Artemisia Gentileschi: An Avenging Brush

This testimony comes from a court transcript:

I felt a strong burning, and it hurt very much, but because he held my mouth, I couldn’t cry out. However, I tried to scream as best I could, calling Tuzia. I scratched his face and pulled his hair and before he penetrated me again I grabbed his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh.

All this didn’t bother him at all and he continued to do his business.

The full document of this trial is more than 300 pages and is a graphic, lurid record of a rape. The victim was the teenaged painter Artemisia Gentileschi. She was the student of another painter, Agosto Tassi, who was a colleague of her father, the noted painter Orazio Gentileschi. 

This is not a story that was ripped out of some contemporary Italian scandal sheet. It happened more than 400 years ago. The full transcript was only recently discovered in the Rome State Archives. However, the story of Artemisia has loomed over art history not only because of the ugly rape, but also because she went on to become a highly regarded painter. In fact, she became a historical anomaly: a painter whose work stands in full equal to that of the male painters of her time, the Italian Baroque. Her career unfolded in Rome, Naples, Venice and Florence; everywhere she went, she was a highly respected figure.

Artemisia’s earliest painting to garner acclaim was a recurrent theme from the Old Testament: the voyeuristic story of the maiden Susanna spied on by elder men as she is bathing. Whereas most male painters treated the theme with a kind of lurid fascination, Artemesia shows Susanna recoiling in a protective contrapposto pose from the two men looming over her. 

Susanna and Her Elders
Susanna and Her Elders

Biblical subjects continued to engage the young painter, and many of them reflect anger, even a passionate sense of retribution/revenge on violent males. Key to her work is Judith Slaying Holofernes, which is executed in a defiant, chiaroscuro Mannerist style, evoking Caravaggio not only in the lighting but also in the foreshortened picture plane. 

Judith Slaying Holofernes
Judith Slaying Holofernes

Michael Palin is known to most of us as a key figure in Monty Python. In recent decades, he has been a travel writer, a documentarian and an art critic, hosting historical programs for the BBC. Three years ago, Palin made an hour-long film about Artemisia’s life, times and work. He places her best work squarely in the canon of the best art of her time. For me to discuss the arc of her career would only diminish the mystery of why she remained a shadowy figure until very recently, despite the growth of the field of feminist studies.

Palin adroitly guides the viewer through the thicket of this tangled art-history tale, fostering a fuller understanding of the anger, pain, and soul-wrenching scarring that fueled Artemisia’s work.

If you want a fuller record of her career, Wikipedia has an excellent one. It also details her later work, which is less confrontational and honors woman’s more traditional role as nurturer.

Virgin Nursing
Virgin Nursing

The life and work of this extraordinary artist assume even more relevance today, in this era of redefined male and female sexual behavior.


Egon Schiele and Elsa Koditschek


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