Only the greatest artists are known by their first names and Artemisia is one of them. Her name doesn’t only represent great craftsmanship but also stands for female power, rebellion and ‘me too’.
Fifteen works by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593- after 1654) are gathered by the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede and show the phenomenal power of this Baroque painter. When you would have asked any museum visitor about Artemisia forty years ago, they would frowned and shaken theirs heads. Only art lovers within the feminist movement would have heared of Artemisia for she is a impressive example of female emancipation.
In the 17th century there were few female artists and most of them painted ‘female’ subjects like still lives. Not that they all desperately wanted to paint still lives, but they often had no other choice. Proper training which included studying the human body was out of the question. Artemisia was an exception, for her father Orazio Gentileschi taught her everything he knew.
The choice for her subjects is considered highly unusual today and almost always linked to her personal live. While being trained by Agostino Tassi, a friend of her fathers, he raped her. Artemisia, not even 18 years old, tried to ward him off but to no avail. When she found out he wouldn’t marry her, Artemisia and her father took him to trial and Artemisia was subjected to humiliating examinations and even tortured. Even then, she stood by her testimony. ‘È vero, è vero, è vero’ she exclaimed as we know from the trial documents. Against all odds, Tassi was convicted and had to leave Rome.
Her trial had been the talk of the town for months so Artemisia left too and married a man she didn’t love to save what was left of her family’s reputation. In her marriage contract it was stipulated that she would be allowed to paint, which resulted in a career which spanned more than 40 years gaining fame and admiration across Europe, she even worked for the English king. Unfortunately she had loveless marriage and lost four children.
One can imagine that such a personal experience will indeed provide enough inspiration to paint the subjects Artemisia painted: quite a few of Judith and Holofernes, Suzanna and the elders and Cleopatra. But to link those solely to her desire to avenge herself through her paintings, would not give her the credits she deserves.
For 17th century baroque art was all about drama, emotion and horror. Paintings where heads are being chopped off with blood everywhere were extremely successful. As explained earlier, women usually took on other subjects, but Artemisia didn’t. She chose the same themes as her contemporaries Caravaggio, Guido Reni and Gerrit van Honthorst. And she was convinced of her own talent, as she writes in a letter to Don Antionio Ruffo, a collector or works by Rembrandt: ‘I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do’.
And how right she was. In the exhibition in Enschede her paintings of these subjects are juxtaposed with those of her male colleagues and clearly show the difference between the male and female gaze. Artemisia’s heroines show you their emotions and look like real women, rather than being an excuse to paint ‘just a beautiful women’ like her male colleagues did. Her women are not voluptuous, charming or licentious no they are strong and determined. Just like she was herself. Wendy Fossen, 19th January 2022
This exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede is extended and will now run until 27th March 2022.