Artemisia Gentileschi: Biography, Paintings & Style

Instructor: Amy Martin
Artemisia Gentileschi was a prominent 17th century painter, and today, she is celebrated as an early champion of feminist themes. In this lesson, we will talk about Artemisia's life and examine her artistic style.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Lute Player (1615-1617), Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Lute Player (1615-1617)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)

The Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi was born in 1593 to Prudenzia Montoni and Orazio Gentileschi. Orazio was a successful painter who taught Artemisia how to paint and introduced her to the work of Caravaggio and other Roman painters.

In 1612, Artemisia married the painter Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi and moved to Florence, where she worked for the famous Medici family and for Michelangelo the Younger, the nephew of the great Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonaroti.

In the 1620s, she spent several years working for wealthy patrons in Rome, Genoa, and Naples, who were attracted to her style of painting and the unconventional status she held as a female painter.

At the invitation of King Charles I of England, Artemisia was invited to work at the English court alongside her father, who was already living in England. As you can imagine, this was a great honor for both painters. Sadly, Orazio died unexpectedly in London in 1638, and after fulfilling her existing commissions, Artemisia left London for Naples in 1641.

There is some official disagreement about her death, but Artemisia is widely believed to have died in Naples of unknown causes in 1653.

Famous Paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders (1610), Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Artemisia painted Susanna and the Elders in 1610 when she was just 17. The painting depicts the biblical story of Susanna, a pious Jewish woman who was spied upon by corrupt judges while she was bathing. Artemisia shows Susanna naked and twisting away from the judges with a look of disgust on her face as she hears their demand to sleep with them. If she refused, they would falsely accuse her of sleeping with a young man, the penalty for which was stoning to death. Susanna's body language and facial expression help us as the viewer to anticipate her decision to die rather than lose her virtue. Piety triumphs over lust in the end, and by divine intervention, it is the judges who are killed.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (c. 1620), Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620-1621)

Artemisia's painting Judith Slaying Holofernes illustrates the biblical story of Judith, a beautiful and pious Jewish widow who used her charm to sneak into the enemy's camp and decapitate the Assyrian general, Holofernes. Judith saved her people from the powerful Assyrian army by defeating their leader. Artemisia did not shy away from a graphic depiction of the slaying, as we see Holofernes' blood spurting violently out of his neck onto the bed and Judith's arms and clothing. We also see the physical effort Judith has to use to plunge the sword into Holofernes' neck as her fist presses down on the general's head.

Before she made this painting, Artemisia was raped by her painting instructor Agostino Tassi. Whether he was convicted or not is unclear, as the last pages of the months-long trial are missing. The traumatic event had a profound impact on Artemisia's life and career, and her painting Judith Slaying Holofernes is thought by many art historians to be a reflection of her rage, with Judith representing Artemisia and Holofernes representing Tassi.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-1639), Royal Collection Trust, UK.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c. 1638-1639)

While Artemisia was in England, she painted a self-portrait of herself as The Allegory of Painting. Artemisia shows herself in a fine gown with a paintbrush in one hand and palette in the other. Several elements in the painting allude to Italian conceptions of the Allegory of Painting, who is described as a disheveled, dark-haired beauty with a chain of gold around her neck.

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