As a lover of art, I find myself willing to travel extensively in appreciation of exhibitions that are touring other institutions in order to expand my experiences. That being said, I travelled to Chicago and Detroit this winter, during some of the coldest days of the Midwest in memory, in order to see works by two of my favorites, Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. The latter being the subject of this blog post.
I first learned about Artemisia Gentileschi through an article in the International Herald Tribune. A review of an exhibition featuring her work and the story of her life drawing comparisons with the violence depicted in her art against the struggle of woman in the 16th century often ostracized by circumstances beyond her control. Her mother died when she was 12, the family was of lower class origin and she grew up in a rough and violent household. Her father, the talented artist Orazaio Gentileschi, a contemporary of Caravaggio, trained his talented daughter in the techniques of the day. On the cusp of adulthood, she was raped at the age of 18; this scandal was followed by a sensational trial making it impossible to win aristocratic and ecclesiastical commissions that were essential to her career as an artist in Rome. However, these obstacles did not impede her abilities; leaving Rome after the trial to live in Florence, she overcame her humble origins.
She met Galileo with whom she corresponded numerous times during her lifetime, and gained patrons through the house of Buonarotti, eventually becoming the first woman admitted to Florence’s Academia del Disegno in 1616. The academy being founded in 1563 under Grand Duke Cosimo I de’Medici (1519-1574) and the famous artist and chronicler of artist’s lives, Vasari (1511-1574). This cultural sphere of exclusive artisans, all male, include court painter Cristofano Allori (1577-1621), Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (1568-1646) great nephew of Michelangelo, and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), all members of the elite Florentine patronage network. These connections to the Medici court played a part in her acceptance into the academy. The next time a woman was placed on its rolls was not until fifty years later. Immersed in the Florentine cultural circles of composers, writer and intellectuals of all type, she transformed herself from the inexperienced young girl, to a woman competing at the level of greatness.
Despite these connections, Artemisia was not patronized by the Medici grand duchess Christina, or her successor, Maria Maddalena (1589-1631). The artist was an outsider with a dubious reputation, and the Medici family was conscious of status, particularly the women. Artemisia engaged with the male members of the court circle, but remained a peripheral figure. Without clear female role models in her chosen profession, she accepted and flaunted convention, her dynamism working for and against her. She ultimately was forced to flee Florence due to mounting debt and unfinished obligations. The birth of four children in five years and the pressure of being the sole income for this family; these are the factors considered in today’s society as the impediments to a woman’s success during the Renaissance.
The paintings I share with you on this page by Artemisia concern her depictions of Judith slaying Holofernes. This was a story she returned to more than once in her career, the patronage of the time enamored with the tale of a woman slaying the leader of the enemy army. The first painting Judith with her Maidservant dates to 1613 and hangs at the Palazzo Pitti, and only hints at the violence of the story. Judith and her maid Abra pause to look and listen after the beheading, a possible response to Artemisia’s father’s painting, dated to 1608. The sword plays a major role in the accessories of Artemisia’s canvas, still held close upright in readiness, as opposed to the afterthought in her father’s portrayal.
Artemisia’s second version of this story takes a definite influence from Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599, which hangs in the Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini, Rome. Caravaggio’s Abra displays the disdain for the enemy leader, while Judith appears to be holding the task of beheading Holofernes at arm’s length, not confident in her actions.
The version of this story purchased by the Medici, and on loan from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to the Chicago Art Institute, takes away that uncertainty. This Judith is fully engaged in the act, not deterred by the spray of blood across her arms, clothes and breast. Abra is also entirely a part of the action, holding down the leader while her mistress grasps the hair of his beard to steady herself during the decapitation. The detail of the epic masterpiece is exquisite, down to the bracelet on her arm showing different figures in each locket. The determination in the faces of Judith and Abra manifest the shared responsibility of the violent act, the furrowed brow of Judith, Abra fully engaged restraining their prey. I consider this, alongside Caravaggio’s Head of Medusa, an indicator of the unique patron treasures to be found at the Uffizi Gallery.
A surprise in my travels this winter is the third version of this painting, found at the Detroit Institute of Art, dating from 1623. The full length portrait evokes amplitude of shadow in this final vision of the story, the secretive nature of the act, the sword still held at the ready in case someone has overheard the event. The hand of Judith held to the candle, ready to douse the light, dimming the features of her face. The act is complete, the head readied to be mounted on a pike, sending a message to the invading army.
Seeing these treasures for the first time evokes my continued passion for art and history. Each painting by Artemisia tells the story, indulges the senses bringing the thirst for more to replenish the mind. I hope you have enjoyed my abbreviated commentary on her life, and that more treasures from this elusive painter will be found in my travels. If you have any comments, please feel free to share them in space below, I look forward to discussing this forgotten artist with other like minded readers.
If you want to read about Artemisia’s rape trial, the complete transcript is here.
1. Straussman-Pflanzer , Eva, Violence and Virtue, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, Yale University Press, 2013, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Further discussion on women artists in the Renaissance
2. Nochlin, Linda, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, Extract from Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, Westview Press, 1988, pp.147-158.