Quite often, the question arises: why have there not been more women painters? This would imply the acceptance that there have been very few. It would likely be more accurate to ask ourselves why so few examples have come down to us. The recovery of the female gaze in recent decades has shown us that there were many more women painters than we thought. Why did they fall into oblivion? A very telling case is that of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656), a painter widely recognised in her time, then relegated to obscurity, and only recovered in the early twentieth century by the art critic Roberto Longhi.
In painting workshops (and those for handicrafts in general) many a wife and daughter lent a hand in certain processes, and we also know of cases of excellent painters who would work alongside their husbands or fathers, who signed the works, so that they went unrecognised.
Artemisia was the daughter of another artist, Orazio Gentileschi, a friend and follower of Caravaggio and his dramatic painting, full of contrasts of lights and shadows. He soon realised his daughter Artemisia’s extraordinary ability for painting. The girl had grown up in the midst of paintbrushes, in an all-male environment, since her mother had died, and it had been left to her to take care of her three younger siblings. This did not prevent her from becoming highly skilled at a young age, and her father admitted in a letter that he could no longer teach her further, as her style was similar to that of the great artists of the time.
At the age of eighteen, she had to endure the terrible ordeal of being raped by a painter friend of her father who was acting as her teacher. In these cases, a pall of suspicion hung over the victim, who had to endure social rejection. When Orazio found out, he denounced the abuse and a trial was held, which included embarrassing physical examinations. The transcript of the litigation is preserved, with the harrowing statements of the painter, who had been tortured to prove her innocence, while the rapist, who enjoyed the support of Pope Innocent X, was released.
After this nightmare, her father hastily arranged a marriage of convenience with a minor painter, with whom she went to Florence, where the art of Artemisia could flourish under the protection of the Medici, the wealthy patrons of the arts. There she learned to write (she could only read) and became the first woman to enter the Accademia del Disegno, at a time when guilds and academies were exclusively male territory.
In this portrait, completed when she was already a mature painter, Artemisia portrays herself as embodying the art of painting, something only a woman could have done, since all the personifications of abstract concepts were imagined as feminine. We see it as dynamic, moving, energetic. Undoubtedly, Artemisia wants to show what painting means to her: enthusiasm, rage, resolution and, clearly visible under the palette, her initials. Leaning over the stone to grind pigments, and with her brush in hand, she seems to want to tell us: this is me, Artemisia Gentileschi, painting incarnate among mortals. A veritable declaration of intentions and creative genius.
A year after the terrible assault, she would paint one of her most famous works: Judith Slaying Holofernes, a subject she would return to on several occasions throughout her life. Who was Judith? A beautiful young Jewish widow who, in the midst of the war between Israel and Assyria, appeared before the tent of the enemy general besieging her city, Bethulia, sumptuously attired. As the biblical account goes, she seduced him, got him drunk, and while he slept, Judith and her maid got down to work. The brutality of the scene, with a Judith who, again, looks very much like Artemisia, has caused much ink to be spilled: with her sword firmly held, one of the symbols of justice, Judith resolutely cuts off the head of Holofernes, as the blood trickles down the sheet, rendered in a terrifyingly realistic manner.
Judith and Holofernes is a common theme in much of the work of the Baroque painters and often symbolised the triumph of good over evil. But many critics have wanted to see in this depiction Artemisia’s defiance of the brutal violence she endured as a young woman. Indeed, male painters portray the maiden in a passive position, and Artemisia is the only one who paints her supporting Judith. Unlike a man, she was well aware that a girl needs help to kill and behead a warrior. Might there also be, implicitly, the idea of sisterhood, a solidarity among women?
There is no denying that Artemisia Gentileschi painted strong and brave female figures (Cleopatra, Minerva), portraying herself in many, and never hesitated to tackle the issue of gender violence from a viewpoint different than that of male painters (as in her other works, for example, Susanna and the Elders or The Rape of Lucretia). But it is also true that the paintings she made were commissions, the themes chosen were the same as the repertoire of the time and that it is not fair to analyse her work based on the rape she endured when she was young, rather than on her skill and ability, as is done with male painters. Sadly, sexual violence also affected young boys, and it is certain that Michelangelo and Caravaggio had also suffered from this because of their being homosexuals, but this element is practically absent in the analyses of their paintings.
After giving birth to five children, she separated from her husband when she was twenty-seven and began to live alone, first in Rome, then in Naples, where she become one more of the city’s great painters. Her character and beauty provoked so much curiosity among the nobles – she was after all a rare bird – that they commissioned paintings from her just to own one of her works, and even asked for self-portraits. In 1638, Charles I of England called her to his court, where her father was already present, although he would die shortly after her arrival.
Judith and Her Maidservant, 1625-27. Detroit Institute of Arts. Detroit
On this occasion we see the scene after the slaying of Holofernes, when Abra, the maiden, picks up his severed head while Judith watches. The figures seem to be frozen in the moment they both stop to scrutinise the darkness and listen closely. Tension presides over composition.
Judith puts a hand in front of the candle, perhaps so as not to dazzle herself and be better able to watch the door of the tent, perhaps to ask the maid to be silent. In Italy, unlike in Spain, artists could attend nude academies at night, where they could copy the natural body. The models posed nude, and the painters examined how the light from the candles was reflected on their bodies and on different fabrics. We do not know if Artemisia had attended, but there is no doubt about the painter’s absolute mastery of the chiaroscuro technique, which matches the skills of Caravaggio himself.
The shadow cast on Judith’s face is crescent-shaped, curiously the attribute of Artemis, the Greek goddess of women and wild nature. Except for the parts that are illuminated directly by the candle, the composition remains in darkness. This way of painting, with these contrasts between light and shadow, is called “tenebrism”.
Artemisia Gentileschi is known for the gold and yellow she uses for the fabrics of her figures, to the point that the painters would talk of the “golden Artemisia”. Her compositions use abundant colour, as is the case in this painting, where the gold of Judith’s dress contrasts with the crimson of the curtains and the blue of Abra’s skirt. Judith’s skin is young and fine, and there is even a hint of the bluish traces of the veins in her hand. The sword, illuminated by the light of the candle, is finely worked, and cannot be other than that of the general himself.
The table is covered with green velvet tablecloths trimmed with a gold edging. The softness of the velvet contrasts with the metallic hardness of the armoured glove laid on the table, the sheath of the sword and the candlestick. Only the great artists give their paintings these sensory characteristics: not only do we see, but we also seem to be able to feel the touch of the fabric and the coldness of the metal.
On the ground, with extraordinary realism, is the severed head, which has already lost its breath of life and has taken on the greenish, cerulean hue of lifeless bodies.
On the death of her father Orazio, Artemisia returned to Naples, where she would live until her death. In her successful atelier she would work for popes and princes, living off her work, without a wealthy husband to protect her, nor under the wing of a royal court. Her life was an example of female freedom at a time when women had everything against them. In 1649, she would write to one of her best patrons: “With me, my lord, you shall not lose, and you shall find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman”.
To find out more
Jamis, R., Artemisia Gentileschi. Barcelona: Circe, 1998.
Mencio, E. (ed.), Cartas precedidas de las actas del proceso por estupro. Madrid: Cátedra, 2016.
Parker, R. and G. Pollock, Maestras antiguas. Mujeres, arte e ideologia. Madrid: Akal, 2021.