May 1, 2024

Have you ever heard of Artemisia Gentileschi? She was the most famous female painter of the Baroque period, known and admired for her history paintings, almost always featuring heroic women. She hobnobbed with the celebrities of her day, including Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, and painted for the most powerful ruling houses in Europe.

After her death, Artemisia Gentileschi was forgotten. Unlike her male colleagues, she was denied recognition for her work for a long time.
It was not until the beginning of the 20th century, when the feminist movement gained momentum, that Artemisia Gentileschi was rediscovered and given new importance. She became the figurehead of the movement. Her art and life are a testament to the strength and fighting spirit of women.

Artemisia in the context of her time

When Artemisia was born in 1593, the Renaissance was coming to an end. Art has a reciprocal relationship with history, tradition and society, as artists respond to the developments and changes of their time. In this way, new artistic epochs can emerge in artistic dialogue with politics, religion, society, social and cultural trends.

The Renaissance, which lasted until around 1600, was characterised by a return to and inspiration from the classical art and culture of antiquity and humanist ideals. Man was at the centre of his world and should use the full potential of his intellect. This led to scientific achievements - and art also placed the individual at the centre.

People broke away from the Church and from God. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the starting point of the Reformation. It led to the division of Western Christianity into Catholic and Protestant denominations and conflicts between the different groups. These conflicts intensified around 1600, culminating in the Thirty Years' War in 1618.

Artemisia grows up in the midst of these social and cultural tensions.

Childhood and adolescence

Painting is the family trade. Her father was the distinguished Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi. He moved in the city's artistic circles and was friends with Caravaggio, one of the first great Baroque painters.

The fragmentation of Italy into competing, feuding and often warring principalities, duchies and viceroyalties created a greater desire for order, authority and stability. The Catholic Church harnessed this desire to meet the challenges of the 'true faith' in the Renaissance and embarked on a counter-reformation. It worked hard to win back the faithful. Art and architecture became instruments of propaganda.

The Baroque style was born. Mostly religious themes were opulently and dramatically staged. The paintings were intended to convey sensuality and a strong emotional effect. This supported the message of the Catholic Church, but also reflected the two opposing attitudes to life at the time: Momento mori - Remember that you are going to die - on the one hand, and Carpe diem - Seize the day, enjoy life - on the other.

Artemisia is only 12 years old when her mother dies. From then on, she grew up in her father's studio, rarely allowed to leave the house to ensure her modesty.
Orazio Gentileschi trained Artemisia and her two brothers in painting, teaching them the subtleties of art from an early age. But Artemisia in particular showed interest and talent.

Drama and realism: the colour palette of Artemisia Gentileschi

In Artemisia's time, artistic training was hardly accessible to women. They were not admitted to academies. They could not sign contracts or become members of a guild. They were not even allowed to buy paints without a man's permission. Artemisia was only able to train as a painter because her father was an artist and trained her himself.

She is not the first known woman painter. Like her, most of them came from artistic families. However, unlike her contemporaries, Artemisia did not focus on still life, portraits or landscapes. Artemisia painted large history paintings based on biblical or mythological themes. And she painted female nudes! Until then - and for a long time afterwards - all this was reserved for men.

Dramatic compositions, strong emotions, profound effects of light and shadow, and an intense emphasis on movement and dynamics are typical of the Baroque style. And Artemisia is an excellent master of it.

Rape and trial

Her father recognised his daughter's talent early on and was impressed. To refine her technique, he asked his friend and colleague Agostino Tassi to teach Artemisia in 1611. Tassi was a landscape painter and would introduce her to the art of perspective. When her father was away, he raped Artemisia, who was 17 years old.

Now she is no longer a virgin, which in the patriarchal mindset of the 17th century is considered a disgrace to her family. Tassi puts pressure on the young girl. He promises her marriage (Artemisia hopes to become "good" again) if she complies, and continues to exploit her for months.

Her father seems to know of these events. But it was only when he discovered that Tassi was already married that he denounced him. A 7-month trial ensued, the minutes of which have been preserved to this day.
The trial was not about the violence done to Artemisia, nor was it about getting justice for her. It was about satisfaction for Orazio, who now had a "damaged" daughter to marry...

And once again, Artemisia is subjected to violence. Not only does she have to face the humiliating questions of the defence lawyer, the mockery, ridicule and denials of her rapist, and relive the whole rape, she also has to undergo a gynaecological examination in court and an interrogation under torture(!).
Her fingers are wrapped in strings and pulled tighter and tighter until Artemisia cries out in pain: "È vero, è vero, è vero." - It's true, it's true, it's true. A procedure, incidentally, that could have broken her fingers and ended her career as a painter forever.

