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Women In Art – Artemisia Gentileschi

It is widely known that in the art world today that only 30% of all artists are female, and that throughout the years many aspiring female artists were unable to pursue their careers due to the prejudice against them. Many people believed that only men could be professional artists and sadly this train of thought persisted in some within the modern-day art world. Even looking back into art history, we can witness the differing treatment between male and female artists such as was the case with Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Born in Rome in 1593, the oldest child of painter Orazio Gentileschi, she was introduced to painting in her father’s workshop and quickly showed talent surpassing that of her brothers. She became so skilled that by 1612 her father would boast about her exemplary talent and how within the art world she had no equal, it is this talent that allowed Artemisia to become the first women to be a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. Artemisia’s work was greatly influenced by her father’s passion for Caravaggio though presented in a much more naturalistic way then her father’s paintings. Despite being raised by a respected artist and sharing in his skill Artemisia had to face much jealousy and attempts at psychological submission for being a female within the art world. Her earliest surviving work is easily my favourite of all her paintings, entitled Susanna and the Elders (1610) but it is not the current restored piece that catches my eye but the x-ray of this artwork.

This painting is based on the story from the Book of Daniel, Susanna is bathing in her garden when two elders begin to spy on her and threatened to tell everyone that they saw her have an affair with a young man (she was married so this was punishable by death) unless Susanna agreed to have sex with them. Susanna refuses and is recused from a death sentence by the book’s protagonist Daniel. Compared to other paintings of the same scene, Artemisia’s work takes on more depth and emotion in her original piece (x-ray version) showing the true emotional anguish of a women deciding between rape or murder. It is believed that her father or others advised her to tone down the original work to fit the ideals of the time such as women in paintings being depicted as soft, delicate, damsels in distress waiting to be saved, certainly not shown as capable of fighting back or looking unappealing. Despite having painted over her version of Susanna and the Elders to suit traditional images of women, Artemisia eventually painted her own less traditional images of women including her most famous work of Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-1620).

Although this was a popular subject for artists at the time, many went out of their way to show Judith committing (or having committed) the act whilst also removing her from the violence of it, showing Judith as delicate and disgusted by the action she must undertake. In comparison to Artemisia’s version, it’s a completely different scene, the colour palette is more intense in part due to the sickening dark colour of the blood and both Judith and her handmaiden are actively taking part in the task. Neither seems disgusted or upset but instead are determined and are painted in a way to show strength in these women despite it not being a favoured idea by men at the time. Artemisia was a women ahead of her time forging her way through a male-dominated art world that overly-critiqued and restricted women yet still managed to become one of the best known female artists of the time lasting through to modern day and paving the way for other aspiring female artists to follow.

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