Artemisia Gentileschi. You may have heard of her.
Artemisia was a painter’s daughter who grew to be a painter in her own right. When she was 20, she completed this:
Judith beheading Holofernes (1612–1613)
This is not a girl you want to mess with. When I read that this painting was her “response” to her rapist (her rapist’s features are that of Holofernes and Artemisia herself is holding the short sword), I couldn’t help but feel impressed with her method of catharsis. The man who raped her is, to this day, still known as a rapist rather than the modest and obscure painter he could have been.
Ignominy for all time hundreds of years before the internet. Hats off.
Given the following, it wouldn’t be surprising if a large part of her oeuvre following the rape was affected:
“The trial was a painful public humiliation for Artemisia. During the proceedings, she underwent vaginal examination and torture with thumbscrews. She was accused of being unchaste when she met Tassi and also of promiscuity. [Tassi] also attacked her professional reputation. A transcript of the seven-month court case survives.” Quote
The victim was tortured with thumbscrews, seven months of pure hell where her every move is scrutinized, her assailant got a slap on the wrist despite it being proven that he was guilty and Artemisia got thrown into a marriage because she was “ruined”. As if that wasn’t enough, her marriage was with a gambler who squandered everything she earned and was continually in debt. Debts that she had to cover because her husband was averse to actually working.
Despite all this, Artemisia triumphed. Her work continued to gain respect. On repeated occasions, she painted women who chose not to be pawns of powerful males.
Jael and Sisera (1620)
Unfortunately, some of these women were in the process of doing themselves in.
In 1624 her influence was such that Roman census takers noted that she was the head of the household rather than just being noted as her husband’s wife. She was a well-known and respected “woman” painter and her clients (patrons) were cardinals and dukes. In the 1630s she painted for royalty (Philip IV of Spain, Charles I of England, and the Duke of Modena).
And yet for a long time, Artemisia’s legacy traipsed into obscurity.
Could this be because her later works lacked the aggressive panache of her earlier works or is it simply because of her gender?
At this point, it’s hard to say. It would be easy to say that it was because of her gender, but I wonder. Personally (and I’m saying this as a woman), I think that her art became soft and boring. Her “success” as a “woman” painter was like that of her male contemporaries: subject to the asthetic demands of her clients (who, given their status in society, probably didn’t want to make waves).
Artemisia though should be congratulated because she was indifferent about her status as a “woman” painter in a profession dominated by men. And the men of her generation didn’t seem to care a quaff about whether or not she was a woman: it was her talent that counted.
That’s true equality.
And that was hundreds of years ago.
How far we’ve come: or have we?