Artemisia Gentileschi Research Paper

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Violence, Violent Artistry

In 1944, with the terrible storm clouds of World War II scorching the earth, scholar Anna Banti turned her mind to a very different subject, reaching back over the centuries to pen a biography of the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Banti lost that manuscript during the chaos of the war, but in 1947 she began another book on the same subject. This second book, titled simply Artemisia, was written not as a standard biography or even novel but rather as a dialogue between herself and the artist. Banti's book -- one of many on the artist -- was an attempt to understand for herself why she was so fascinated by the artist.[footnoteRef:1] It's a question that has remained current for many students over the intervening decades, for the artist does fascinate on a number of levels. Her life story is extraordinary, and is made doubly so in the context of her historical era. But while her biography might well have drawn some admirers to learn more about her, she would not have acquired the following that she if she had not produced a number of wondrous paintings. This paper examines the life and work of this extraordinary artist. [1: Anna Banti, Artemisia, trans. Shirley D'Ardia Caracciolo (New York: Bison, 2003).]

Artemisia is one of those people who (at least in certain circles) can be referred to by only her first name. This degree of fame (not at the level of Madonna, of course, but certainly not insignificant for many artists, students, and feminists) was established in the late 1970s and 1980s as feminist students and scholars began an attempt to rescue female artists from the obscurity to which they had been assigned by the patriarchal forces of artworlds over centuries and in different places.[footnoteRef:2] While it was true that most artists at least within the major European traditions were men, scholars acknowledged, surely there must have been some women who succeeded against the almost unimaginable odds that they faced. The job that these feminist scholars set themselves was to recover these artists and grant to them in death the recognition that they had been denied in life. [2: Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art (New York: Harry Abrams, 1996), 130-31.]

Artemisia was one of the great successes of this generation of feminist scholarly reclamation. For her life exemplified in nearly every detail the challenges faced by women who wished to succeed in an artistic sphere dominated by men who were often actively hostile to a woman's entering their realm, a point that Garrard notes was not sufficiently rigorously examined in the first works on the painter.[footnoteRef:3] Artemisia might not have been able to overcome these challenges -- despite her considerable talent -- had she not had one important advantage over many other young women: She came from a family of artists and her father was willing to teach her the basic skills of their shared profession. The first known work of the artist, when she was only 17, was a depiction of Susanna and the Elders (1610, titled Susanna e I Vecchioni in Italian). The work is important for several different reasons. First, it showed the important and enduring influence of the great painter Caravaggio on Artemisia. That she should be so influenced by him is hardly surprising: Her father, Orazio, ran his painting studio (in which Artemisia's brothers also trained; they were never as talented as she was) according to the lines set down by Caravaggio, who was arguably the most influential Italian painter at the time. Even if her father had not been so deeply influenced by Caravaggio, it is entirely possible that Artemisia herself would have been.[footnoteRef:4] [3: Mary Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi, (Princeton: Princeton University: 1991), 4-5 and passant.] [4: Ibid., p. 3.]

Artemisia was also influenced by the Bologna School of painting (which was somewhat softer and more lyrical than that of Caravaggio, which was more realistic. Artemisia's painting of Susanna reflected a common theme of paintings during the Renaissance and Baroque periods but took an uncommon view of it.[footnoteRef:5] In her painting, Susanna (covered only in a scrap of cloth between her legs) twists away from the Elders, who hover over her with all the concern of birds of prey circling in on their victim. While the Elders are at the top of the painting, the perspective of the scene is clearly that of Susanna, who pulls away from the men, trying to hide against a wall that proves to be a trap rather than a refuge. [5: Judith Mann, Artemisia Gentileschi: Taking Stock. (London: Brepols Publishers, 2003), 91.]

It is clear that what the men intend is rape, and it is equally clear that the fact that Susanna can anticipate her fate makes it all the more traumatic. The terrible wounding that is about to take place is made all the more traumatic when one knows the history of the artist, who would soon be sexually assaulted herself. Her assailant was a friend of her father's who was in the studio while Artemisia was painting the work, and one can all-too-easily call to mind an image of her nemesis watching her create this emotionally wrenching work while he planned his own assault on a woman.[footnoteRef:6] [6: Mary Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi, (Princeton: Princeton University: 1991), 22, 41.]

The background to this assault was horribly ironic: Despite her talent, Artemisia was denied admission to any professional art academy on the grounds of her sex. Her father, unwilling to have her talent go untended, decided to hire a painter named Agostino Tassi (with whom he had collaborated before) to tutor Artemisia. Tassi raped Artemisia with the assistance of another man, Cosimo Quorlis. After the rape, Artemisia continued to have sex with Tassi, believing that they would be married[footnoteRef:7]. [7: Judith Mann, Artemisia Gentileschi: Taking Stock. (London: Brepols Publishers, 2003), 91.]

That the artist would consent to intimacy with her rapist is hard for us to understand, but it is imperative to remember how different our world is from hers. In her world -- like that of Susanna's -- a man's word would have carried far more weight than a woman's, and rape was (even as it still is) all-too-often blamed on the woman. Artemisia may well have felt herself to be trapped in a number of ways and so gave at least partial consent to Tassi, especially since she believed that they were to be married. However, Tassi withdrew his offer of marriage on the grounds that he believed that Artemisia was seeing another man.[footnoteRef:8] [8: Alexandra Lapierre, Artemisia: The Story of a Battle for Greatness, (New York: Vintage, 2003), p. 511.]

Seeking to protect his daughter, Orazio brought charges against Tassi. The seven-month trial that followed focused not on whether Tassi had raped her (that is, whether Tassi had had sex with Artemisia against her will) but whether or not she had been a virgin before they had sex. Had Artemisia not been a virgin, she and her father could not have pressed charges regardless of the issue of consent. At the end of the trial -- during which Artemisia was tortured by having thumbscrews applied to both of her hands -- Tassi was found to have planned the murder of his wife, had an affair with his sister-in-law, and planned to steal some of Orazio's paintings along with the rape of Artemisia. Tassi was sentenced to a year in prison, but never served it.[footnoteRef:9] [9: Mieke Bal, (Ed.) The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006), 177.]

This event -- the rape, the ensuing trial in which Artemisia was forced to testify under torture about the event, the fact that Tassi was never punished -- all helped made Artemisia an extremely attractive figure to 20th-century feminist scholars seeking to understand the forces ranged against woman who sought to become artists. But, again, it was not simply the terrible biographical facts of Artemisia's life that inclined scholars to resurrect her from art historical obscurity. The forcefulness of her paintings still speaks out to audiences centuries later. Many of her canvasses focus on the theme of violence against women, although she cloaked this very personal subject in the clothes of Biblical and allegorical details.[footnoteRef:10] [10: Alexandra Lapierre, Artemisia: The Story of a Battle for Greatness, (New York: Vintage, 2003) 511.]

For example, her depiction of Judith Beheading Holofernes (painted in 1614-20; this was only one of her paintings on this subject) shows Judith as a woman strong both in body and mind as she slays this enemy of the Jews. While her neckline scoops low enough to reveal the tops of her breasts, what we focus on is not these but rather the strength in her arms and the purpose in her face as she twists Holofernes's head away from her, using the motion to make it easier to slice through muscle and bone. Holofernes struggles, but it is clear…[continue]

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