Daughter of the Pisan painter, Orazio Gentileschi and Prudenza née Montone, as a child Artemisia took delight in playing with her father’s paints and sitting as his model. It was in Orazio’s Rome studio that the young Artemisia began studying the art of painting. Her great talent soon led her to embark on a distinguished, independent career which, in spite of a certain amount of sexual discrimination in the beginning, would make her one of the most famous painters in history. In 1609 Artemisia painted her friend Tuzia and her son for a Virgin and Child. The early date of 1610 on Susanna and the Elders (in Pommersfelden) which was her first signed work and a masterpiece, shows how her creative personality was immediately distinguished from that of her teacher. 6 May 1611 was the date of the terrible event that dramatically marked her personal and artistic life and contributed to the fact that contemporary historiography and later critics would be more interested in her life than in her work, that was an often marked by feminist connotation. Artemisia was raped by Agostino Tassi, a perspective painter who worked closely with her father, Orazio. This violence, that occurred with the complicity of her friend Tuzia, was kept secret for a long time. A trial was held almost one year later, in March 1612, – the records containing the documents and testimonies still exist. The trial ended with a light sentence for Tassi and humiliation for Artemisia who had to suffer through countless gynecological examinations and physical tortures. Finally, in November of the same year Artemisia moved to Florence, forced by her father to marry the Florentine Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi. As critics have often emphasized, the pictures she painted following the tragic events of this period reveal, great formal drama and realistic harshness, elements of Caravaggesque origin that would mark a shift in the still classical style of her early paintings. In 1612 Artemisia painted the famous Judith Decapitating Holofernes which is in the Museo Capodimonte in Naples (she also painted another version that is in the Uffizi) which was the first in a series of paintings of courageous mythological or biblical heroines. Artemisia remained in Florence until 1620 where she worked under the protection of the Grand Duke Cosimo II and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger who, in 1615 commissioned The Inclination (1615). In 1616 Artemisia was received as a member of the prestigious Accademia del Disegno of Florence. The paintings that she did in Florence had a definite influence on local art: Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1614), Saint Catherine (1614-1615), Minerva (1615), the Penitent Magdalene (1617) and Yael and Sisara (1620). In 1621 Artemisia was again in Rome along with her daughters and husband who, in 1623 abandoned her forever. During this period the artist spent two important periods away from Rome, in Genoa where she met Van Dyck and painted Lucretia (1621), and a Cleopatra (1621), and in Venice. Upon her return to Rome she painted the Portrait of the Gonfalonier (1622) and the famous Esther Before Ahasuerus (1622-1623) and made many contacts with Italian and foreign Caravaggesque artists. In 1630, after she completed the famous Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting that had been commissioned by Cassiano dal Pozzo, she moved to Naples where she did many paintings, including one of the few works that were for public display: The Annunciation (1630) and a cycle of canvases for the Pozzuoli cathedral. In 1637 King Charles I invited her to England to work with her father, Orazio, who had been there since 1628. And so the artist went to help her father – who was over seventy years old – finish the cycle of canvases for the ceiling of the Queen’s House by Inigo Jones, in Greenwich. The iconographic program of her work was Allegory of Peace and the Arts under the English Crown (1638-1639). After Orazio died in 1641 Artemisia decided to return to Naples where she worked ceaselessly on many important commissions, such as those from Don Antonio Ruffo,. the Sicilian collector from Messina. Artemisia died in Naples in 1652.
