Seventeenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the first women artists to attain recognition in the male-dominated world of art. Most women artists active before around the nineteenth century were related to male artists, and Gentileschi was no exception. Her father Orazio was a painter, which enabled Gentileschi to benefit from the essential academic training that was usually denied to women. Gentileschi was painting at a time when women were completely absent from most positions of power and public life. Even in its art, Italy had a strong tradition of representing men and where women were portrayed, they were largely images of the Virgin Mary.
The tendency of critics can be to interpret the work of women as “feminine”, attempting to draw a narrative across several millennia of myriad experiences. Men occupy the default position as “artists” with the accompanying diversity that title allows. In her now seminal essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Linda Nochlin stresses that women artists have far more in common with the art of their time than that of their gender. Gentileschi’s style does show the influence of her father and consequently of Caravaggio. Women painters were often confined to portraits or smaller paintings, but Gentileschi tackled religious and historical subjects on a grand scale.
What had come before these artists, the Renaissance, idealised the beauty of its religious subject matter. Just look at any artwork by Michelangelo or Raphael. Instead, the period in which Gentileschi was painting – often called the Baroque – was known for an altogether more gritty and expressive aesthetic. This was partly because of the tremors being felt across the Catholic Church, which had recently been attacked during the Protestant Reformation. Art was used in a propagandistic way, as it so often is, to appeal the public back towards Catholicism. It did this by overwhelming people with its grandeur, its darkness and its emotion.
Gentileschi is usually associated with one particularly scandalous subject. Judith and Holofernes depicts the exceptionally uncommon scene of a woman beheading a man. It follows the tale of Judith, a widow from the ancient town of Bethulia. This town is besieged by the Assyrian troops of Holofernes and so Judith volunteers to visit him. Holofernes becomes enamoured with her and so one evening she decapitates him and returns to Bethulia, holding his head up as a trophy. It is a complex legend in terms of meaning, as the woman overpowers through her sexuality – is she empowered or is she stereotyped and objectified? It is a theme that still runs through our culture today, in discussions ranging from Beyonce to pretty much every James Bond film ever made.
In fifteenth-century Italy, Judith was the biblical heroine who represented the triumph of virtue over vice, honour over lust. At first she was shown as pure, without the sexual content of the story included, but as the painters became more melodramatic and eroticising so too did their representations of Judith. It is unsurprising that Gentileschi explored this subject matter in such depth over her career. Like Judith, she was working in a heavily patriarchal society and showed an almost rebellious strength in painting at all.
Gentileschi’s portrayal of Judith and Holofernes is often interpreted in light of her personal life. In c.1612, the year she painted the Neopolitan version of the subject, she was raped by a colleague of her father’s, Agostino Tassi. Her vicious treatment of the subject matter, with blood spurting across the canvas, could be seen as her way of getting revenge. Yet when one looks at a slightly earlier painting of the same subject by Caravaggio, they are very similar in their portrayals. This male artist was not seeking personal revenge, and so its clear influence on Gentileschi’s work shows that she was not simply using her painting to enact visual violence on her rapist, but that she was also concerned with the technicalities of the painting – its composition.
It is however, difficult to look at Gentileschi’s paintings of Judith without a gendered lens. In her Uffizi Judith, 1620-21, the blood spurting from Holofernes’ neck begins to stain her dress and the white bed sheet. This may symbolise a loss of purity: for Judith having to commit murder to save her town, and Gentileschi by losing her virginity through rape at a time when women’s bodies were motifs of virtue. Art historian Mary Garrard claims that “this Judith violates all our socialised expectations of woman’s behaviour in appearing neither modestly indifferent to her action nor piously noble about it,” emphasising Gentileschi’s defiance of social expectations and aggressive rejection of gender stereotypes.
Linda Nochlin has highlighted that “for a woman to opt for a career at all, much less for a career in art, has required a certain amount of unconventionality.” This is certainly true of Gentileschi, who had to combat a sexist society that sought to control her body and limit her art. Her work did not submit to the small, “feminine” paintings she was supposed to create but challenged the rules of art and reclaimed power over the female body for herself.