Artemisia Gentileschi was the most important woman painter of Early Modern Europe by virtue of the excellence of her work, the originality of her treatment of traditional subjects, and the number of her paintings that have survived (though only thirty-four of a much larger corpus remain, many of them only recently attributed to her rather than to her male contemporaries).
She was both praised and disdained by contemporary critical opinion, recognized as having genius, yet seen as monstrous because she was a woman exercising a creative talent thought to be exclusively male. Since then, in the words of Mary D. Garrard, she “has suffered a scholarly neglect that is almost unthinkable for an artist of her caliber.”
Gentileschi was the daughter of a painter. She was born in Rome on July 8, 1593, the daughter of Orazio and Prudentia Monotone Gentileschi. Her mother died when Artemisia was twelve. Her father trained her as an artist and introduced her to the working artists of Rome, including Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, whose chiaroscuro style (contrast of light and shadow) greatly influenced Artemisia Gentileschi’s work. Other than artistic training, she had little or no schooling; she did not learn to read and write until she was adult. However, by the time she was seventeen, she had produced one of the works for which she is best known, her stunning interpretation of Susanna and the Elders (1610).
Among those with whom Orazio worked was the Florentine artist Agostino Tassi, whom Artemisia accused of raping her in 1612, when she was nineteen. Her father filed suit against Tassi for injury and damage, and, remarkably, the transcripts of the seven-month-long rape trial have survived. According to Artemisia, Tassi, with the help of family friends, attempted to be alone with her repeatedly, and raped her when he finally succeeded in cornering her in her bedroom. He tried to placate her afterwards by promising to marry her, and gained access to her bedroom (and her person) repeatedly on the strength of that promise, but always avoided following through with the actual marriage. The trial followed a pattern familiar even today: she was accused of not having been a virgin at the time of the rape and of having many lovers, and she was examined by midwives to determine whether she had been “deflowered” recently or a long time ago. Perhaps more galling for an artist like Gentileschi, Tassi testified that her skills were so pitiful that he had to teach her the rules of perspective, and was doing so the day she claimed he raped her. Tassi denied ever having had sexual relations with Gentileschi and brought many witnesses to testify that she was “an insatiable whore.” Their testimony was refuted by Orazio (who brought countersuit for perjury), and Artemisia’s accusations against Tassi were corroborated by a former friend of his who recounted Tassi’s boasting about his sexual exploits at Artemisia’s expense. Tassi had been imprisoned earlier for incest with his sister-in-law and was charged with arranging the murder of his wife. He was ultimately convicted on the charge of raping Gentileschi; he served under a year in prison and was later invited again into the Gentileschi household by Orazio.
During and soon after the trial, Gentileschi painted Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-1613). The painting is remarkable not only for its technical proficiency, but for the original way in which Gentileschi portrays Judith, who had long been a popular subject for art. One month after the long trial ended, in November of 1612, Artemisia was married to a Florentine artist, Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, and they moved to Florence, probably the next year. While there, she had a daughter named either Prudentia or Palmira. In Florence, Gentileschi returned to the subject of Judith, completing Judith and her Maidservant in 1613 or 1614. Again, Gentileschi’s treatment of the familiar subject matter is unexpected and original. Both she and her husband worked at the Academy of Design, and Gentileschi became an official member there in 1616–a remarkable honor for a woman of her day probably made possible by the support of her Florentine patron, the Grand Duke Cosimo II of the powerful Medici family. During her years in Florence, he commissioned quite a few paintings from her, and Gentileschi left Florence to return to Rome upon his death in 1621.
From there she probably moved to Genoa that same year, accompanying her father who was invited there by a Genovese nobleman. While there she painted her first Lucretia (1621) and her first Cleopatra (1621-1622). She also received commissions in nearby Venice during this period and met Anthony Van Dyck, a very successful painter of the era, and also perhaps Sofonisba Anguissola, a generation older than Gentileschi and one of the handful of women who worked as artists. Gentileschi soon returned to Rome and is recorded as living there as head of household with her daughter and two servants. Evidently she and her husband had separated and she eventually lost touch with him altogether. Gentileschi later had another daughter, and both are known to have been painters, though neither their work nor any assessment of it has survived.
During this stay in Rome, a French artist, Pierre Dumonstier le Neveu, made a drawing of her hand holding a paintbrush, calling it a drawing of the hand of “the excellent and wise noble woman of Rome, Artemisia.” Her fame is also evident in a commemorative medal bearing her portrait made some time between 1625 and 1630 that calls her pictrix celebris or “celebrated woman painter.” Also at this time, Jerome David painted her portrait with the inscription calling her “the famous Roman painter.”
Some time between 1626 and 1630 Gentileschi moved to Naples, where she remained until 1638. She is again listed as “head of household.” While there, she painted her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630), a work unique in its fusing of art, muse, and artist, The Annunciation (1630), another Lucretia, another Cleopatra, and many other works. She collaborated with a number of (male) artists while in Naples. In 1637, desperate for money to finance her daughter’s wedding, Gentileschi began looking for new patrons. In one letter soliciting commissions, she mentions “a youthful work done by [her] daughter” that she is sending along.
The new patron to whom she finally attached herself was King Charles I of England. Gentileschi was in residence at the English court from 1638 to 1641, one of many continental artists invited there by that art-collecting king. She may have gone specifically to assist her father, Orazio, in a massive project to decorate the ceilings of the Queen’s house at Greenwich. After civil war had broken out in England in 1641 (a war that would result in the death of Charles I), Artemisia returned to Naples where she lived until her death. She remained very active there, painting at least five variations on Bathsheba and perhaps another Judith. The only record of her death is in two satiric epitaphs–frequently translated and reprinted–that make no mention of her art but figure her in exclusively sexual terms as a nymphomaniac and adulterer.