Susanna and the Elders
This is Artemisia’s first signed and dated work (she was only seventeen) and it documents the beginnings of her style. Here, it is still evidently ruled by her father’s teachings. The anatomical drawing and pale, delicate light are elements she learned from her father, while the yellow-green, violet, red and gray-blue color combinations distinguish the canvas with other references that she would use in the future. The twisting nude body of the beautiful Susanna has the “serpentine” rhythm of the Mannerists and is based on Michelangelo’s figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel such as the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In spite of this and other sources of inspiration that have been identified by the critics, the composition is essential and simple as it presents the protagonists vertically without too many landscape details that would draw attention away from the restlessness of the central figure. The psychological dimension is immediately clear, especially in the poses of the two old men, sinister accomplices, leaning over the wall, who invade the privacy of the defenseless Susanna. The viewpoint is entirely feminine as we can see from the contemptuous look on the young woman’s face who, with realistic repulsion, rejects the old men’s erotic requests.Iconography
Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes
The iconography refers to an episode in the story of Judith after she killed Holofernes, when the heroine and her maidservant are about to leave the Assyrian encampment. The scene is set inside the dark tent where the two women occupy all the vertical space, with both of them facing towards the right (beyond the field of the painting) as if their attention was drawn to something or someone. Orazio Gentileschi used the same arrangement in the Oslo Judith, and this seems to be a less pondered and descriptive, though more austere and essential derivation as it outlines the basic elements of the story – that is the complicity of the two figures and the sense of hiatus in the drama. The poses of the two women recall the figures of Christ and St. Peter in the Calling of Saint Matthew that Caravaggio had painted for the Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Scholars do not agree as to the date or where the painting was done, opting for either the artist’s Roman or Florentine period. However, the painting is listed in the Medici inventories as of 1637.Iconography
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Mary Magdalene was a particularly common devotional subject and this gave rise to a series of paintings that reveal the delicate balance between the virtue and spiritual grace of her conversion and the sensuality of her earlier life as a sinner. In this painting, where we can see the signature ARTEMISIA LOMI on the back of the chair, the two contrasting aspects seem perfectly balanced. The dramatic gaze and the left hand’s gesture of rejecting the mirror, symbol of vanity – elements that reveal the desire to accept the teachings of Christ -alternate with the lavish golden dress which reveals the white skin of her right shoulder, the pearl earrings, hand over the heart, bare feet, shiny flowing hair and the rich upholstery on the chair – details that emphasize earthly pleasures and the sensual side of life. The painting is from the artist’s Florentine period and reveals a marked descriptive skill in the splendid rendering of the dress fabric that is enhanced with a golden glow, much like the Judith (Palatine Gallery, Florence) by the Florentine artist Cristofano Allori who was one of Artemisia’s close friends. The lavishly refined details come from Allori’s and Federico Cigoli’s Florentine milieus, while the expressive and realistic aspects are typical of Caravaggio. There is some reason to give credence to the hypothesis that the painting was commissioned by Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany who had asked Artemisia for a painting of the Magdalene for his wife, the Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena of Austria.Iconography
Judith Decapitating Holofernes
The second version of this subject, (the first is in the Museo di Capodimonte) is, without a doubt, Artemisia’s most famous painting and the one which earned her a prominent place in art history. The tragic, violent scene, where the blood literally gushes, has often been related to the sexual misfortune that affected the artist’s emotional state. The signature on the sword blade (EGO ARTEMITIA /LOMI FEC.) confirms the painting’s Florentine origins, since she used the surname “Lomi” mainly on the works she did in Florence. As we can read in a letter Artemisia wrote to Galileo Galilei in 1635, she had received a commission from the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II to do the painting, but most likely she actually painted it in Rome after she returned from Florence in 1620. With respect to the earlier version, this painting is enriched with elegant details, that may have been inspired by Florentine tastes for elaborate furnishings and clothing, like the golden damask and Judith’s fine gold bracelet. Actually, the entire composition is much more balanced and symmetrical compared with the Naples Judith. The scene itself is portrayed from a greater distance and the central focus of the entire dramatic scene is the sword in Judith’s hand.Iconography
Yael and Sisara
This is another of Artemisia’s paintings that illustrate the story of courageous Biblical heroines who, in their attempts to liberate the Israelites, are willing to kill seemingly invincible men. Here the general Sisara is sleeping peaceably while Yael is kneeling in front of him and is making ready to strike – raising the hammer with right hand and holding the spike to his temple with the left. It is a cruel, violent gesture that Artemisia resolves with light dramatic tension. The scene has a placid, quiet and contemplative tone and the bloodstained memory of Judith and Holofernes seems to fade away. In this painting Artemisia opted for elegance and naturalness, perhaps to harmonize with the Florentine court that commissioned it. The signature “ARTEMITIA LOMI /FACIBAT /M.D.CXX" that is clearly engraved on the pedestal in the background confirms that the commission did indeed come from Florence, because that is how she signed her Tuscan works. The elegance of Yael’s costume is also similar to the artist’s Tuscan production, and many critics have found similarities between this painting and the way the same subject was interpreted by the Florentine artist Ludovico Cigoli (private collection, Florence), especially as regards the poses of the two figures.Iconography
The stylistic similarities between this painting and the Magdalene in the Palazzo Pitti – the pose and facial features – reveal a temporal link with the Florentine piece that may have been done immediately prior to this Lucretia which Artemisia took with her when she went to Genoa in 1621 to join her father. By painting the seminude Lucretia up close, Artemisia wanted to accentuate the dramatic feeling of the heroine’s undertaking and her decision to commit suicide after having been raped. The dark background contrasts with her milk-white skin and white clothing, while the red draping accentuates the pathos of the moment: Lucretia, virtuous wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus is about to stab herself to death. The action is frozen in the moment of the decision, that brief hiatus between life and death and the knitted brows and stern look are meant to emphasize the dramatic moment.
