“There were many Caravaggisti but only one Caravaggista.” These were the words used by an art historian Mary Garrard to emphasize the importance of an Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Palazzo Braschi, at the Navona Square, which has been the home to Museo di Roma since the mid-20th century, in November 2016 opened an exhibition of paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi and a number of artists related to her work historically and contextually. The exhibition implies new interpretations and contenxtualizations of Gentileschi’s art, which started appearing in academic circles in the 1980s, when the feminists began re-examining historical canons and re-writing new, critical history of art. The exhibition focuses particularly on the feminist aspects of her art.
Artemisia Gentileschi (born in Rome, 1593, died in Napoli, 1656) was an Italian Baroque painter, the first woman to enroll at the Art Academy in Florence (Accademia di Arte del Disegno). Her art was somewhat neglected by art history writings until the emergence of feminist art history reviews.
Mary Garrard points to unjust disregard for her work only because she was a woman, and that, as such, the attention she received was not so much for her work, but more due to the fact that she achieved more than could be expected, considering her gender. It was only in the 20th century that art history began to recognize the significance of this artist and to characterize her as one of the Carravaggistas, making her an iconic representative of one of the greatest, historically neglected genius female artists, during the rise of feminist art history.
She was born in Rome, in circumstances rather suitable for the development of her talent. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi, a known painter, was able to offer adequate guidance and support for his daughter’s creative work. She spent her time among artists, mostly members of the traditional generation of Bolognese Classical School of painting, as her family’s neghborhood was a hub for artists coming from northern Italy. Adopting Carravagio’s artististic expression was therefore a result of the artistic response to Carravagio’s radical painting created by her father. Nevertheless, Mary Garrard concludes that Gentileschi’s art was “radically different in expression” from male artists of the time, pointing to a feminist theme in her paintings, where young vigorous heroines refuse to accept “the unofficial religion of patriarchal misogyny” of her contemporaries.
Her first dated painting, Susanna and the Elders (Susana e i Vecchioni) from 1610 (she was seventeen at the time!), shows distinct attributes of Carravagio style in composition, contrast, facial expressions of characters, dramatic corporal rhetoric, and verism. Also, the painting clearly reveals the influence of her father’s work – not surprisingly, considering that the only access to the world of art available to women at the time was through their mentors, who were in most cases also their fathers. Nevertheless, in coloration she departs from her father’s style, using reddish-violet, yellow-green, and gray-blue tones, indicating that the artist was also incorporating elements from other contemporaries, rather than merely learning from a given model. This coloring shows the following the example of Michelangelo’s painting of Sistine Chapel, which is quite logical, considering that Artemisia was friends with his descendant, Michelangelo Junior, who was a family friend and her biggest supporter in Florence.
Orazio Gentileschi had written to Count of Tuscany telling him that, after three years of education, his daughter was ready to enroll into school (her family background, although not aristocratic, contributed to her ability to get an education, be noticed, and established – it should not be taken for granted that education of any talented young woman wasn’t possible at the time). Orazio hired Agostino Tassi, a painter who worked with him in Rome on painting Pallavichini-Rospigliosi Palazzo, to teach Artemisia perspective to Artemisia. On one occassion, during his lectures, Tassi raped Artemisia. She expected him to propose her and continued having a relationship with him. As Tassi failed to keep his promise, nine months after the rape, Orazio sued him, which he could not have had done had Artemisia not initially been a virgin. It is important to note that Artemisia had to undergo a variety of painful gynecological examinations and torments in order to ascertain whether she was telling the truth. The rapist was convicted to one year in prison, which he never served. Detailed testimonial reports describing Tassi’s assault and her attempts to defend herself were kept (“He then threw me on to the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them. Lifting my clothes, he placed a hand with a handkerchief on my mouth to keep me from screaming… I scratched his face,” she told the court, “and pulled his hair and, before he penetrated me again, I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh. I scratched his face, pulled on his hair, and before he was able to penetrate again, grabbed his penis so hard that I tore off a part of flesh… I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonoured me.” (cited from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/05/artemisia-gentileshi-painter-beyond-caravaggio).
Soon after this, Artemisia’s father arranged a wedding between his daughter and Pierantonio Stiattesi), a modest artist from Florence, where the newlyweds moved. There Artemisia quickly became a succesful court painter enjoying respect and support of the Medicci family, and Charles I Stuart. She gave birth to two daughters, one of which, Prudenzia, also became a painter trained by her mother (her work is not known to scholars). Artemisia’s success was crowned by the enrollment to the famous Florence Academy of Art (Accademia delle Arti del Disegno), making her the first woman to attend this university. She consorted with and enjoyed the respect of her contemporaries, not only form the upper-most echelons of power – the Mediccis, Count and Countess of Tuscany, Christine de Lorraine, and the art world, but also, as is evident from the letters saved, with Galileo Gallilei.
The terrible event and the outcome of the Tassi’s trial, though they may seem as mere biographical facts, have often been referred to in historiography as the cause of different themes and their treatment in the artist’s paintings. Her emotions regarding the event are most often recognized in her paintings of Judith who decapitates Holofernes. One cannot but notice the rage of the female character, her bravery to take revenge and her triumph in executing her revenge. These paintings, created after gaining independence from her family, as well as artistic independence from the influence of her father’s painting, exhibit distinct Caravaggio’s impact. Dramatic light (chiaroscuro) Caravaggio is renowned for, which is implemented in this painting, gives even stronger expression to the already expressive faces and gestures. Although in the Naples version of the painting the influence of her father’s painting is still present in the manner of shaping the figures, in the Florentine version Caravaggio’s way of painting utterly prevails. However, what separates the Florentine version of Judith from the one from Naples is the specific coloristic complexity of the dark burgundy hue, dark blue and gold, which is more sophisticated than the simple coloristic scheme of the Naples version dominated by red and blue.
