Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia: Self-portrait
 Many of our members will remember the 2004 exhibition Darkness & Light: Caravaggio & his World, which featured key works by Caravaggio and the "Caravaggisti": the artists who copied Caravaggio's chiaroscuro style.

One of the most arresting pictures in the exhibition was the dramatic "Judith Beheading Holofernes" by Artemisa Gentileschi. Judith has been depicted by innumerable artists: Michaelangelo put her on the Sistine ceiling, Donatello cast her in bronze. She appears in stained glass, in frescoes and in engravings. Caravaggio, Botticelli, Rubens and Goya all had a go. Some Judiths are fierce, some are demure. Some wear lavish gowns, some are nude.  Klimt's Judith is all elegant golden beauty, with Holofernes' head just an afterthought in the corner. 
Judith Beheading Holofernes

But none of them comes even close to the savage intensity which Artemisia's Judith brings to the job. Holofernes,stupefied by wine, is at her mercy. She has grasped a handful of his hair and she has turned his head sideways to expose his jugular. While she hacks away, her maidservant holds him down.

The beheading is at the same time a hideous symbolic castration: his arms and shoulders resemble a pair of raised thighs, between which Judith is wielding the blade. The face of Judith is a self-portrait of the vengeful Artemisia, and she has given Holofernes the face of Agostino Tassi, who raped her while his offsider held her down, when she was eighteen years old.
Artemisia was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, who was a prominent Roman artist, a contemporary and close friend of Caravaggio. Artemisia was thirteen when Caravaggio fled Rome after killing a man in a street fight.

Despite Artemisia's talent, the art academies would not accept a female, so she received her early training from her father, but continued her studies under the tutelage of Orazio's friend and colleague, the 45-year old Agostino Tassi. Why Orazio would entrust his daughter to this creep, who had already been in trouble for sexual molestation of both young girls and boys, is a mystery. Even as he was engaged as Artemisia's tutor, he was under investigation for incest, in the rape of his late wife's 14-year-old sister. The wife herself was stalked and killed after she left him - case unsolved, but the smart money is on the bereaved husband.

Predictably, Tassi raped Artemisia when her father was not at home, depite her savage  resistance. He must have suspected that she wouldn't be too keen, so he brought a friend to hold her down. Apparently this was not an unusual occurrence in seventeenth-century Rome, and not many eyebrows were raised in such cases as long as the rapist offered to marry his victim. It gives a whole new meaning to not taking no for an answer. There was no turning down a determined suitor!

Tassi duly promised to marry Artemisia, so her father told her to stop whinging and start shopping for a wedding gown, while he continued to work and socialise with Tassi.  When a year later Tassi still showed no signs of marrying Artemisia, who was now expected to submit to his unwelcome attentions on a regular basis, Orazio beatedly decided to play the indignant father and sue the reluctant bridegroom for rape.

Even in modern times, we all know women are unwilling to sue rapists, because they get traumatised all over again by having to relive the experience and being depicted by the defence as a slut who was "asking for it". At least a rape victim in a modern court is only mentally tortured. The Roman court applied thumbscrews while a rape victim gave her evidence, to ensure that she spoke the truth on the witness stand. The accused rapist was assumed to be truthful without the help of thumbscrews. Artemisia also had to undergo a painful and humiliating vaginal examination, although I can't think what that was meant to establish, a year after the event.

The trial lasted seven months, and a transcript of the whole court case survives in the judicial archives in Rome. At the end of it all, Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, but he had friends in high places and was out in four months.

Artemisia painted her "Judith" in 1612, the year following the trial. One would hope the work had a cathartic effect, but perhaps not, because eight years later she painted a larger and bloodier version. The owner, the Duchess Marie-Louise de Medici, hung the painting in her private chambers as she considered it too horrifying for her reception rooms. In 2002, it went on public display for the first time at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Jael driving a tent peg into the head of Sisera

Artemisia painted another notable biblical scene in which a woman wreaks revenge on a male predator: Jael driving a tent peg into the temple of the oppressor Sisera. Once again Jael and Sisera bear a strong resemblance to the artist and Tassi.

The lasting effect of the rape and trial showed in her frequent choice of exploited women as subjects: the rape victim and suicide Lucretia; Cleopatra, defeated and betrayed; Susanna, blackmailed by lecherous and voyeuristic old men.
Susanna and the Elders

Artemisia married a Florentine artist, Pietro Stiattesi, in the same year and moved to Florence, perhaps to escape the sensation caused by the trial. Her career took off in Florence: among her friends and patrons were Duke Cosimo de Medici and the astronomer Galileo. She became an official member of the Academie del Disegno (Academy of Design), an unprecedented honour for a woman.

Her career established, her work was much in demand and commissions flowed in. Nonetheless, she was constantly in financial difficulties, having by now to support two children and a husband who preferred gambling to working.

In 1617 she gave birth to a third child, her first daughter, and became reconciled with her father. Not surprisingly, relations with him had been strained since the horrors of the trial that he had insisted on putting her through. A couple of years later she returned to Rome for a while, but mostly spent her time travelling between Genoa and Rome, and also successfully sought commissions  in Venice. She regained her financial security and the Roman census of 1624 notes her as the head of the household rather than Stiattesi's wife, so she seems to have taken control of her life and kept the loser she married from frittering her earnings away.

There are references from the time describing Artemisia as a "famous Roman artist", "a celebrated woman painter". Artemisia numbered among her wealthy and influential patrons cardinals, merchants and the nobility. Among them were Philip IV of Spain, Charles I of England, and the Duke of Modena.

Artemisia resettled in England, as a court painter to King Charles. Her father joined her in painting the ceiling of the Queen's House at Greenwich, where it is still a tourist attraction today. Orazio died in 1639 and Artemisia went to Naples when the English Civil War started in 1641.
She spent the last years of her life in Naples, continuing to paint until her death at age 59. She died of unknown causes in 1652. Some thirty-four of her paintings are known to have survived, as well as twenty-eight letters in her hand.

She was under-appreciated for centuries, but has now finally taken her rightful place among the great Baroque artists. Her life has inspired several biographies, novels and stage plays, as well as the 1997 film Artemisia, starring Valentina Cervi and Michel Serrault.

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