In the end, Tassi is indeed found guilty and sentenced to 5 years in exile. However, due to his good connections, he does not serve this sentence and the Pope himself prevents his exile. Tassi's career continued unabated. Even Orazio resumes his friendship with him (Tassi leaves Rome only a few years later, when he is accused of another brawl).

Artemisia, however, is dishonoured in front of everyone. Orazio immediately married her to the Florentine artist Pierantonio Stiattesi and the young couple left Rome.

Maria Magdalena - Artemisia Gentileschi (Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons) | Zum Vergrößern bitte anklicken.

The empowerment of women over male violence

Art historians are divided over whether or not Artemisia dealt with her rape in her art and settled scores with men. Some see a clear connection, others say it would be wrong to reduce her to the role of victim.

Artemisia was a serious artist and a good businesswoman. Of course, it would be far too short-sighted to assume that she wanted to 'comfort her soul' by painting and that she satisfied her thirst for revenge in the safety of her studio.

Her subjects are popular subjects of her time. Motifs that sold well and were also painted by men. But it would also be naive to assume that her experiences - as a woman and a survivor - did not inform her art.

Artemisia Gentileschi - Susanna und die beiden Alten (Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons)

It is how she paints, not what she paints. You can see the anguish she feels in her Susanna. Unlike some of her male colleagues who also worked on this subject, lust does not play a role in Artemisia Gentileschi's work. Artemisia first painted this subject (see image above) when she was just 16 years old, before she was raped. However, as a young girl, she may also have experienced the pressure of male attention.

Artemisia's paintings show the female perspective. Her women are not an ideal of feminine beauty, but flesh-and-blood people who act and feel.

Main work: Judith beheading Holofernes

The story of Judith and Holofernes has been depicted in art throughout the centuries. It is the story of Judith, a beautiful widow living in Bethulia, a city in ancient Israel.
Holofernes, an Assyrian general, besieges the city and threatens to destroy it. Judith decides to save her people by going to Holofernes' camp. There she gains his trust, is invited to a banquet and waits for a favourable opportunity. One night, while Holofernes sleeps drunk, Judith beheads him.

She went very close to his camp, took his hair and said, "Strengthen me today, O Lord God of Israel! Then she struck him twice on the neck with all her strength and cut off his head.

Judit 13,7 + 13,8

For the Church, Judith is the conqueror of evil, which made her a popular subject during the Counter-Reformation. However, most depictions do not show the deed itself. Either Judith is shown with her head (open or in a basket) or the discovery of the headless Holofernes. There are two famous exceptions in the history of art. One by Caravaggio, the other by Artemisia. Here is a comparison between the two:

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio - Judith enthauptet Holofernes (Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons)

Both paintings capture the most dramatic moment of the story and do not shy away from depicting brutality and bloody violence. Yet the effect of the two paintings is quite different.

Both works are typical of the Baroque period: dynamism and intense contrasts of light and dark, strong expression, grand gestures and dramatic staging. However, Artemisia brings her figures more into the foreground and closer together. This makes her painting even more dynamic.

Caravaggio idealises Judith's beauty. This is emphasised by the ugliness of her servant and the horror of the dying Holofernes, both of whom lie in shadow while Judith, bright and radiant, wields the sword. This emphasises the moral significance of her action - the triumph of good over evil.

Artemisia, on the other hand, paints the story from a different angle. Her Judith is not an aloof heroine, but a real woman in a real situation. And her servant is not a mere prop, but an active accomplice.

Artemisia had learned that a woman alone is no match physically for a strong man. It takes female solidarity to overcome him. Both figures appear credible and powerful in their actions, without idealised grace or beauty. You can see the physical effort in their faces. Their muscular arms - typical of Artemisia - are tensed, their expressions determined and fearless.

While Caravaggio tends to emphasise the transcendent and eternal, Artemisia's version of the story is both more gruesome but also more human.

Artemisia Gentileschi - Judith enthauptet Holofernes (Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons)

The Artemisia style

Her paintings are realistic and naturalistic. Like her artistic idol Caravaggio, Artemisia chose ordinary people as her models. But she goes further and avoids any idealisation.

The colours in Artemisia's works are deep and intense, and she is known for her passionate depictions of human figures, especially women, opulent fabrics and delicate lace details. Also for her remarkable use of light and shadow to create drama and intensity. She mastered the technique of chiaroscuro, which emphasises the contrast between light and shadow to create depth and volume.