The coloring, along with the light, composition, setting, gestures and facial expressions of the characters, all contribute to the observer’s impression that he/she is part of the scene.
This verism and the development of the feeling of empathy, characteristic of Caravaggio, as well as of the Baroque painting in general, in the paintings of Judith gain a feminist message. A strong and brave woman, together with her maid (who is in fact, in this narrative, above all an ally manages to defeat the leader of men (in this case, a rival).
It is a well-known fact that Holofernes, the leader of the men who Nebuchadnezzar sent to wreak vengeance on the peoples of the West, shortly before the seige of the town of Betulia, gets drunk and is seduced by Judith, a brave Jewish widow, who eventually decapitates him in his tent. The message is clear: A man drunk with power of physically subjugating the weak (the people, a woman, another man, whoever), seduced by the illusion of power which he voluntarily transfers to a woman becomes weak and deprived of the real power, susceptible even to the loss of his own life. The woman, here a representative of the deprived, takes advantage of the man’s weaknesses to take revenge and save the oppressed and the defeated. The allusion to the Tassi situation is obvious, especially since we know from the sources that during the attack the artist managed to grab a knife from a cabinet, but failed to kill the attacker and that, as mentioned above, she expressed her deepest regret in court for not accomplishing this feat.
However, Artemisia‘s complete works cannot be reduced to her desire for revenge to men through art. The curator of the exhibition Judith Mann (as well as Mary Garrard) points out that the historians found the artist’s victimization much more fascinating than her art: ‘We really understood her life far earlier than we cared, really, about her painting. And the understanding of Artemisia as a painter, as an artist, followed the fanfare of her celebrated rape… And now we try to go back and fill in and properly understand.’ (taken from: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/12/12/504821139/long-seen-as-victim-17th-century-italian-painter-emerges-as-feminist-icon).
Her scope is much wider than the limited selection of femisnist themes. First leaving for Rome, then, following her father, going to Genoa, Artemisia finally arrives in Naples. Here, for the first time, she takes part in painting a cathedral – the cathedral was dedicated to St Gennaro and was located in the Amphitheater in Pozzuoli (San Gennaro nell’anfiteatro di Pozzuoli). During the first period she painted St John the Baptist (now in Prado) and the painting Corsica and the Satyr (Corsica e Il Satiro). These paintings stand as a proof of her ability to apply new trends of the period and her capacity to depict different themes instead of the usual Judith, Susanna and other well-known biblical themes.
In 1638 Artemisia joined her father in London, at the court of Charles I Stuart (who personally invited her to come), where her father worked as a court painter and was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Queen’s House in Greenwich (Casa delle Delizie) belonging to Queen Henrietta Maria of France, and Artemisia helped him. Charles I Stuart, being an ardent collector and admirer of art, had Artemisia’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (Autoritratto in veste di Pittura) in his collection. After her father’s death in 1639, Artemisia finished the commission and left England in 1642, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War.
The importance of Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting is not necessarily tied to her female sex/gender. This fact certainly contributed to her being praised for her bravery, determination and willingness to find her place in the art world despite the difficulties she encountered as a woman, but her art should not be valorized exclusively in this context.
Even her ‘most feminist’ compositions, such as several versions of Judith, Susanna, etc. in formal sense show qualities that contextually tie her to Caravaggisti and successful baroque painters (men). As we can see in the Florentine painting of Judith, the characters are treated as individuals and not as mere stage characters of a dramatic plot. The observer is mesmerized by a strong, authentic mental and physical tension, conspicuous rage, a relation of power, the struggle and all the complexity of mixed emotions which are mirrored on the faces, in the gestures and the attitudes of the characters, as well as the scenography of the painting. Variety of themes and the way of bringing the contents and the form into accord, testify not only about talent, but also about education, thoughtfulness, and careful observation of reality and contemporary painters. The treatment of the elements of art, the approach to figures, composition, sharp contrasts, diagonals, characteristic sources of light, the choice and combination of colors, verism, dramatic nature and the entire dynamics bridled into the frozen static movement of the characters, place the paintings of this artist side by side with her colleagues (they even make her more successful than most of the male ‘bearers’ of the Caravaggio manner).
In the end, I would like to add that the quality of her work casts a shadow over the unfortunate events that a society has used, then as well as now, to stigmatize both ‘public’ and ‘non-public’ women.
The postmodernist approach in the art history, as well as the whole ‘new’ critical art history, ensure that in studying the art of the forgotten and poorly valorized female artists, the methodology is not burdened with forced valorization and contextualization of the female artists into the existing discourse and/or canon which is phallogocentric in its essence. Artemisia’s work can thus be studied from different perspectives, and her paintings can be analyzed in numerous ways – feminist, formalist, socio-historical, iconographic, while one of the possible analysis is certainly offered at the exhibition in Rome. As is the case with most contemporary exhibitions, they speak more about the ones who organize them (and the ones they are aimed at) than the ones whose works are exhibited.
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