The Droll Docent

Art Hath No Fury

Look- I am no Hollywood big-shot producer. But if someone came to me with a script that had a strong female protagonist, a despicable villain, and a redemption that was years in the making, I would totally produce the hell out of that script- and cast Jennifer Lawrence (young) and Meryl Streep (a little older than young). This biopic would feature the artist Artemisia Gentileschi who created paintings that were passionate, emotive, and inspiring. Alas, I am but a poor blogger, trying to introduce you to one of my favorite artists. Just a warning, I will discuss some feminist art theory here but let’s not make this an “I am woman, hear me roar” type thing and let’s just discuss her amazing life.

Gentileschi was born in 1593, the daughter of a Florentine painter. She was taught to paint in her father’s workshop, something unheard of as most apprenticeships were given to men. Following in the footsteps of Caravaggio- the most amazing painter of all time (proof not needed because this is MY blog)- Gentileschi brought emotion and a sense of interplay between the figures in her paintings. In one of her earliest pieces, Gentileschi showed an odd foreshadowing. The scene depicted is of Susannah and the Elders, the biblical story from the book of Daniel in which the beautiful and married Susannah was bathing and spied upon by two older men. Rather than admit their predilection towards voyeurism, the two men blackmailed Susanna, telling her that they will claim that they saw her with a lover. Long story short, Daniel interrupted the court proceedings between Susanna and the Peeping Toms and questioned the men separately. When the two men provided two different types of tree the couple were supposedly under, Susannah is vindicated.

Susanna and the Elders

Around the time she painted Susannah, Artemisia’s father was working with another painter by the name of Agostino Tassi. While staying with the family, Tassi raped Artemisia. The two went on to have a “relationship”, but only because Artemisia thought that if Tassi married her, her reputation could be restored. (Let’s pause here and process that piece of craziness. Now proceed.) Her father eventually took Tassi to court, charging him with taking his daughter’s virginity and conspiring to steal some artworks. During the trial, Artemisia was subjected to all sorts of crazy medical exams while the men of the courtroom watched like perverts. Tassi was eventually served two years for his crime. (As a side note, he was also accused of plotting to kill his wife and raping his sister-in-law.)

Around this time, Gentileschi painted her most famous piece, Judith And Holofernes.

Judith and Holofernes

This piece would make Quentin Tarantino proud! You can’t tell me she didn’t imagine that was Tassi’s head and her sword. Gentileschi took a powerful woman from the Bible and showed her taking care of business. So just what is being depicted? Judith was a princess in a Hebrew village that Holofernes came to ransack for King Nebuchadnezzar. The water supply had been cut off and Judith grew tired of the men in her village not getting the job done. So Judith and her handmaiden went to Holofernes’ camp, under the pretext of being traitors to her people. Looking forward to a threesome of Biblical proportions, Holofernes let the women into his tent. In a drunken slumber, Judith took off Holofernes’ head and brought it back to her village, probably throwing it down and saying, “And that, gentlemen, is how you get ahead in this world.”

As for her personal life, Artemsia would eventually marry another painter and have a daughter. While they lived in Florence, she was the first woman accepted to the Academy of the Arts of Drawing. After her marriage fell apart thanks to her husband’s disastrous financial errors, Gentileschi would move around Italy quite a bit. Eventually she settled in Naples, with its thriving art community and delicious pizza, where she would spend the last part of her life. While in Naples, her talent was applauded by the many British tourists there, many who introduced her works to an audience back in England.

The appeal of Gentileschi is “relatively” new, with the first major biography of her written in 1916 by art historian Roberto Longhi. Since then, she has been studied for her importance as a female artist and as someone who depicted women interacting in positive and supportive roles in artworks. Some historians like to argue that the passion she put into her strong female characters came from her personal life and the betrayal of the men in it. But was this art coming from a place of anger or was this just good marketing by a shrewd businesswoman? Maybe she was smart in depicting female driven Biblical stories, making these scenes more palatable to a majority male audience. No one knows what was going though Artemisia’s head as she painted Holofernes’ blood squirting like a grapefruit- whether she was thinking of her own pain or the pain of women in the arts at the time. Either way, Artemisia Gentileschi made a name for herself.

You can check out more of her masterpieces below.

David and Bathsheba
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

 

Samson and Delilah
Judith and her Maidservant
Judith and her Maidservant

 

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