Sunday, October 30, 2016

1593-1654: Artemisia Gentileschi, Italian

Self-Portrait as the Allegory
of Painting, 1639
Royal Collection / Internet
The first truly great woman artist was an Italian Baroque painter named Artemisia Gentileschi. She is regarded as among the most progressive and expressive painters of her time. Her innovative compositions and focus on Biblical heroines set her apart from her male contemporaries and have lead to the celebration of Gentileschi as a painter with a uniquely female perspective.

Background: Artemisia was born in Rome, the eldest of five children. Her mother died when she was twelve. Her father was the celebrated artist, Orazio Gentileschi. (Gen-ti-les-ski)

Training: The reason Artemisia was able to become such a powerful artist was that her father Orazio was one of the greatest artists of his era. Orazio brought Artemisia into his workshop along with her brothers, but she showed more talent.

Since Orazio was painting in the manner of Caravaggio, Artemisia also applied Caravaggio’s aesthetic principles of theatrical lighting and naturalistic portrayal, and soon surpassed her father.

Here are paintings of lute players by all three painters. Notice that Artemisia's version is more realistic and more intimate.

The Lute Player, c. 1600
Hermitage Museum / Internet
Orazio Gentileschi
The Lute Player, c. 1620
National Gallery, D.C. / Internet

Artemisia Gentileschi
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, c. 1617
Wadsworth Atheneum
Dan's photo, 2013

As a woman, Artemisia could not enter an art academy, so Orazio later hired another painter, his friend and colleague Agostino Tassi, to tutor Artemisia separately.

Private Life: Tassi raped Artemisia when she was 18.  After the initial “deflowering,” Tassi placated Artemisia with a promise of marriage, and thereby had sex with her repeatedly. After Orazio discovered that Tassi was already married, he brought suit against him for rape. During the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law, planned to murder his wife, and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. During the trial, Artemisia was subjected to a gynecological examination and torture using thumbscrews to verify her testimony. Tassi was found guilty and jailed for eight months, but Artemisia's reputation was ruined, making it impossible for her to win the aristocratic commissions that were essential to her success.

A month after the trial Orazio arranged for Artemisia to marry a modest artist from Florence. The couple moved to Florence, where they had two daughters. While in Florence, Artemisia also met Francesco Maria di Niccolò Maringhi, who became her life-long lover and financial supporter.

Career: The move to Florence marked the beginning of Artemisia’s independent life as an artist. Admiration for her talents overcame her humble social status and gave her access to intellectual circles, where she met Galileo and other leading cultural figures. In 1614, with the backing of powerful patrons and fellow artists, Artemisia was the first woman to be admitted to Florence’s Academy of Design. Lavish living, and a husband who gambled, caused mounting debts. In 1621 Artemisia returned to Rome, parting from her husband. Here she found new patrons for her portraiture. By the late 1620s she was in Venice; she went to Naples in 1630; in the late 1630s she went to London, either to assist her aging father in some ceiling paintings, or perhaps at the personal invitation of Charles I, a great patron of the arts. She spent much of the rest of her life in Naples and died there in 1654.

Art work: Of Gentileschi’s large body of work, only 34 paintings remain. Her main theme was retelling biblical stories from a woman's perspective.

Artemisia painted her first great work when she was only 17, before the rape. It depicts an apocryphal biblical story in which Susannah, a virtuous young wife, is spied upon by two aging voyeurs while bathing in her garden. Instead of being coy or flirtatious, as many male artists had depicted her, Susanna is vulnerable, frightened, and repulsed by their demands. The men loom large, leering, menacing, and conspiratorial. When she makes her way back to her house, they accost her, threatening to claim that she was meeting a young man in the garden unless she has sex with them. She is saved by the prophet Daniel.

Susanna and the Elders, 1610
Despite her experience of violence, Artemisia was able to express erotic feelings in paint. She was only 19 when she painted Danäe, which has a much more natural treatment of the female nude than her father or any other male artist of her time created. The story in Danäe is that she is a princess in Greek mythology who was shut up in a remote tower by her father because an oracle predicted that he would be killed by his daughter’s son. Perhaps intrigued by the challenge, Zeus managed to visit her in the form of “a shower of gold.” This subject was painted by at least nine major artists, but none depicted the princess’s experience as convincingly as she did.

Danäe, 1612
St. Louis / Jan's photo, 2013

Here's Orazio's treatment of the subject. Notice that it is stagier and less erotic, and the anatomy is less convincing.

Orazio Gentileschi,
Danäe, c. 1623

Because of the violence in her life, Artemisia is especially known for her depictions of "Judith Slaying Holofernes." This comes from an apocryphal biblical story in which a Jewish heroine who used her sexual attraction to gain access to an Assyrian general the night before he planned to attack her village. She plied him with drink, and when he had passed out, she decapitated him with a sword. The next day she prevented the battle by showing the Assyrian troops the head of their leader. Judith's heroism is a common theme in painting. It is thought that Artemisia painted her first version of the story during and after the rape trial, and that Judith is her own image while Holofernes is the image of Tassi. Her brow is furrowed in concentration, her forearms are tensed, and blood spurts wildly from her victim’s neck.  It is a masterpiece of Baroque art. Later she painted another version with the same composition but a different color palette.

Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612-1613

Caravaggio had already treated this subject, but there is disagreement about whether Artemisia could have seen his version before she painted her own. Notice that his version is stagey, with the characters strewn out horizontally, while her version has a more dynamic, engaging composition showing real effort and teamwork, and the scene is much more nitty-gritty.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599

Artemisia frequently treated biblical heroines whose actions saved the people. In the next painting, Esther, a Jewish girl who has married the Persian King without revealing her ethnicity, is now pleading with the King to spare the Persian Jews. She swoons because she fasted for 3 days before her audience with the king.

Esther before Ahasuerus, c. 1622
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006