916, inside the wide phenomenon of Caravaggism. Long says: “The only woman in Italy who has ever known what painting and colour and mixture are, and similar essentialities”. Despite this, her dark past and her fame of profligate woman never abandoned her. It was the episode of violence to prevail over the activity of the painter, even today she is considered a real feminism symbol.

Parleremo oggi dell’Artemisia artista, talentuosa e precoce, sappiamo che inizia a disegnare giovanissima e che all’età di sedici anni dipinge già con grande abilità.

We speak about the artist Artemisia, talented and unripe, we know she started to draw at a very young age, and when she was sixteen she could paint with a great ability.

It was the power of Caravaggio’s work to deeply sign the Gentileschi’s artistic vein, who was influenced by her father’s art and by the circle of artists that used to spend time at her home. We already mentioned that it will be Longhi to insert her in the caravaggists group, where for  caravaggism I mean that artistic movement born between the XVI and XVII century which is inspired by the painting style of Michelangelo Merisi, also named Caravaggio, of whom we are going to speak in the next article.

I wish to analyse the artwork Judith beheading Holofernes, 1612-13. The Naples Judith is the first version of a similar painting which is now at Uffizi museum, and was realised a bit after the end of the rape process. The work from which she got inspired was the Judith by Caravaggio (1958-1599). The episode of Judith beheading Holofernes which is often considered in the art world, is an extract from the “Judith’s book”, a text from the Catholic Christian Bible. The Biblica heroin is the one that set free the city of Betulia from the siege of the Assyrian general Holofernes.

Judith and Holofernes (Judith 13,1-10)

But Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofernes stretched out on his bed, for he was dead drunk. Now Judith had told her maid to stand outside the bedchamber and to wait for her to come out, as she did on the other days; for she said she would be going out for her prayers. She had said the same thing to Bagoas. So everyone went out, and no one, either small or great, was left in the bedchamber. Then Judith, standing beside his bed, said in her heart, “O Lord God of all might, look in this hour on the work of my hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem. Now indeed is the time to help your heritage and to carry out my design to destroy the enemies who have risen up against us.” She went up to the bedpost near Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to his bed, took hold of the hair of his head, and said, “Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel!” Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head.  Next she rolled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts. Soon afterward she went out and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, who placed it in her food bag. Then the two of them went out together, as they were accustomed to do for prayer. They passed through the camp, circled around the valley, and went up the mountain to Bethulia, and came to its gates.”

Here Artemisia realises a solemn scene, full of pathos and violence, a representation soaked of theatricality and passion. Characters arise from the darkness, an element leading back to Caravaggio’s poetry, like from a theatre wing.

Women overcome the male’s universe. There is a clear reference to the artist’s past, in this artwork she gets the revenge for the injustices she was subjected to, and she celebrates the victory of womanish. The two women cooperate in the action of killing Holofernes, the theme of female solidarity is often faced by the artist, and in this work it comes out strong. In the fiction of the canvas, Artemisia-Judith does not succumb, she is not subjected to violence, on the contrary she reacts and emerges victorious.

In the fiction Artemisia is not raped.

by Elisa Martino – Art curator