Profiles of Courage

Before the Me Too Movement, There was Baroque Painter Artemisia Gentileschi





She was raped by the tutor her father hired to teach her. She resisted the reigning male artistic rule of her 17th-century era, and commanded high prices for her art. She was one of the best known women painters in the 17th century. She was quite well-knowns in her own day, but she was generally ignored until the twentieth century as most of her work had been wrongly attributed to the male painters in her close circle. She was a feminist exception when women had no identity and were always overshadowed by a man.

She vanquished the limits and impositions of her patriarchal society, and through the modern art technology of the late 20th century, Artemisia finally recovered the due credit behind her art that had long been attributed to her father and other male painters.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Artemisia Gentileschi, the first famous woman painter, born on July 8, 1593 in Rome, Italy.

Artemisia was a master painter in the baroque period, and fought against sexual harassment way before the Me Too movement can into public existence. The only daughter of a renown painter, Orazio Gentileschi, she lost her mother, Prudentia, to childbirth when she was only 12. Artemisia, along with her three brothers became the apprentice of her father. She was the only child to demonstrate genuine talent for the art.  At the time, women could not independently purchase art supplies — only the admission to an art academy would nullify these interdictions, so she continued to paint under the wing of her father.

When Artemisia was only 17, her father hired his friend, Agostino Tassi, to tutor his daughter and refine her painting abilities. One afternoon, after Tassi was working on a child portrait, he assaulted Artemisia and raped her. He kept promising to marry her in exchange for sexual favors, but ultimately refused to do so.
Nearly a year after the rape, Artemisia’s father risked everything he had to sue Tassi as the traitor had placed the mark of shame on the Gentileschi family. At the time, social reputation was just as crucial as personal honor and chastity. Her father knew he was risking his career and social circle.

The trial lasted 7 months: Artemisia was subjected to horrendous gynaecological examination in front of the judge, physical torture including ropes tightly pulled around her hands to make sure that she was telling the truth. When she faced the court, her credibility was diminished because she was no longer chaste. Tassi had been accused to rape his wife and was suspect in her disappearance. Artemisia didn’t even learn that he was married until halfway through the trial. Through the transcripts of the trial, we learn that Tassi was obsessed with Artemisia and had her watched around the clock. He even arranged to cancel her arranged marriage with painter Girolamo Modenese, as had been arranged by her father Orazio. Winning a rape trial was unprecedented in 17th-century Italy, and yet, that did not deter Artemisia from continuing her art, after her hands healed that is.


Allegory of Fame (1630-1635), Artemisia Gentileschi


Although Tassi received a two-year sentence and was ordered banished from Rome for over five years, he only completed a year sentence. Artemisia, on the other hand, was sent away from Rome and married to a Florentine painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi. She consequently moved to Florence and had five children. Far from being defeated as an artist, Artemisia establishes herself as an independent artist and entered the prestigious Accademia delle Arte del Dis in 1616 as the first woman ever being accepted. She was finally able to purchase art supplies and grow the rest of her artistic career. That marked the beginning of her life as an independent female artist. She later gave birth to four children and her passion for painting never dwindled.

Her sexual assault informed and inspired her consequent art as she depicted the oppression of women and she positioned the women in her paintings as protagonists, not mere puppets under the rule of men. She reversed the patriarchy in her art, portraying women as rulers over men, and as symbols of purity through the use of the color yellow to dress many of her painted women.

Painted in 1610 when Artemisia was still an adolescent, Susanna and the Elders (1610), was at first wrongly attributed to her father, Orazio. The painting is a portrayal of  Susanna of the Book of Daniel and two important elders in the community who are secretly spying on her as she bathes.

Susanna and the Elders (1610), Artemisia Gentileschi.



Conversion of the Magdalene (1620), Artemisia Gentileschi



Cleopatra (1633-1635), Artemisia Gentileschi

In the late 1620’s, she moved to Naples and traveled to London to visit her ailing father, Orazio, who had become a court painter and commissioned to paint ceilings for Queen Henrietta Maria, the Queen consort of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Although little known of her later years, we know that she was commissioned for work around 1654.

Long live her work!!!


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