Artemesia Gentileschi, one of few women painters in the 1600’s, and among the finest of either sex.
Born in Florence in the Baroque era, Artemesia (1593 – c. 1656) was one of the finest painters of her day, and the only one of her sex to achieve recognition. She was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence was employed by patrons from the Papal states Italy, Naples, and England. Her father Orazio was also very well known and respected as a painter, sharing his knowledge with her from an early age, yet for years they were estranged until possibly near the very end of his life when they worked together in London for the royal family.
Her most famous painting is Judith Slaying Holofernes, a bloody affair that demonstrates her powerful use of light and shadow allo Caravaggio. She made use of her own image in this and many of other paintings.
Her success was threatened in the earlier years by the crime to which she was subject, and the subsequent trial. In 1611 at age 18 she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a painter Orazio hired to tutor her. At that time if you were raped and the rapist promised to marry you, rape was acceptable provided the promise was kept. She continued having sex with Tassi but he reneged on the marriage commitment – her continued relations with him was not considered exculpatory of his behavior. At the time he was still married and having a sexual relation with his sister in law as well. Part of the trial ordeal was a required gynecological exam. In addition all witnesses had to undergo torture. Their testimony would be deemed credible if they did not change their story. The prosecution was carried out not by her but her father as women did not have standing in these matters. Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to five years or banishment from Rome. He chose the former.
She handles light beautifully, her underlying drawings are magnificent.
She married a Florentine artist recommended to her by a friend, to which her father grudgingly assented, as was required if she were to marry anyone. Pierantonio Stiattessi was also a painter but not of her stature. He helped her get commissions, fathered their daughter Prudentia but later became a burden. They spent most of her married years apart despite a very good beginning. During these early years in Florence she was accepted into the prestigious Accademia di Arte del Disegno, which also required the approval of her father. During this period Michelangelo Buonarrot, the Michelangelo’s nephew, asked her and other artists to contribute a painting to the house he was building to honor his uncle.
Her letters reveal a love affair with a wealthy Florentine named Maringhi . Her husband wrote to her lover in friendly terms using the backside of her love letters. Perhaps Maringhi provided financial or other forms of assistance. By 1621 she and her husband were no longer cohabiting, and she had returned to Rome. She found less success there than in Florence, and by 1630 she moved to Naples, finding lucrative work with the Viceroy. In 1638 she went to London to help her father with a ceiling for which he had been commissioned.
In Alexandra LaPierre’s Artemesia their reunion was awkward at best, coming after 25 years of separation. LaPierre portrays Orazio as fearful of being outranked by his daughter. By 1642 she had finished the work he had been hired to do, leaving England some two years following her father’s sudden death in 1639. She disappears from the records until 1648, when she is back in Naples
While it is true that there were few women painters in this period, there were others. Italians of the era were Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, and Fede Galizia. Per LaPierre, Artemesia’s success in Naples encouraged a number of female competitors.
Most of her paintings feature women as protagonists. While most women were portrayed demurely, her’s were strong and uninhibited, and making a mark in history.
For a broader view of women in art in that era see the video by Art Historian Dr. Vida Hull
There is a good article on wiki if you want more information. wiki on Artemisia Gentileschi I highly recommend LaPierre’s historical novel referenced above. There a very good video on youtube. The producer expresses outrage at the lack of exposure of this fine painter. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoYF2rjCG68