Esther Before Ahasuerus
The story of Esther, the Jewish heroine and the king Ahasuerus is related in the Old Testament Book of Esther to which additions were made in the Greek versions that were disseminated after the Council of Trent. It was probably these that provided the direct source for Artemisia’s painting which is extremely faithful to the detailed description of the swoon. Another likely source of for many details as well as the structural arrangement is painting of the same subject by a member of Veronese’s workshop (Louvre) that she may have seen during her stay in Venice, and she eliminated many of these details in her painting. These would be the figure of a servant at the base of the stairs and two versions of a dog that were revealed as “pertinent” during a radiographic examination of the painting. A splendidly dressed Esther is standing but about to fall into a swoon and is supported by two handmaidens, while the elegant Ahasuerus is ready to ”leap” from the throne to help his queen, as we read in the Bible story. The two figures are equal as to majesty and neither is “subject” to the other as we sometimes see in other portrayals of this scene with Esther kneeling in supplication in front of a throne on a podium. Even though the two protagonists’ gestures correspond perfectly, the scene seems to be lacking in compositional rigor which, considering the many revisions of the painting, Artemisia may have perceived as a lack of harmony.Iconography
Self Portrait As The Allegory Of Painting
Many critics have placed this painting in the artist’s London period (1638-1640) because of the stylistic similarities with other works from those years. According to others, the painting, which is in London, came to England along with the artist who is believed to have done it in Rome, in 1630, under a commission from Cassiano dal Pozzo who refers to a very similar painting in a letter. He, a patron and collector of unusual portraits, was probably interested in acquiring a portrait of Artemisia since she was a female artist. Therefore, she painted an image which, in a shift away from the conventional self-portraits of aristocratic women, presents a personification as she is in the act of painting. The attributes she displays as she concentrates on her work are the same ones that characterized the allegorical figure of “Painting” in Iconology by Cesare Ripa. A third edition of the book, illustrated by Cavalier d’Arpino was published in Rome in 1603. So, here we see Artemisia as Painting, with a gold chain, the mask that represents imitation, the curls that emphasize the frenzy of artistic creation and the colors of the dress that allude to the painter’s technical abilities. It is indeed a daring and innovative piece executed with great pictorial and intellectual skill.
Allegory of Peace and the Arts under the English Crown
From the artist’s letters we know that she had contacts with many important figures through whom she sought the support of new patrons and clients. During the years Artemisia spent in Naples she received a prestigious invitation from King Charles I to the English Court where he father, Orazio, was already working. In London she received the commission to complete the ceiling paintings for the Queen’s House by Inigo Jones in Greenwich. The iconographic program desired by the patron was an Allegory of Peace and the Arts under the English Crown is a typical example of the court’s political strategy: to convey a sense of equilibrium and stability while emphasizing the climate of peace and flourishing of the arts brought about by Charles I. The tondo in the middle presents Peace holding an olive branch, with Victory flanked by Fortitude and Concordia below. Around them are seated the Seven Liberal Arts, the trivium on the left of Peace and the quadrivium on her right. The allegorical figures of the Arts are portrayed in four rectangles and four circles around the tondo. The lack of documentation concerning these paintings does not help in identifying the authors of the individual figures on the canvases, where it seems that Artemisa offered others a share in the work already started by Orazio.Iconography
David and Bathsheba
Artemisia selected the most usual and famous episode in the Bible story for her painting, where David notices Bathsheba – wife of the Hittite soldier Uriah - while she is bathing in the garden. The scene focuses on her beauty, which with the whiteness of her skin and the draping creates a luminous note that permeates the entire painting in a way that extends to the maid holding the tray of jewels, in an elegant and harmonious chromatic symphony of blue and gold clothing. The construction of the scene is quite sophisticated with respect to some of Artemisia’s other paintings: it is defined by perfectly balanced horizontal (the balustrade), vertical (the corner of David’s palace) and diagonal (from David’s gestures to those of the women) lines. Although attribution of this painting to Artemisia has been accepted by most scholars there is still some controversy as to when it was done: either just before her departure for London in 1638-30 or immediately after her return from Naples, around 1640. It is, however, definitely from her mature period when she dedicated much attention to the arrangement and construction of the scene.
Lot and His Daughters
This canvas, which until 1984 was attributed to Bernardo Cavallino, shares some definite stylistic similarities with other works from Artemisia’s Neapolitan period, especially the David and Bathsheba in Ohio: the grandiosity of the composition, the chromatics, the faces of the women and the way she handled the draping. It is distinguished by its compositional elegance and precision that fits well into the trend of balance and return to classic ideals typical of Neapolitan painting in the fourth decade of the XVII century. In addition, this is a pictorial example of perfect narrative conciseness, in which the artist uses the gestures and poses of the three figures the artist to evoke the entire story. The story is told in Genesis: after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s daughters get him drunk to lay with him in order to assure him male offspring. This was an extremely popular subject in sixteenth and seventeenth century painting since it provided a pretext for imagining and painting a very erotic and seductive situation. Artemisia, however, succeeded in alluding to the events with balance and moderation without showing them entirely: she selected the moment when Lot’s drunkenness is starting to become noticeable - with a blurry gaze and just off balance he hugs one of his two daughters.