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Artemisia Gentileschi: The woman behind the paintings - Allison Leigh


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The biblical story of the heroine Judith slaying the brutal Holofernes is featured in countless works of art, including the Sistine Chapel. But the most iconic depiction was painted by an artist who tackled this ambitious scene when she was just 19 years old. Her name was Artemisia Gentileschi. So who was Artemisia, and what sets her depiction apart from the rest? Allison Leigh investigates.

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The content of this article includes mention of suicide, sexual assault, and violence that may be triggering to survivors.

The story of Judith and Holofernes remains part of the Apocrypha texts outside the canon of the Old Testament Bible, but it inspired numerous artists throughout the Medieval and Renaissance-Baroque period. Donatello, Botticelli, and Michelangelo all grappled with the subject, but Artemisia Gentileschi was most directly responding to the version Caravaggio had made fifteen years before. Both portrayals are gruesome scenes, but Artemisia’s version may have originally foregrounded the blood even more. In the first book ever published on the artist, the art historian Mary D. Garrard explored technical examinations of the 1612-13 version of the painting that reveal the canvas was cut down on the left side. Though scholars disagree on how much was removed, the original likely included some amount of Holofernes’ legs and would have been squarer, with the beheading taking place perhaps in the very center.

Watch this video from the National Gallery in London to learn more about technical analyses and restorations of Artemisia’s paintings.

In early 17th-century Italy, women were not supposed to be able to wield the kind of power Judith did, but Artemisia painted her anyway. And she showed her dominating not just once, but maybe as many as six more times. Art historians do not agree on how many versions should be attributed to Artemisia, but in each canvas, Judith is shown courageously overpowering the man who oppressed her. Some have even argued that Florentine women of the time might have looked to this heroine and fantasized about escaping the patriarchal structures which kept them domestically confined.

Listen to a podcast interview with Mary Garrard, who has written three books on Artemisia and is the leading specialist on her life and art. Look here for more podcast episodes discussing art history books with their authors.

But is that the whole explanation for the ferocious virtuosity of these works? Artemisia did find herself newly married to a Florentine apothecary named Pierantonio Stiattesi when she painted the first version of Judith. She had been quickly engaged to him after Agostino Tassi was found guilty of raping her in 1612. Women who were sexually assaulted in the 17th century faced intense social pressure to accept forcible intimacy in order to salvage their honor; many would in fact go on to marry their rapists. An important article written by the historian Elizabeth S. Cohen explores this dynamic by situating the rape and Artemisia’s trial in its original 17th-century context.

Read an article about a novel that used the 400-year-old court transcripts to recreate Artemisia’s rape trial.Read an article about Artemisia’s letters to her husband and her patrons written by Letizia Treves, the curator of a 2020-21 exhibition about Artemisia.

Artemisia would go on to paint many other heroines from antiquity, including many who were victims of sexual violence and intimidation. From the biblical Susanna, who was pressured to accept being raped, to Bathsheba, who was the victim of sexual voyeurism, to Lucretia, a woman who died by suicide rather than allow her family to be dishonored by her rape. These are some of the most formidable paintings ever created in the history of art. All are a testament to the vulnerability of women who live in societies ruled by men. But they are also a remarkable record of one woman’s strength as she navigated the patriarchal dominance of her day.

Watch this lecture by the art historian Jesse Locker to learn more about Artemisia as a female painter in Baroque Italy.Watch this webinar which explores Artemisia’s life as a female artist in the 1600s and surveys how her pioneering work inspired some of the greatest women of our time.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Allison Leigh
  • Director Luísa Holanda, Hype CG
  • Narrator Susan Zimmerman
  • Storyboard Artist Luísa Holanda
  • Animator Murilo Jardim
  • Art Director Luísa Holanda
  • Composer Gabriel Maia
  • Sound Designer Gabriel Maia
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Abdallah Ewis
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox

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