Beautiful, sensual, powerful: Artemisia painterly style and persona were groundbreaking for her time. On show in Milan 50 artworks that recount her life and talent.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was a young, strong and talented woman. She was also the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, who is today regarded worldwide as a renowned Italian painter of The Caravaggio’s School.
Artemisia decided that her life was about painting: she showed abilities in her drawings at a very young age, and later on, produced some of the most dramatic works ever painted by a woman. Not to discriminate between genders, quite the opposite: the figure of Artemisia has been groundbreaking in history of art. It was hard for a woman to choose to be a painter, a profession on the surface left to men, since women were forbidden from being educated or from working, at least in public.
Aided by her talent and supported by the artists who regularly gravitated around her environment, she had the chance – a first for a woman – to learn painting techniques from her father (who himself learnt from Caravaggio, who Artemisia probably met).
Her first painting dates back to when she was 17, “Susanna e i Vecchioni”, revealing the talent that was yet to be expressed in later masterpieces like the Oloferne’s Decapitation by Giuditta and the Penitent Maddalena. The light in her paintings is astonishingly moving – it doesn’t surprise since she belongs to Caravaggio’s School, but it’s still beautiful to look at – and it lands on the skin of her portraits as though the lights itself was a protagonist. The expression on the faces she depicts, the gestures involved, speak loud about a sensuality that would be hard to find in 17th Century pictorial art.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Abbraccio tra la Giustizia e la Pace, 1635 circa © Collezione Privata
Her works are already impressive, but they acquire a new meaning if framed with the outlook of a woman who sued her father’s collegue, Agostino Tassi, for having raped her in 1611. The matter was not straight forward, as her father decided to sue Tassi (in her name) a year after the rape, many people thought that Artemisia had been involved with Tassi and that once the relationship ended Artemisia was seeking revenge as he was already married. There are several documents that report in detail Artemisia’s deposition, with a graphic description of the rape. To make sure she was not lying, during the trial she was even tortured: both of her thumbs were crushed with an instrument in use back then. Artemisia won the case and Tassi was sentenced to a few years of prison.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Giuditta e la fantesca Abra con la testa di Oloferne, 1617-18 © Archivi Alinari, Firenze. Per concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali
Some assume that her painting of Oloferne’s decapitation by Giuditta – painted between 1612 and 1613 - is a clear message of revenge towards Tassi. Milano dedicates a retrospective to her: Artemisia Gentileschi. Storia di una passione. Artemisia, who was an independent woman first, a feminist second (when the word was yet to be coined) and last but not least, a talented painter. In fact, only once society was ready to accept a woman’s worth, after World War II, was Artemisia’s innate talent recognized and legitimized. 50 of her works and unreleased documents are on display at Palazzo Reale (until January 29th). www.mostrartemisia.it
Artemisia Gentileschi, Maddalena, 1630 circa © Rita R.R. and Marc A. Seidner Collection, Los Angeles
Cover credits: Artemisia Gentileschi, Giuditta decapita Oloferne, 1612 circa © Archivi Alinari, Firenze. Per concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali
Written by Elisa della Barba