Artemisia Gentileschi – 1610

Jane and Kimberly ponder the art of a woman who was calling #metoo through her Baroque visions decades before truth of patriarchal influence became a “thing.”

KC: I was hooked on the first line of an article in Psyche Magazine: “Artemisia Gentileschi signed her first known painting in 1610 when she was 17. It shows the biblical protagonist Susanna, naked, flushed, and writhing in discomfort as two men intrude on her bathing…. Like many of her subsequent paintings, Susanna and the Elders also centered its drama on the female struggle.” Here was a young woman who had lost her mother at age twelve, who lived in a man’s world where female artists were not taken seriously, and who painted about being consistently victimized by the rampant climate of patriarchy that surrounded, and threatened to stifle her, in her every waking minute. Talk about bold!

But as I went further, I learned her artistic acumen was also outstanding. The article went on to say, “The work proclaimed much of the expert modeling, coloration and narrative urgency that would secure Gentileschi’s place as one of the most famous artists of the Baroque period – ‘honored’, as she put it to her friend Galileo Galileo, ‘by all the kings and rulers of Europe’.” Why is it I had not studied her equally with the other Baroque masters of the Renaissance?

JS: As I read this piece, I found it pretty fascinating to sort out our normal enthusiasms for contemporary women artists who paint from personal, private female experiences while realizing the criticism AG met with for doing what appears to be the same thing.  Her paintings were actually judged as ‘less than’ because she painted from emotions she knew well! 

KC: Yet, she still did it. Her own father was very against her painting, even while she was being recognized as a true talent within her genre. He tried to send her to a convent, yet, showing some meek signs within his male-domineering culture which I idealistically hope to connect to a father’s love, he ended up eschewing that idea and, instead, hiring a tutor for her so that she could continue her artistic studies. Of course, this tutor raped her! To legitimize the rape, he agreed to marry her, until it was discovered he was already married to another woman. Today, these circumstances feel like a comedy of errors yet when I think about Gentileschi trying to survive during these traumatic successions of events, all I can do is muster up a deep, dark appreciation for the power of art as a tool of resilience—her most profound survival mechanism and coping tool was in her ability to process upon the canvas.

JS: Yes, yet sadly still in fact, her painting ability would become judged for centuries by how she was judged as a woman who cried rape in a time when rape was seen as women seducing men, never as seduced against their will!

KN: Right. But even after the rape incident had passed, and she was subsequently married off to another man, she continued to snub her victimization by continuing to paint its narrative out from within. This included one of her most astounding works Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1616-17), of which I can’t help but draw my own conclusion that Gentileschi was positing herself in resonance with the saint who was martyred at 18 after being lambasted for devoting her life to study rather than devotion to men. I find it extremely interesting that she was expressing the reality of her womanhood and all of its brutal unfairness and blunt trauma to the feminine spirit right in front of everyone’s faces, yet they failed to consider her voice a danger or her subject matter taboo. In society’s ignorance and denial of the female voice as important, she was allowed to create a powerful canon of injustice and female abuse that only now, all these years later, we are fortunate to have in documentation of a true history, as it was for her, and for women of her time.

JS: True. The feeling in her paintings was explained away as ‘not art’ in the 17th century because female feelings themselves were not recognized, not accepted as valid if they challenged male perceptions of what a woman felt, thought, experienced. Reading into Gentileschi’s work now – interpreting what she was doing then as the same as what women artists today are doing now – is, of course, pure projection.  Think of Caravaggio’s “Salome with John the Baptist’s Head” that we looked back for new interpretations a few years ago.  Did we even bring up that it was less of a painting with less staying power because he might be painting from his own personal experience with a woman who betrayed him? When we compare AG to her contemporary Caravaggio who is touted as starting a new movement in emotional painting, it’s at first surprising that an artist’s investment of feeling could lead to constriction of their value as a painter. She didn’t even get acknowledgement by association. There’s only a line between art and the character of the artist when it’s a male artist.  Of course, we know now it’s another way of dismissing women as artists but to see it in a previous century from our 21st century perspective, is, one more time, a grim reminder of how long systemic misogyny has been affecting our thinking.

KC: Exactly, a very grim reminder. Which makes me happy to read, in conclusion of the article: “In the present moment, the confluence of commodified feminism and the #MeToo movement has produced a surge of interest in Gentileschi and in biographical interpretation of her work. With eyes on her images of violated or vengeful women, Gentileschi has become a Baroque #MeToo heroine who turned the horrors of her life into brutal painting…” I am happy to see Gentileschi receive an extremely belated posthumous appreciation. I am happy for continued proof that the female spirit has always been and always will be impossible to kill. But I am also deeply saddened as I revisit her remarkable artworks and their subject matter, that humanity has such an incredible ability to be intentionally ignorant to truths that are consistently portrayed directly in front of its face.

JS: Gentileschi remains, like many other women, one who revealed the truth of an emotional bravery lying beneath a woman’s ability to save her family from destruction by combining feminine wiles with aggression that simply could not be.  It would threaten the very foundation of patriarchy, much less the art world.     

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