Artemisia Gentileschi, (1593-c1653), Jael Slaying Sisera, 1620. Oil on Canvas.
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian painter, and notably one of the first successful female painters of the post renaissance period. Her work was eulogised in her lifetime as “a prodigy of painting.” Gentileschi’s early career had been marked by scandal but she was later to find success as a painter with commissions from the Medici family, and the court of Charles I of England. She ran her own large studio, and painted major religious and historical events, something that was unknown for the time as a female painter. Her depictions of female antagonists was unusual for the time as they showed the women to be mature, unidealised, and unflinching as they exacted punishment upon tyrants.
Her father Orazio Gentileschi was a painter in his own right, and a friend of Caravaggio whose chiaroscuro style would influence the young Gentileschi. Although she possessed obvious talent, Gentileschi was not accepted for study at academies due to being female. To develop her potential as a painter, her father had her tutored by Agnostino Tassi, a fellow painter with whom he worked. In 1611, Tassi raped the young Gentileschi, and under the agreement that they would marry, a sexual relationship continued. Tassi broke this promise, and nine months after the initial rape, and only because Gentileschi had been a virgin at the time of her rape, was her father was able to press charges.
The seven month trial was an ordeal for the artist, she was given gynaecological exams to ascertain her status as a virgin, and tortured with thumbscrews. The trial was a huge scandal revealing Tassi’s coercion of his sister-in-law into adultery, his plots of theft, and of murder. Tassi was convicted of the rape but due to the influence of his connections served no time for his crime.
In 1612-11, Gentileschi completed Judith beheading Holefernes. Her depiction of this scene is notable for its brutality and realism. Judith, a Jewish widow of noble rank captivates Holofernes, an Assyrian general who has laid siege to her town. Holofernes passes out after his feast and while he sleeps, Judith with her maid-servant decapitate the general with his own sword. It has been said theorised that the graphic nature of the painting was a response to her rape and trial.
Gentileschi married in 1612 and was able to assert her independence as an artist after moving to Florence. In 1614 with the support of influential artists, intellectuals and patrons, she was the first woman to be admitted to Florence’s Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Design).
Text taken from, the Darling: Book of Curiosities, Nephertiti Schandorf, 2013