If she were alive today, Artemisia Gentileschi would’ve most definitely been considered a Nasty Woman. She would have nevertheless persisted after she’d been warned. She would’ve been “Sorry Not Sorry” if some dude asked her to apologize for bruising his ego. In short, Artemisia Gentileschi was a 17th century woman far ahead of her time. (NSFW Warning: There be noodz below.)
Gentileschi (1593- c. 1656) was born with the opportunity and the ability to become a great painter. Her father, famous painter Orazio Gentileschi, encouraged her to start painting as a child and introduced her to another famed artist, Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s techniques of light and shadow influenced Gentileschi in her own works.
In everything I’ve read, what really seems to set Gentileschi apart from other artists of her time period is the intensity and strength she gave her female subjects. Take a look at her debut painting from 1610:
In the the Book of Daniel, the married and virtuous Susanna tried to ward off the advances of two lecherous judges. Gentileschi strayed from the still lifes and portraits to which most women artists at the time were confined. She showed Susanna actively warding off the advances of these men. Contrast it with an earlier painting of Jan Massys, who, like many artists at the time, painted his female subjects as coquettish and serene.
A year later, at the age of 18, Gentileschi was raped by her tutor Agostino Tassi. Her family brought this man to trial, but it was Gentileschi who had to defend herself. Common to the time, she was subjected to an examination IN THE COURTROOM to see if she was still a virgin, AND she was tortured with thumbscrews during her testimony to prove she was telling the truth. The transcripts of the trial still survive and depict Gentileschi’s tenacity. From The Guardian:
“He then threw me on to the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them. Lifting my clothes, he placed a hand with a handkerchief on my mouth to keep me from screaming.”
She fought back. “I scratched his face,” she told the court, “and pulled his hair and, before he penetrated me again, I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh.” But she couldn’t stop him. Afterwards, she rushed to a drawer and got out a knife. “I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonoured me,” she shouted. He opened his coat and said: “Here I am.” Gentileschi threw the knife but he shielded himself. “Otherwise,” she said, “I might have killed him.”
Gentileschi’s family brought in character witness after character witness to speak of her good name and Tassi’s shady past. Guess what? DUDE WALKED FREE. (In some accounts I read, he served less than a year in prison. Most accounts point to him being acquitted, however.)
I’m not going to pretend to know anything about painting techniques, so I’ll let others share their expertise in the comments. However, these paintings create in me a visceral reaction that I don’t often have with artwork. In Judith Slaying Holofernes, Gentileschi creates two strong women who do not shy away from violence. Judith, in the Biblical story, decapitates the Assyrian general Holofernes before he can destroy her city. Both Judith and her maid take an active role in protection of the city—they do not shy away from the blood or viciousness of their struggle. The look of determination on their faces is a stark contrast to the painting of the same subject by Caravaggio. In his interpretation, Judith seems distasteful and uncertain of her mission; the old maidservant hides behind her. In Gentileschi’s version, both women are self-assured. (Interestingly enough, the face of Judith in Gentileschi’s painting is her own; she painted Holofernes to resemble Tassi.)
In a later painting, Gentileschi shows Judith and her maidservant dealing with Holofernes’ head. Judith is victorious and defiant; her sword rests lightly on her shoulder and she’s looking like a bitch who just got shit done. Again, I’m not an art expert or historian—so I may very well be wrong—but I’m not familiar with many paintings of this time period that show women in this manner. Rather than lounging prettily in a garden, Judith is kickin’ ass and takin’ names. She is a strong, independent woman! (Maybe this is why I have such a visceral reaction.)
Gentileschi’s later works lack the boldness of her earlier paintings, so it’s these earlier paintings that seem to make the longest-lasting impressions. Not much is known about her death; some scholars think she died around 1656 when the plague hit Naples. The way Gentileschi portrayed women during the 17th century really makes me wonder how she would paint society today.