Artemisia's paintings have a tremendous power and expressiveness. Emotions such as love, hate, revenge, arrogance and longing are almost palpable. She was an outstanding storyteller who developed her scenarios from the deepest feelings of her characters.


In Florence, Artemisia is able to put her damaged reputation behind her. As a married woman, she enjoys respect. She set up her studio in her in-laws' house and began painting immediately. She stayed in Florence for 7 years and developed into an independent artist.

Her father wrote to the Duchess of Lorraine: Artemisia (who was only 19 at the time) had "already created works of art that perhaps great masters of the craft will never achieve".
The Duchess probably introduced her to her son, Cosimo II, head of the Medici family.

Artemisia socialised with artists and scholars, learned to read and write, and enjoyed the patronage of the Medici family. She became known as "La Pittora" - the painter.

The name that Artemisia Gentileschi made for herself at this time paved the way for a career that lasted more than 40 years. In 1616 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, the Academy of Drawing. This was more than just an honour for her. Artemisia was now allowed to buy her own paints and art supplies (without a man's permission!). And she could sign contracts with her clients herself.

Despite all the adversities she must have faced as a woman in a male-dominated field, this made her financially independent and in control of her own life.

During her 7 years in Florence, Artemisia gave birth to 5 children and saw 3 of them die. Of her two remaining children, only her daughter Prudentia survived to adulthood. Her son Cristofano died shortly after her return to Rome.

Not much is known about her marriage. Her husband Stiattesi acted as a kind of agent for his wife. He took care of the sale of her paintings and the money transactions - but not very well.

Stiattesi took every opportunity to get into debt. This was not uncommon in artistic circles at the time, but the financial difficulties grew worse and worse. The couple probably had to leave Florence because of unpaid bills.

Self-portrait as La Pittura | Artemisia Gentileschi Royal Collection Trust, Kensington Palace, London

Selbstporträt als Allegorie der Malerei - Artemisia Gentileschi (1638/1639) | Zur vollständigen Ansicht bitte anklicken.

Return to Rome and Venice

They returned to Rome in 1620. However, the marriage broke down shortly afterwards and Pierantonio disappeared from history.
Artemisia was now a recognised artist. Among her most influential patrons were Cardinal Francesco Barberini and his secretary Cassiano Dal Pozzo. They also introduced her to artist friends. These included Nicolas Poussin, Simon Vouet and Giovanna Garzoni.

She was particularly influenced by the Frenchman Simon Vouet and his style of tenebrism - a more contrasting form of chiaroscuro. In Rome, Artemisia tended to move in the circle of French and Dutch artists.

The royal road to success as an artist in Rome in the 1620s was to paint large altarpieces and frescoes in churches. As a woman, Artemisia did not receive commissions - and her paintings were not exhibited in public.

So she used her years in Rome to reorient herself and turn to portrait painting. Here she even had a certain advantage. The gentlemen of the city had no problem with their wives and daughters posing for hours in an intimate atmosphere.

She also received a number of private commissions for historical paintings. Her fame spread throughout Italy and beyond.

In late 1626 or early 1627, Artemisia left Rome again and went to Venice, attracted by its lively art scene. Here she probably met Simon Vouet and Nicolas Régnier, whom she had already met in Rome.

Artemisia felt at home among the artists of Venice and even became a member of the Accademia de' Desiosi, an informal literary academy. But after only three years, she left Venice and accepted an invitation from the Spanish viceroy to go to Naples.

Naples, England and back again

By the summer of 1630, Artemisia Gentileschi was an integral part of the artistic life of the city. Her patron, the viceroy Fernando Afán Enríquez de Ribera, 3rd Duke of Alcalá, also arranged commissions for her in Spain. Her clients included the sister of the Spanish King Philip IV, the Infanta María of Spain.

She became friends with Massimo Stanzione, one of the leading artists of the Neapolitan School. He also played an important role in obtaining commissions. He visited her in her studio every day to watch her paint. They subtly influenced each other's art without adopting each other's style.
Together with him and the painter Paolo Finoglia, she worked on a 6-part cycle of paintings on the life of St John. She took on the part entitled "The Birth of St John the Baptist" (see cover).

In general, Artemisia is always ready to develop her style and expand her repertoire. She began to paint portraits in Rome, and soon added allegories and literary themes to her subjects in Naples.

