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Culture

The slaying of Artemisia's art

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PHOENIX-LIKE : Two women overpowering and decapitating a powerful man in 'Judith Slaying Holofernes' is a recurrent theme in Artemisia's work;'Madonna' (right) shows her tender side. A self-portrait (centre)


One of the most amazing narratives of Renaissance art is the existence of a brilliant woman artist who has remained unknown till recent years. In a large show of Artemisia Gentileschi's works (1593-1654 ) which is being held at the Musee Maillol in Paris, we are met with one limnal painting after another, which brings home the fact that women painters, though their contribution has been significant, have remained anonymous.

If Kathe Kollwitz, Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keefe have dispelled the myth of a male-dominated modernism, equally important has been the role of women painters during the earlier centuries which is only now coming to light. Between the end of the 1500s and the beginning of the 1700s, other female painters had successful careers, including Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana as well as the later Fede Galizia. But because women were considered responsible for Original Sin, their role was always discouraged if not suppressed. It was Artemisia, however, who in her powerful delineations of women, the use of intense chromatic variations and chiaroscuro and the highlighting of the naturalistic style made an important breakthrough in the Baroque period of art.

An early self-portrait of Artemisia reveals a woman who was not only beautiful but with an aura about her bound to make an impact. Perhaps that is the reason she has always been better known for her eventful life and the freedom with which she lived as a woman and an artist than for her substantial creations. Yet a work like Madonna is special because of the quality of intimacy which exists between the mother and child. The tender expression on the woman's face feeding her child and the gurgle of delight with which the infant plays with the mother would resonate with the ordinary person. She was one of the first artists to bring about a realistic rendering of the woman's breast which had been painted to idealistic proportions by the Renaissance painters. Indeed the Madonna and Child as perceived by a Venetian painter like Giovanni Bellini was noteworthy for the expression of sadness on the face of Mary and the infant Jesus, foretelling the onset of tragedy that would befall him. But for a younger artist like Artemisia, considerably influenced by Carvaggio's realism, the duo create a spell-binding effect because of their warm, sensuous enveloping emotions. Ensconced within the High Renaissance style of light emerging from dark, the sublime balance of composition, and the effects of courtly costumes, the ordinary event is raised to an iconic moment.


Artemisia was born in Rome and began painting at an early age under the tutelage of her father the painter Orazio Gentileschi. On observing her skills and after the art academies rejected her, Orazio hired a colleague, the artist Agostino Tassi, to train her. In 1612, her father brought a suit against Tassi for raping Artemisia. There followed a highly publicised seven-month trial in which Artemisia had to submit to vaginal examination and torture with thumbscrews. Eventually, the case was won and Tassi was sentenced with either five years hard labour or exile from Rome. He chose the latter, but was back in Rome within four months, probably due to influence in high places. It proved, however, to be a defining moment for Artemisia.

In works like Judith Slaying Holofernes, which is a recurring theme in her oeuvre, she creates a magnetic spell where two women overpower and decapitate a powerful man. Judith was a Jewish widow of noble rank in Bethulia in Israel, a town besieged by the army of the Assyrian general Holofernes. She approached his tent as an emissary and captivated him with her beauty. He ordered a feast with much wine. After he passed out in his tent, Judith and her maid Abra seized the opportunity and decapitated Holofernes with his sword. His head was then smuggled back to Bethulia. On seeing her trophy, the townsfolk routed the leaderless Assyrians. The story is an allegorical version of Judaism in triumph over its pagan enemy.

It is believed that the work had a cathartic effect on the young painter who exorcised the trauma of rape by depicting the brutalisation and assault of a man, as cruel as he was powerful. The fact that Artemisia made this painting many times and each work with the women towering over the deposed man also reversed the conventionally staid depiction of Judith pointed towards the transgressive nature of her art. Her Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes with its masterly, if somewhat gruesome, depiction of the decapitated head is particularly powerful. In a painting like Judith and Her Maid the drama of the event is highlighted by the meticulous use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism and the dramatic placement of the figures. It also points to the secular and democratic nature of her art, where the servant is equally highlighted and the marginality of her position is circumvented.

Shortly after the trial, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. Soon the couple moved to Florence where Artemisia became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the Medici family and Charles I. She was also the first woman accepted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing. She was close to Galileo Galilei with whom she remained in contact for a long time and was respected by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, the nephew of the great Michelangelo. Indeed, he asked Artemisia to produce a painting to decorate the ceiling of the gallery of paintings at Casa Buonarroti to celebrate his notable relative. She also had an amorous relationship with Francesco Maria Maringhi, a rich Florentine gentleman, and some of her letters to him are showcased in the exhibition. Despite her success, however, the financial excesses borne by herself and her husband led to problems with creditors and she returned to Rome in 1621.

In the Eternal City, Artemisia enjoyed a meteoric rise and received a stream of major commissions from the rich Roman aristocracy. By 1623, she was well-established, acclaimed, courted and loved. She also enjoyed a new friendship with the French painter Simon Vouet, then at the height of his powers, which was accompanied by mutual influence. She acquired something of his elegant realism and he in turn was affected by the power that the passionate young woman put into her work. It seems that between 1627 and 1630, she moved to Venice, perhaps in search of richer commissions, as verses and letters were composed in appreciation of her and her works in this jewel of the Renaissance. She returned briefly to Rome, fleeing the plague in 1630, and then left for Naples at the invitation of the Duke of Alcala, the Viceroy of Naples and a great admirer of her work. It was here that she set up a studio and had assistants who helped with her many commissions. Her debut work Annunciation in the Capodimonte Museum won her instant fame and she went on to make paintings like Birth of Saint John the Baptist and Corsica and the Satyr. Artemisia made a series of painting for churches in Naples which are particularly impressive for their huge size and execution, including The Adoration of the Magi and The Martyrdom of St Januarius.

Although no documentary traces of the artist remain after 1654, it is possible that it was in Naples that she passed away probably during the devastating plague of 1656 leaving behind a repertoire of magnificent paintings and an atelier which continued with her legacy. It is all the more surprising then that while walking down the cavernous galleries of the Louvre in Paris one comes across an occasional Orazio but not a trace of Artemisia's paintings exists. Perhaps one of the finest of the Renaissance painters whose works showed that women, far from being timid or weak, were courageous, rebellious and powerful personalities, yet can only be shown outside the precincts of the famed.

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