Let Us Now Praise Famous Women

I recently discovered a painter named Artemisia Gentileschi. She painted herself into Judith Slaying Holofernes. She’s the woman on the right, in light brown, methodically–almost surgically–decapitating Holofernes, the Babylonian army commander. The painting resembles Caravaggio’s painting of the same subject. Indeed, Judith and Holofernes was a popular subject for painters of the late Renaissance. Artemisia’s was only one among several, but it is perhaps the most arresting. It’s coldblooded and portrays an act of calculating vengeance upon a national enemy. If she’d painted nothing else, Artemisia would have had her immortality.

I never studied her even though I studied High Renaissance and Mannerist painting in my last year at Hunter College. My teacher, Janet Cox Rearick, was an authority on High Renaissance and Mannerist art, and I fell in love with the period and its paintings. (I even considered staying an extra semester to add an Art History minor or double major to English degree. That would have made me unemployable in two disciplines).

In fact, I had not heard of her until recently. There’s even a film about her early maturity, Artemisia: getting kicked out of a Roman convent school, learning to paint the male anatomy in defiance of the rules against such proceeding, her meeting with Agostino Tassi, her father’s painting collaborator, and what passed between Tassi and herself.

What did pass between them? Was it rape, as the common wisdom says? Or was it seduction that became a passionate affair that went sour when Artemisia learned about the man she’d come to love: a serial adulterer who’d even had his wife’s sister. Artemisia’s father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi, had Tassi arrested and tried for rape–but even in the film, matters were not so simple. It’s an old story–Tassi may have raped her, but it was Artemisia herself who was put to torture with thumbscrews for painting naked men to study male anatomy. She lived some years of her life with a somewhat disreputable husband who spent her money as quickly as she could earn it. She migrated to England in 1638 and became Court painter to King Charles I. She died in 1652 or 1653, in her sixties–not an inconsiderable accomplishment given the longevity of the age.

Like many painters of the period, she favored Biblical subjects: not only Judith but also Susanna and the [extremely lecherous] Elders; Queen Esther with Ahasuerus; Jael and Sisera. She did several versions of Judith and Holofernes: a series of women who were disbelieved but vindicated, or who often took the law into their own hands.

Once she found out about the truth of Agostino Tassi, she never saw him again. Who could blame her?

Tassi himself died in 1644. Even though he was found guilty and was sentenced to prison, he never served a day behind bars, and continued to receive commissions. Artemisia herself kept working, but after her death she suffered a decline in her reputation. Only in the last 20+ years have her name and work enjoyed a comeback. Her works–or her personally made copies–hang in great museums around the world.

 

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