Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi battled against vicious sexism in her life and her art. In 1612, as a teenage student of painting in Rome, she was sexually assaulted by her tutor, Agostino Tassi. The case went to court, but it was the Gentileschi, not Tassi, who was publicly humiliated. Over a gruelling seven-month trial, she was shamed, exposed, and even tortured to “test” the veracity of her testimony. At the end of it all, Tassi – with the protection of the Pope – walked free.
Gentileschi fled Rome and moved to Florence. It was there that she made one of her most powerful works, Judith Slaying Holofernes, remarkable for its physical and psychological intensity and dramatic lighting. Later paintings such as Susanna and the Elders and Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist kept up the themes of powerful – at times vengeful – womanhood. Of her fifty-seven surviving works, 49 feature women as protagonist.
Gentileschi insisted on similar agency in her own life. She was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence and established herself an international clientele. In a letter to her patron Don Antonio Ruffo di Calabria, she insisted that “As long as I live, I will have control over my being”.
Now recognized as one of the most progressive and expressive artists of her generation, Gentileschi will have a solo show at the National Gallery, London, in 2020.
Words by Eliza Apperly
Find more in Women Artists, a neat, smart, and essential introduction to leading women artists over the last 500 years. From Lavinia Fontana through to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, discover the creative visionaries that are long overdue a lead place in art history.