Susanna and the Elders -- Aretmisia Gentileschi
In the beginning, there was pigment,
and canvas came into the fore upon which to paint. And there was
creative genius who for want of company envisioned a woman artist.
And that painter was none other than Artemisia Gentileschi.
Well, not really, She had, after all, a
father and not an ordinary parent. In those days the boot of Italy
was teeming with artists. A devoted follower of Michaelangelo Merisi
da Caravaggio not to be mistaken for the Sistine Chapel muralist and
sculptor of David fame Michelangelo Buonarroti, Orazio
Gentileschi painted in the chiaroscuro
fashion of this master. Although his figures were more
idealistically portrayed and not given over to Caravaggio's darker
figures both in pigment and in representing the underside of human
life, he nevertheless remained under the master's orbit.
His daughter also aspired to be an
artist. Who would have heard of such a thing in the late Sixteenth
to early Seventeenth century? And yet here was she soaking up the
images that her father painted possibly assiduously watching her
father paint. And she probably saw many times the whole process of
preparing the oils from solid pigments then grounded into powder to
be mixed with linseed oil. Or watched the delicate separation of
egg yolks from their whites for the preparation of egg tempera in his
frescoes. That would also involve his careful preparation of lime
that served not only as a painting surface but also, if I remember
correctly, as sizing to keep the paint from eating away at the wall's
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player -- Artemisia Gentileschi
She not only watched wide-eyed but her
father instructed her. There is often a gulf between mastery and
teaching. One may have the skill to paint but instructing is another
matter requiring being properly attuned to the student's temperament
and way of grasping and applying concepts. What the art teacher may
see in his students is not necessarily what the pupil sees. Progress
seems slow and glacial for the student frustrated at every turn while
the teacher perceives leaps.
But some artists will not teach not
because they want to keep their hard won skills to themselves,
although such individuals exist, but rather are fearful of
discouraging talented pupils. They are also mortified at the very
thought that their instruction may not apply to the student's needs.
The hesitation to explain and instruct and advise leads some painters
away from granting instruction. It is quite possible that Orazio was
reluctant to guide his daughter in fear of imparting the wrong, shall
we say, lessons.
Although he taught Artemisia, he left
the job for teaching her perspective to his colleague and
collaborator in commissioned work but also ex-con, Agostino Tassi.
You see, these were dangerous times in which local government (there
was no government that was not local) and the Church were in cahoots,
a legacy extending all the way back to the times of Dante Alighieri.
Artists had their passionate jealousies not only for women but more
so over their work. One could never dare to meet the swashbuckler
Caravaggio in a dark alley in Rome. If he learned you were an
artist, watch out! But it was acceptable to be his follower.
(Whew!) Benvenuto Cellini boasted of being poisoned by a rival on
two different occasions. Those were certainly treacherous times.
Slaying of Holofernes --Artemisia Gentileschi
One wonders why Orazio did not properly
vet his colleague and decide not to hire him as his daughter's
instructor since his reputation was widely known. Nevertheless, this
irascible character known for his violent outbursts became her
instructor. Oh, did I forget to mention the reason for his
conviction? He was sentenced to prison upon the murder of his wife.
A forgiving father seemed to have been eager to overlook such
details when allowing this renown artist upon his doorstep to
privately instruct his daughter. It sounds a lot like Lot offering
his daughters to the rabble outside of his home in the twin cities of
Sodom and Gomorrah.
With great trepidation one can
anticipate what horror followed entrusting this wild man into his
house to teach his daughter perspective. What he lacked was a
perspective on women as human beings. He behaved in the manner of
Shechem after raping Dinah begging her father for her hand in
marriage. Tassi savagely ravaged Artemisia and then offered to
marry her without following through on his vow. Her father brought
him to court on the grounds of sverginamento which is Italian for
the act of forcibly deflowering a young maiden. Unfortunately
Artemisia endured a trial of ordeal to exact the truth from her
putting a thumbscrew (sebille) to her fingers. The NPR
correspondent, Sylvia Poggioli (December 12, 1016) describes this
mode of torture as having metal rings increasingly tightened around
her fingers. The trial lasted five months and her clear, detailed
account of Tassi's rape brought about his conviction. However, Tassi
spent a mere eight months in the hoosegow and was acquitted.
Artemisia married one month after the trial and the couple moved to
Florence where she prospered as an artist.
However, she wrote to the grand Duke
Cosimo complaining of her husband's unfair financial treatment. The
marriage did not last and she moved to Rome with her daughter Palmira
and one servant. Her brother, it is said, looked after her affairs
bringing her work to clients both in Rome and Modena. By and large,
she had achieved independence a rare thing for women of that era.
As a figurative painter she had access
to female models who posed for her in the nude. It was not the
convention of that time to allow women to spy on naked men. As a
result, she excelled in her female figures, her men being carefully
clad. And while she mastered the smooth curves of the female body
with their delicate shades, she was not privy to the angularity of
male anatomy. Anyway, in that period of time, the female nude was
all the rage, and she was able to foot that bill.
Judith and her Maidservant--Artemisia Gentileschi
Her female figures were earthy and
full, portrayed as heroines rather than meek servile creatures. This
is evidenced in her portrayal of Mary Magdalene, although penitent,
turns away from her mirror clutching her breast while gazing
heavenward. It is certainly pronounced in her calm portrayal of a
valiant Judith after beheading Holofernes and her strong and stoical
but still feminine portrayal of fame sporting her victory laurel
cradling a trumpet with her right hand her left tucked confidently on
One cannot count her among the panoply
of heroic feminists. She did not raise placards to the skies
shouting slogans demanding equality before an archduke or a Roman
prelate. She did not handwrite broadsides and have them printed for
wide distribution. She did not stand on a soapbox to shout at an
angry crowd of men to shame them. Such necessary actions as parades,
petitions, and other forms of protest were for a later time. She had
all to do just to survive in a savagely male world filled with
debauchery and intrigue and survived she did with style, that is,
with the aesthetic sensibility of a great master.
But, she suffered the hand of history
buried in obscurity. It sufficed that a woman could rise to the
level of an independent artist. It was too much to request that she
run her own atelier and hold counsel with aspiring students molding
and shaping their art. Her hands were full emulating Caravaggio and
then keeping pace with contemporary artists who had abandoned his
tenebroso, his dark realism. Her legacy then is her example of
surviving and thriving in a man's world – a beacon of hope for
aspiring women artists today and for all creative people both male
and female who contend with rejection and the lack of an
understanding public only to butt against the wall of an indifferent
establishment which measures creativity by dollars and not by beauty
Sleeping Venus--Artemisia Gentileschi
Women Artists: 1550 – 1950 .
Harris, Ann Sutherland. pp.118 – 123. Los angeles county Mseum of
Art. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1981 .