The artistic DNA: the pioneers of Artemisia's art

Artemisia Gentileschi's work reveals various artistic influences that have shaped her development as an artist. Some of the most prominent influences are:

Caravaggio: Artemisia was greatly influenced by Caravaggio. He was one of the leading Baroque painters and a friend of her father. It is very likely that Artemisia herself knew him. She admired Caravaggio's dramatic use of light and shadow and his realistic depiction of the human figure. Artemisia incorporated elements of Caravaggism into her own style, including the use of chiaroscuro and the emphasis on emotional intensity in her work.

Orazio Gentileschi: As her father and mentor, Orazio Gentileschi, himself influenced by Caravaggio's style, shaped Artemisia's artistic development. Not only did she learn the basics of painting from him, but she also adopted his sense of composition and his penchant for dramatic scenes.

Roman antiquity: Artemisia also drew on the art of Roman antiquity, particularly the sculptures and reliefs she had studied in Rome. Her interest in the depiction of the human figure and dramatic gestures can be traced back to these ancient models.

Final stations

Artemisia does not like living in Naples. She repeatedly writes in her letters that she wants to leave the city - yet she is fully recognised and accepted in the Neapolitan art scene. She runs her own workshop and even employs men. Finally, she receives her first public commission and paints her first altarpiece: The Annunciation.

Die Verkündigung - Artemisia Gentileschi (Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons)

As a result, against her stated wishes, Artemisia spent most of her career in Naples.

In 1638, however, she travelled to London for a few years, presumably at the invitation of Charles I himself. At this time, her father Orazio was also in London as court painter, commissioned to paint a ceiling in the Great Hall of the Queen's House in Greenwich. He was asked to paint an allegory of peace. It is thought that Artemisia helped him with this, but there is no evidence of this.

Orazio died unexpectedly in the spring of 1639 and Artemisia stayed on for the time being. She may have completed some of Orazio's commissions. However, little is actually known about Artemisia's work during this period. All we know is that she left London when the English Civil War broke out in 1642.

She returned to Naples and, as far as we know, never left the city again. In 1652, she signed her last work - a Susanna and the Elders, like her first signed painting, which she did at the age of 16.

The date of Artemisia's death is unknown. In 1654, she is said to have paid an overdue tax bill. Between 1656 and 1658 the plague ravaged Naples, killing more than half the city's population. Perhaps Artemisia was one of its victims.

What is certain is that she is buried in the cemetery of the church of San Giovanni di Fiorentini in Naples. However, her gravestone was lost during restoration work. Only two words are said to have been carved into the marble: Heic Artemisia - Here lies Artemisia.

Renaissance of an artist: Artemisia's rediscovery

In 1916, the Italian art historian Roberto Longhi published an essay entitled “Gentileschi, padre e figlia”, “Gentileschi, father and daughter”. 

It was the first time that he treated Artemisia Gentileschi as an artist in her own right. He began by distinguishing Artemisia's work from that of her father, Orazio. Until then, many of her paintings had been attributed to him, Caravaggio and other Baroque painters, even when signed by Artemisia. Why? Such technical virtuosity could not be attributed to a woman.

Longhi acknowledges Artemisia as an outstanding personality on the Italian art scene and emphasises her extraordinary mastery of various artistic techniques. He was particularly impressed by her representation of female figures. He emphasised the equality of women and men in her works, both in terms of content and appearance.

This was a turning point in the appreciation of Artemisia Gentileschi. Other art historians, curators and other experts became involved and a process of rediscovery and appreciation of her work gradually began.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a further upsurge in interest in Artemisia Gentileschi. Feminist art theorists began to reassess the work of women artists of the past and to emphasise their contributions to art history.

Research and exhibitions on Artemisia Gentileschi are on the rise, and her work is receiving increasing international attention. The combination of more intensive research, feminist interpretation and a general change in art historiography has led to Artemisia Gentileschi's contribution to art history finally being recognised. Today, her works fetch millions of euros on the art market.

Icon of female art

Artemisia Gentileschi's work is not only important from an art historical perspective, but also from a feminist perspective. Her depictions of strong, determined female figures challenged traditional role models and inspired generations of female artists. Her legacy shows that art knows no gender boundaries and that women's voices can no longer be ignored in art history.

How do you feel about Artemisia Gentileschi and her legacy? Has her work changed the way you look at art and feminism? Do you know of other women artists who explore similar themes or styles?
I look forward to reading your thoughts and which female artists inspire you!

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About the Author Lea Finke

Lea Finke is an artist with all her soul. In her blog, she talks about inspiration, passion, and encounters with art.

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