Blind contour drawing #13 – “Judith Slaying Holofernes” – Artemisia Gentileschi 1620-21
In the last few decades, Gentileschi has been titled one of the most important Italian Baroque painters. The excellence of her work, her treatment of controversial subjects and the number of her paintings that have survived are some of the many reasons for that honour.
However, her work is still under appreciated, in the words of Mary D. Garrard, she “has suffered a scholarly neglect that is almost unthinkable for an artist of her caliber.”
She was born in Rome, her father Orazio Gentileschi was a painter and her mother, Prudentia Montone died when Gentileschi was young.
Even though she was not allowed to apprentice as a painter, her father saw her promise and trained her as an artist, eventually introducing her to the working artists of Rome. Later in life because of this introduction, she became a follower of Caravaggio and worked with him in Italy.
By the time she was seventeen, she had painted one of the works for which she is best known, her stunning interpretation of “Susanna and the Elders.” She was not allowed to attend any other form of schooling and didn’t learn to read and write until she was adult.
Gentileschi’s father painted frescos with the artist, Agostino Tassi, he asked him to teach his daughter perspective. During these lessons, Tassi raped Gentileschi. When her father found out, Tassi was arrested. At the age of 18, she was thrown into the middle of a trial that received unwanted publicity and ruined her reputation. Tassi was convicted, but released by the judge, who also ordered her to be tortured to prove she was being honest.
A month later, she married a painter from Florence named Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi. They relocated to Florence and had a daughter. Their relationship wasn’t a happy one, but it gave her an opportunity to flourish as an artist.
Some of Gentileschi’s surviving paintings focus on a female protagonist. The character of Judith appears a number of times in her art. In 1611, Gentileschi completed the famously gruesome “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” which shows Judith in the act of saving the Jewish people by killing Assyrian general Holofernes. Judith is slicing Holofernes’s throat while her handmaiden helps to hold him down. Many interpret this as a cathartic expression of her rage and violation.
Some time between 1626 and 1630, Gentileschi moved to Naples where she lived and painted until 1638. While there, she painted “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting,” so unique because of its blending of art, muse and artist.
She reunited with her father in late 1638 on a joint painting commission for King Charles I of England to paint a ceiling for the Queen’s house. Sadly her father died in the following year, but she continued to work in England until 1642 and then returned to Naples.
Thirty four of her paintings survive today, as well as the near complete transcript of the rape trial, published in full in a book detailing her life. Because of the trial and her many paintings of powerful women struggling against male dominance, she was not popular with her male colleagues.
The cause and time of Artemisia’s death is not known, but she most likely died in 1652.
Several demeaning epitaphs were published about her in 1653. Art historian Charles Moffat believes she may have committed suicide, which would explain why the cause of her death was not recorded
Today, she remains an inspiration, not only for her powerful artwork, but for her ability to overcome the acts of abuse against her, her lack of education, the disrespect from her peers and the many prejudices of her time. Like most women who excelled at that time she caused mass controversy and hate. She was recognized as having genius, but she was seen as a monster because she was a woman pursuing a creative talent in a genre thought to be only for men.
Note: I was fortunate to see this work at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I could barely look at it. It is difficult to articulate the power of this masterpiece.
Born: Rome 1593