Introduction to the Paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, First Woman Recognized at the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence (1593-1653)
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Introduction to the Paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, First Woman Recognized at the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence (1593-1653)

The work will speak for itself. – Artemisia Gentileschi

The praise given by the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi during his lifetime is astounding.

Not because the work doesn’t deserve attention, but because she is a young woman in 17th-century Florence.

The first woman to be admitted to the prestigious Florence Accademia delle Arti del Disegnohe was rounded up by the Medicis and respected by his peers – almost all of them boys.

His style is as dramatic as the subjects he depicts.

One of the most interesting, covered in Allison Leigh’s animated TED-Ed lesson, above, comes from the apocryphal book of the Old Testament. It concerns Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow who, aided by her maidservant, beheads the ruthless Assyrian general Holofernes, whose army threatens her city.

This story has attracted many artists over time: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Cristofano Allori, Goya, Klimt, Franz von Stuck, and Caravaggio, the painter Artemisia most wanted to emulate as a teenager.

Artemisia visited Judith and Holofernes several times throughout her career.

His first attempt, at around the age of 19 or 20, featured two healthy-looking young women, their sleeves rolled up sensibly so as not to soil their bright dresses, a prospect that seemed much more likely than in the Caravaggio version, painted some 15 years earlier.

Judith Caravaggio is brave, but above all, a little reserved in her snowy skirt.

Artemisia’s is a bad ass, sword casually balanced on her shoulder as she checks that the shore is clean before fleeing with a basket containing her victim’s head. Although she prayed for the success of her endeavors, this was a woman who probably didn’t need God’s help to “crush the enemy” marching against her people.

Things get deeper in Artemisia’s third depiction, painted maybe 10 years later, after she married and moved to Florence.

Art historian Sister Wendy Beckett, a shameless fan, depicts the muscular and bloody scenes in Sister Wendy’s work. 1000 Masterpieces:

Gentileschi shows Judith clutching her head and wielding a sword with full concentration as she exerts herself on a dire but necessary task, like a housewife practically throwing fish (no one hit and it dies, the Maid’s male painter lover might be in doubt. , not Judith… The horrified face of the slaughtered man was matched by the somber face of the woman who was slaughtering him.

Years later, Artemisia reimagined Judith’s escape, in a scene so theatrical, could become a production.

It’s easy to imagine that Artemisia’s talent was carefully developed by her artist father, Orazio Gentileschi, but when it comes to the ferocity of her portrayal, speculation tends to take on a darker cast.

The TED-Ed lesson explores her rape as a teenager, at the hands of her father’s friend, fellow painter Agostono Tassi. Leigh also provides a legal and social context, something that is often missing from the more sensational allusion to this traumatic event.

If you delve deeper into the TED-Ed lesson plans, you’ll find links to articles on novelist Joy McCullough’s research on 400-year-old court transcripts before describing Artemisia’s 2019 rape trial. Blood Watercolor, and historian Elizabeth S. Cohen’s essay The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: a Rape as History:

Combining sex, violence, and irresistible genius, like the story of Heloise and Abelard, Artemisia Gentileschi’s rape has been retold time and time again. Very often it does, and with so much pleasure that this episode has covered much of the discussion about painters and has distorted our vision of them. In the past as well as in Artemisia’s recent renewal of interest, biographers and critics have had a hard time seeing beyond rape. In her case, the age-old idea that women are fundamentally defined by their sexual history continues to reign, as if a girl who suffered assault should be understood as the ultimate sexual being.

Explore Artemisia Gentileschi’s gallery of paintings here.

As long as I live, I will have control over my existence. – Artemisia Gentileschi

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Swing Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of Inky East Village zines and authors, latest, from Creative, Unknown: The Little Potato Manifesto. Follow him @AyunHalliday.

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