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Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–9, Royal Collection (the painting may be a self-portrait)

Artemisia Gentileschi (8 July 1593 – c. 1656) was one of the finest painters of her days. She is the second woman associated with the Baroque period we are discussing. In the fine arts, the Baroque era begins in the late 16th century and ends towards the middle of the 17th century. Artemisia is a 17th-century Italian artist.

Artemisia was born in Rome and first apprenticed with her father, Orazio Gentileschi  (1536 – 1639). Orazio moved to France in 1624 at the invitation of Marie de Medici (26 April 1763 -3 July 1642), but left for England two years later, where he remained until his death.

In 1638, Artemisia would join him in England. Orazio died in 1639, but Artemisia did not leave England until she had completed her commissions. “According to her biographer Baldinucci (who appended her life to that of her father), she painted many portraits and quickly surpassed her father’s fame” (Britannica). By 1642, she was back in Italy.  


  • Orazio Gentileschi
  • Caravaggio
  • the Carracci brothers (Bologna)

There can be no doubt that her father, Orazio Gentileschi, influenced Artemisia, but her paintings are described as naturalistic and were not idealized, in which she differs from her father.

Artemisia and her father were influenced by Caravaggio (29 September 1571 – 18 July 1610), the artist who inaugurated chiaroscuro (le clair-obscur) or tenebrism, the use of a dark background. Caravaggio exerted influence on several painters such as Georges de La Tour (13 March 1593 – 13 January 1652), Gerrit van Honthorst (4 November 1592 – 27 April 1656) and Trophime Bigot (1579 – 1650). By and large, the word chiaroscuro is now used to describe a technique: light colours on a dark background.

Artemisia was also influenced by the brothers Carracci, by members of the Bolognese school, and by colleagues. She was a history painter who depicted scenes from the Bible and other religious subject matter. Moreover, she was a portraitist.


Portrait of a Lady Dressed in a Gold Embroidered  Elaborate Costume, (nd) (Courtesy Britannica)


I noted that Lavinia Fontana (24 August 1552 – 11 August 1614), a portraitist mainly, who lived at approximately the same time as Artemisia Gentileschi, used aa dark background. One has the feeling that tenebrism‘s subject matter is carved out of darkness, which is a lovely thought as artists are creators, even in representatial paintings. The painting featured immediately below, young Artemisia’s first painting is not caravaggesque. But it is rather prophetic.


Susanna and the Elders, 1610 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Rape

  • the impossible Nozze di Riparazione
  • Orazio presses charges
  • the marriage & Florence

In 1611, Artemisia’s father hired artist Agostino Tassi (Perugia, 1578– Rome, 1644), both as an assistant and as teacher to his daughter. Tassi raped Artemisia, but another man, Cosimo Quorli(s), was involved.

At the time of the rape, Orazio rented an upstairs apartment in his house to a woman named Tuzia or Tutio, a chaperone who befriended Artemisia. However, on the day of the rape, the woman let the men into the house and did not respond when Artemisia screamed for help.

After the rape, Artemisia continued to have sexual relations with her rapist. Her continuing to have sexual relations with Tassi may be otherwise explained, but it seems she believed he would marry her, as he promised, thereby restoring her dignity and giving her the future he had taken away. However, foremost in her father’s eyes was restoring Artemisia’s honour. This recourse was not uncommon in Artemisia’s times. In Italy, such a marriage was called nozze di riparazione (a reparation marriage). Tassi reneged on his promise and Orazio pressed charges.

The Trial

  • the trial
  • torture
  • the mariage

During the five-month trial, it was revealed that Tassi was already married, that he planned to kill his wife and that he had entered into an adulterous relationship with his wife’s sister. Tassi was found guilty of rape, but never served a day of his one-year prison sentence. In fact, he was freed. During the trial, Artemisia had to submit to a gynecological examination and was tortured: the thumbscrew, for the purpose of eliciting evidence.

A month after the trial, Orazio married his daughter to Pierantonio Stiattesi. The couple lived in Florence where, in 1618, Artemisia bore Pierantonio a daughter who was named Prudentia, after Artemisia’s mother. Three sons were born to Pierantonio, but Artemisia is reported to have given birth to one daughter and to have lived in Naples in order to be near Prudentia.


