There have been famous women painters in the past, but none so accepted in a time when women artists were not given such respect. Artemisia Gentileschi was born in the city of Rome in 1593, the only daughter of Orazio Gentileschi of Tuscany, and a better artist than his sons. He taught her well and with her natural talent she grew up to become one of the best and well-known artists in her generation, as well as the first female member of the Florentine school, the Accademia di Arte del Disegno.
She painted in the Italian Baroque style; her themes were based on the women of the Bible and mythological stories. She told their tales of strength and sorrow on her canvases, always depicting the women warriors, the victims and those women who preferred death to living. The story of Judith was her most recognized theme which she retold in different versions in her paintings, but the most famous image she made was of Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612-1613). It was not a new subject, having been also painted by Caravaggio and other famed artists, but it was her graphic and emotive depiction that set her painting above others.
Artemisia was only 17 when she made her first painting depicting Susanna and the Elders (1610), and some art critics believed she may have had her father’s help with it. Her painting showed Susanna as a victim of rape by two Elders, rather than a just a woman being spied on during her bath, which was previously the typical approach to that representation of Susanna, including Caravaggio’s version. Her personal style was much more naturalistic, unlike her father’s idealized style, but as he had learned other techniques from Caravaggio, she had learned them also through her father.
Some people believe that Artemisia chose her subjects mainly because she herself was raped as a young woman in 1611. Her father had worked with Agostino Tassi and hired him as a private tutor for Artemisia, only to find out later that Tassi had raped her, with the help of another man. She had been a virgin, and she was convinced by Tassi to continue having relations with him, as he made her believe that they would be married. That was not the case, so she and her father prosecuted Tassi (9 months later) in a long and harrowing trial, in which he was sentenced for a year that he never actually served. Her terrible experience has been suspected of affecting the way she would later sympathize with her subjects and paint them accordingly.
In 1613, Orazio arranged a marriage between Artemisia and a Florentine artist named Pierantonio Stiattesi, and the couple moved to Florence to live there. It was a good turn in Artemisia’s career as she earned a commission for a painting in the newly built Casa Buonarroti. She was chosen to paint the ceiling of the painting gallery by Michelangelo Buonarroti (Michelangelo’s nephew who was building Casa Buonarroti) because he respected her and her talent very much. She chose to paint an allegorical scene there of a young nude woman holding a compass, Allegoria dell’Inclinazione; the subject is said to resemble Artemisia’s own self-portraits. The Casa Buonarroti is now a unique 17th century palace and museum in Florence that holds priceless artworks by Michelangelo and Donato, as well as collections of other major Italian artists. She soon gained favor with the Medici’s and also Charles I, becoming a successful court painter.
Together, she and Pierantonio had five children - four boys and a girl - but only her daughter Prudenzia survived. The couple did make a very good living in Florence, but they spent more money than they made, and the financial stresses caused them to divorce in 1621. Artemisia returned to Rome to her father’s house, bringing Prudenzia with her. Her father left to go to Genoa that same year, and it’s believed that Artemisia stayed in Rome in order to find a home for her and her two daughters, the second of whom was possibly born in 1627. Rome was not as lucrative for Artemisia as Florence had been, due to the different style of painting preferred there since she’d left. She continued to paint heroines and biblical women, but her anger seemed diminished after the passing of time, and they were softer versions of her old passion. She moved to Naples in search of better paying patrons.
She found renewed fame in Naples for many years, and then unwillingly became part of the Charles I court in London, but was happy to work alongside her father again as he was in London as a court painter in 1638. Her father died in 1639, and within two years she’d left England to return to Naples, which she loved and missed. She continued working, taking commissions with the aid of an assistant, until as late as 1654, and it’s thought that she may have died in an awful plague that swept through Naples in 1656, as there is no record that she was ever heard from or worked again. Artemisia Gentileschi was a prolific artist and her paintings are scattered widely, belonging to many international museums, a testament to her drive and talent. She was more of a heroine of the arts to women of her time than she could have ever realized.