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The Baddest in Italy: Why Artemisia Gentileschi is the feminist artist you need to know about

Long before social media, women had to be creative with their methods of conveying distaste about the patriarchal social order. For Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, it was the paintbrush. Artemisia is often regarded as the most successful female painter of the 17th century, being the first woman to gain entry into the Academy in 1616 and only the second woman to permeate the world of the ‘Old Masters’- with Lavinia Fontana being the first to break the barrier. Her work involves subjects who subvert traditional roles through traditionally masculine depictions of heroism and violence - art critic Longhi wrote that “there are fifty-seven works by Artemisia Gentileschi, and 94% (forty-nine works) feature women as protagonists or equal to men". [1] Artemisia’s women are women with agency, empowered in their own paths.

This was also the case for their creator. Born in Rome, Artemisia began producing professional artworks at the age of fifteen, with her first signed and dated piece - also one of her most famous - ‘Susanna and the Elders’- painted at 17. Not only did Artemisia break gender roles and the established social rules for women of her time, but she utterly excelled in her chosen field as empowered and financially independent (something feminist writers from Virginia Woolf to Charlotte Brontë have heralded as the pinnacle of being a truly free woman). She’s been granted a legendary status by 20th century critics, lauded as a trailblazing feminist artist for both how she depicted her subjects and her ‘women empowerment tendencies.’ [2] Perhaps her greatest achievement is the almost-autobiographical quality within her work. The artistic style and her brutalisation of Biblical stories - these seem to mirror her assertion of control in her life and career after her traumatic teenage years - exhibited skill rarely seen amongst any of her contemporaries.

It speaks volumes that Artemisia refused to engage in the conventional religious imagery of The Madonna and Child or the submissive Virgin at the Annunciation; her woman did not succumb to the tastes of male clientele but she still managed to become the most celebrated painter of the era! As she grew older and became more accomplished, taking commissions for high-ranking members of the Italian courts, she seemed to develop a maturity in her paintings- which many see as Artemisia no longer needing to compete with her male peers. She found her own fame and way in the world, establishing herself, in my eyes, as the Baddest in Italy. (I know Italy wasn’t unified until 200 years later but let me have my fun.)

Her unique and violent style is maybe best captured in her painting ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ which depicts a woman (Judith) beheading a man (Holofernes) whilst her friend holds him down; not exactly the Instagrammable modern ‘Girl Boss’ image, but one of the most important pieces of feminist art. The painting of Judith was hidden from view for some time by its original owner, due to its violent and graphic nature, but it’s often seen as the quintessential image of retribution on canvas. It challenges traditional images of women in art, so beautifully and maybe nauseatingly done in Artemisia’s signature violent and graphic style; if you have a weak stomach, then maybe her art isn’t for you! The original story is of Judith, a Jewish widow, who beheaded Holofernes because he was an Assyrian general who had come to slaughter civilians in her city- it’s a favourite for its gender-swapped David and Goliath-Esque nature; something which perhaps serves as the perfect metaphor for Artemisia’s own life. Modern critics have moved away from the traditional sensationalism of her works, attempting to gain a deeper understanding rather than viewing her works as artistic wish-fulfilment of revenge.

Seeing Artemisia get the recognition she deserves is almost bitter-sweet, in that it should’ve happened years ago. Despite her fame and impressive CV, the first full and historically accurate study on Artemisia’s life was only completed in 2001, probably best explained by the focus within traditional art history lying firmly centred on male artists. It’s almost upsetting that the first exhibition of her work is only taking place this year (It’s in the National Gallery if you're interested! Student tickets are £18, and it runs until January 2021- thank me later!) This is also the first major exhibition of any female Renaissance or Baroque artist, poised directly for opening following both the first and second lockdowns- the stakes are high. But if we’ve learnt anything about Artemisia, it’s that she was never one to shy away from a challenge.

 

Sources:

[1] Bissell, R. Ward (1999), Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonné, Pennsylvania University Press, ISBN 0-271-02120-9

Emily is originally from Wales, but is a first year English Literature and French undergrad at King's College. She adores art history and can be found walking round museums, watching documentaries and reading about Artemisia Gentileschi in her spare time. Her favourite hobby is visiting London parks and pretending she’s still in Wales.
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