#ArtemisiaToo ... in Naples
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Does the name Tarana Burke ring a bell? If not, let me tell you who she is. She is an amazing woman from Alabama who founded an organization in 2006 to empower young women victims of sexual assault. She knew that a plan was needed to help girls identify assault, hold perpetrators accountable, and help victims heal. She grew and transformed her organization, ultimately giving women a voice. This "collective voice" was finally heard by and resonated with the WORLD when her hashtag, #MeToo, went viral in 2017. The MeToo movement has become a FORCE to reckon with, as girls and women have become empowered to speak out. Many "not so decent" people including Hollywood celebrities, sports icons, wealthy moguls, and EVEN Presidents, embarrassingly became caught in the web of accountability. So, I share my disgust in an effort to introduce to you a brave victim and survivor of sexual assault from the 1600s. Her name is Artemisia Gentileschi, a famous Italian Baroque painter.
Artemisia Gentileschi is my favorite Baroque artist because she was steely, resilient, and PAINTED AMAZINGLY POWERFUL PAINTINGS. She was born in 1593 in Rome, Italy. After her mother had died in childbirth when Artemisia was only 12 yrs old, she was raised solely by her father, Orazio, an exceptional painter. Orazio, who recognized her prodigal talent for painting, not only taught her himself but also hired a tutor to give her painting lessons; as young women of that time were forbidden from apprenticing in workshops. It was that "not so decent" tutor who decided to rape her during one of their lessons. That ASSAULT resulted in a very public court trial during which Artemisia had to endure the humiliation of a public gynecologic examination, in addition to the agony of torture. Nonetheless, the verdict ultimately favored, not surprisingly, the perpetrator, as the minimalistic judgment against him was never enforced. But what is remarkable is that that incident DID NOT terminate Artemisia's self-confidence, ambition, or resolve. She turned it to her advantage and it actually catapulted her career to great heights and much renown. Following the trial, she soon married and moved to Florence. There she sought and won the patronage of Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici. Not only did she remain active and competitive in an artistic field at that time dominated by men, but she was renowned enough to ultimately establish her OWN WORKSHOP with male employees! Her tragic and humiliating incident led her to paint very POWERFUL scenes, as her canvases absorbed the rath of her pent up grit, anger, and suffering. Her inner strength was clearly forged in the trials she endured! In the end, Artemisia's steely determination enabled her to triumph over BOTH misogyny and prejudice.
Artemisia became known for her dramatic, colorful, and realistic imagery. She depicted multi-faceted women, often from history, mythology, and the bible with exceptional naturalism. The scenes were often violent and showcased strong, determined heroines who displayed great courage; in essence, transforming victims into survivors. Her painting style was strongly influenced by Caravaggio, who was a close friend of the family. Caravaggio's style is known for its very REALISTIC depictions and DRAMATIC LIGHT effects (chiaroscuro). Although, Artemesia took Caravaggio's concept even further by making her colors brighter and bolder, filling her canvases with brown-ochre tones, bright red, strong blue, as well as shadows in orange. The very first painting I showed, above, in this blog, is titled 'Self-portrait as an Allegory of Painting' and is widely accepted by art critics to be a self-portrait. The skill required of her to paint herself at that angle, with right arm up, brush in hand, and her attention focussed on the invisible canvas before her, is brilliant and would have required her to use multiple mirrors, each suitably angled. She often incorporated self-portraits, of both her body and her face, into her paintings. Below are two more examples. The painting on the left titled 'Self Portrait as a Female Martyr' and 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria'.
Among her most notable paintings that defined her repertoire, is 'Judith Beheading Holofernes' (1613). Powerful Judith clearly has the upper hand in the scene. Many feminist scholars feel that this 'Judith painting', painted just a couple of years AFTER her assault and the trial was her means of exacting revenge against Agostino Tassi, the tutor who assaulted her. When examining the face of Judith as she saws the neck of Holofernes with her sword, it becomes evident that this, too, is yet another self-portrait. So who is the REAL victim in this painting? Holofernes or, more likely, Agostino Tassi. When the #MeToo movement took root a few years ago, this painting by Artemisia became a symbol of the movement for some who cited it in solidarity. Who would have thought that a 400 year-old story would again (or, sadly, still) be so relevant and globally resonate with so many? This painting resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
Another very notable painting of hers is 'Susannah and the Elders' (1610) which was her first major painting. Artemisia painted this painting in 1610, just months PRIOR to her assault, at which time she was only 17 years old. The voyeuristic and predatorial men in the scene almost eerily evoke a premonition of what Artemisia, herself, would soon confront. In the scene, Susannah recoils in repulsion from the men but is not shameful of herself. She isn't grabbing her towel to cover herself in haste, but gesturing for them to distance.
Other samplings of Artemisia's work which showcase her use of chiaroscuro, in which dramatic lighting is contrasted against a dark, shadowy background, are shown in the six paintings below. They are titled 'Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist', 'Judith and her Maidservant', 'Jael and Sisera', 'Cleopatra', 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes', and 'Lucretia'. Again, we see the recurrent display of strong, powerful, and self-determined women. Yes, a bit violent, gory, and haunting, but given Artemisia's history ... understandable.
Artemisia, however, presented her softer side, as well, often showcasing women with unique charisma and poise. Their poses are natural, gentle, caring, and emotive. Below are a few of her several 'Madonna and Child' paintings. I particularly LOVE these paintings as they show a natural interaction between a young mother and her toddler. It is unusual to see such dynamic and carefree interplay between the Virgin and her Son. The Christ child is playing, grabbing, reaching, and wriggling in Mary's lap, as expected of a young toddler. Artemisia having birthed five children could clearly relate to the vigor of a child. Sadly, only one of her five children lived to adulthood. Hence, heartache and grief enveloped her entire life.
Artemisia Gentileschi became an independent woman, who did not have to rely on a husband or a particular patron. Many people sought her paintings and wanted to learn from her. Her illustrious career spanned about 45 years and she was the first female artist admitted to Florence's Academy of Fine Arts. She died in 1656 at the age of 63. She lived her life primarily in Rome, Florence, and Naples, and resultantly most of her paintings remained in Italy. Her largest collection resides at the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. Luckily for us, some of her works have been purchased by private collectors and museums throughout the world, allowing us to occasionally get an original glimpse of her exceptional talent.
At the present time, an exhibition is showing at the National Gallery in London, UK, named none other than "Artemisia", displaying nearly 30 of her works. This exhibition can be viewed until January 24, 2021. This should not be missed by those who can currently travel to London.