Judith slawing Holofernes (1614 – 20) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Judith and her Maidservant (1613 – 14) (Photocredit: Wikipedia)

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Career

  • Florence
  • Rome & Venice
  • Naples & London

In Florence, Artemisia was associated with the Medici court and enjoyed great success. She painted an Allegory of Inclination (Allegoria dell’Inclinazione) (c. 1616) commissioned by Michelangelo Buonaratti the Younger, Michelangelo’s grandnephew, “for the series of frescoes honouring the life of Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti.” (Britannica). In 1616, she joined Florence’s Academy of Design (Accademia di Arte del Disegno) and was the first woman to do so. In short, “[w]hile in Florence she began to develop her own distinctive style” (Britannica).

Artemisia ran into debts because she and her husband were allowed to buy art material on credit. Pierantonio bought more than could be repaid. Creditors were at the door, so to speak. In 1621, she decided to eave for Rome, which her marriage.

Artemisia’s (1593 – 1653/6) career can be divided as follows, i.e. by naming localities:

  1. She was in Florence (1614 – 1620),
  2. in Rome and Venice (1621–1630), and
  3. in Naples and England (1630–1653).


Very little is known concerning Artemisia Gentileschi’s final years and her death, but she may have been a victim of the 1656 outbreak of the plague that decimated Naples’ artistic community.


Artemisia Gentileschi lost her mother at the age of 12 and it appears she was not taught to read or write. Yet, in Florence (1614 -1620), she befriended Galileo Galilei, with whom she corresponded, in letters, for many years. (See Artemisia Gentileschi, Wikipedia)

Where did she find the courage to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, to bear him at least one child, and to give birth after a violent rape? We know that she settled in Naples to be near her daughter. She was a good mother.


Judith beheading Holofernes is Artemisia’s most notorious painting. Her treatment of Judith and Holofernesa familiar subject matter to artists, is one of the most violent and bloody to have come down to us. Artemisia produced a second Judith slaying Holofernes. But she nevertheless painted other scenes from the Bible and various religious scenes, as did her contemporaries, and she was a fine portraitist. Germaine Greer[2] points to the strength of the women she depicted: strong hands, strong bodies, flesh.

Artemisia produced paintings about Bathsheba and David. According to Britannica, Bathsheba was raped and became pregnant. Her husband, a soldier, refused to make believe he was the child’s father. David had him killed and married Bathsheba. King David is Solomon’s father. Artemisia retold rape and violence, albeit subconsciously.


Could it be Artemisia Gentileschi never looked upon her circumstances as potentially paralyzing and that it never occurred to her that she lived in a man’s world? The image below, considered a self-portrait, shows a strong woman playing the lute. The following image is a serene portrait of St Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians whose feast day is celebrated on 22 November. Her paintings of the slaying of Holofernes are gruesome (the first one in particular) and may well reflect her experience.

Yet, although her artwork depics strong women, Artemisia drew much of her subject matter, including the slaving of Holofernes, from sources used by artists of her life and times. She did not live in seclusion, but belonged to a community of artists who may have influenced her and vice versa. Moreover, she had to make a living.

There is a lore of Artemisia Gentileschi listed in her Wikipedia entry (see Artemisia Gentileschi). Her rape is likely to attract the attention of artists, novelists and filmakers, but she was not entirely defined by her rape and the trial that ensued. Artemisia Gentileschi is the woman who corresponded with no less than Galielo Galilei, but first and foremost, she is artist Artemisia Gentileschi.

As mentioned at the top of this post Artemisia Gentileschi had female colleagues. I have discussed portraitist Lavinia Fontana  (24 August 1552 – 11 August, 1614), excluding the many little dogs featured in her paintings, but Sofonisba Anguissola (1532 – November 1625) was also a female colleague. I will discuss Sofonisba. Artemisia Gentileschi is Germaine Greer’s “Magnificent Exception,” which does not underrate her female colleagues’ art.

With kind regards to everyone. 


Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1615-17) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



St Cecilia Playing a Lute (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Sources and Resources


[1] “Artemisia Gentileschi”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 27 févr.. 2016

[2] Germaine Greer, “The Magnificent Exception,” The Obstacle Race: the Fortunes of Women Painters and their Work (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979), pp. 189 – 207.



© Micheline Walker
28 February 2016