Editor’s note: This article discusses violence and sexual trauma that may be triggering to some readers.
In 2018, Joy McCullough published Blood Water Paint, a novel-in-verse about Artemisia Gentileschi and her story. I confess the book is on my to-be-read list, but from the moment I learned about Artemisia, I have harbored a fascination with her.
She is, according to most sources I could find, considered the “most celebrated female painter of the 17th-century,” as The National Gallery phrases it on their website. Born in Rome in 1593 to painter Orazio Gentileschi, she lost her mother at a young age before picking up the brush herself.
Painting was Artemisia’s empowerment, a means through which she reclaimed her agency… because unlike most painters of the Baroque period, her artistic legacy is shadowed by a rape scandal that upended her life when she was just 17.
From the moment I learned about Artemisia, I have harbored a fascination with her.
When Agostino Tassi, a friend of her father, sexually assaulted Artemisia in 1611, what ensued was a seven-month-long trial in which Artemisia, and not Tassi, had to prove she wasn’t lying about the assault. In the 17th-century when rape kits had yet to be invented, this was crucial; rape had more ramifications as a reputation-ruiner in society rather than a criminal act of cruelty. With these notions, the rape victim had to be tortured to see if her account didn’t change under the ultimate pressure; excruciating pain.
But Artemisia endured, and according to the official record of her trial housed in the Archivo di Stato in Rome, being tortured didn’t change her statement. Throughout the ordeal, she repeated, “It is true, it is true, it is true.”
By the end, Tassi was found guilty and subjected to temporary exile.
In this painting, Judith violently kills the Assyrian invader Holofernes, which comes from a tale in the Old Testament where Judith is the savior of her Jewish people. Her face is hard with grim determination. No hesitation. Not even disgust in the bloody act, unlike Caravaggio’s more famous 1598 rendition. Here, Artemisia is Judith, both in the metaphorical and literal sense; Judith is shown with full cheeks and russet hair, a trend among the women Artemisia painted because this physicality reflected her own traits (as we see in her 1615 “Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria”).
Here, Artemisia is Judith, both in the metaphorical and literal sense.
The thing about Artemisia that brings tears to my eyes is not that she suffered, but that she forged onward. She was a master of “chiaroscuro,” an art technique that heightens the contrast between light and shadows — the Italian word literally means “light/dark.” With Artemisia’s success as a painter, a 40-year career she took with her when moving throughout the Italian peninsula, you can argue that she, too, embodies chiaroscuro. She is both the light and the darkness of finding solace in her craft after the lowest point in her life.
In short, a man saw Artemisia at a vulnerable young age and tried to steal her dignity. In response, she ferociously continued to create art from an empowered woman’s point of view. She brought new life into the world and thrived in a career that is known among art historians for its male pioneers and not for the woman who twisted the Renaissance’s cultural wave to reclaim her identity.
I have not experienced the abuse that Artemisia survived. But the world has tried to take from me, has tried to use me and abuse me, and I am often tempted to just…give in. To stop striving, stop trying. To give up on writing and telling stories and creating the art that brings me light and joy.
In my darkest moments, I remember to look to Artemisia, a woman who didn’t let the unthinkable stop her from pursuing her craft.
For more on the life and works of Artemisia Gentileschi, read Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art by Mary D. Garrard.
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