Female Strength in the Baroque Period
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome on July 8, 1593 to Prudentia Montoni and Orazio Gentileschi. Her father was a painter that was friends with and closely followed Caravaggio**. Despite his attempts to put Artemisia in a nunnery (it was exceedingly rare for a non-aristocratic woman to become an artist), she still ended up in his studio. This gave her all the tools she needed to develop as an artist. She was tutored by Orazio’s colleague Agostino Tassi and worked as their apprentice on some of their larger commissions.
Orazio and Caravaggio – Partners in Crime!
Artemisia’s life was not an easy ride on her father’s coattails into becoming an artist in her own right. He himself even commented that her skill rivaled his own when she was a teenager. She worked hard to perfect her craft, which may have drawn the ire of her tutor, Tassi. Some have speculated that he was jealous of her skill.
One day in the studio he repeatedly ordered her to stop working – a command she tried to refuse. He then forced her down, placed a handkerchief over her mouth to keep her quiet, and raped her. In an attempt to salvage her her honor and reputation, Artemisia began a relationship with her rapist, thinking he would marry her. In the end, he refused.
As if that wasn’t traumatic and humiliating enough, Orazio decided to press charges against Tassi. This lead to a very public trial where Artemisia not only had to recount the rape in detail, but she was subjected to thumbscrews to determine her honesty. Because the entire trial hinged on the loss of her virginity, she also had to undergo a gynecological examination. After months of being thoroughly re-traumatized, Artemisia was able to convince the court that Tassi took her virginity and it ruled in her favor.
Tassi was sentenced to prison, although some accounts say he was exiled from Rome. Either way, he never served his sentence.
Since Artemisia’s virtue was (legally) restored, her father arranged for her to marry soon after the trial. The groom was a painter from Florence named Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiatessi. She relocated to Florence with him, leaving the drama and spectacle behind. They had one daughter, Prudentia***, named after Artemisia’s mother who passed away when she was 12.
The marriage was convenient, but there was no love. If anything it gave Artemisia the freedom to pursue her art. While in Florence she gained the patronage of Cosimo II de Medici, cousin of Marie de Medici (remember her??). He was an ardent supporter of education and gave full support to Galileo. Artemisia also became friends with many artists and intellects – including the famous astronomer.
Cosimo II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany
This access to the powerful and the affluent also broadened her own knowledge. She learned to read and write as well as courtly etiquette. The connections she fostered with her patrons not only allowed her to continually grow as an artist, but to gain an education most women could not access.
Artemisia was the first woman to be admitted into the Accademia del Disegno – a sort of guild for working artists. The likes of Michelangelo and Bronzino were members of the organization, but membership meant for more to Artemisia than honor and prestige. Women were not allowed to do many things during her time – simple things like making a purchase. Her association with the Accademia del Disegno allowed her to buy her own art supplies, travel alone, and sign contracts.
Self Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1619
In 1621, Artemisia left her husband. She returned to Rome where her career continued to grow and she enjoyed a healthy patronage from many elite clients. After a few years she moved to Venice and in 1630 she settled in Naples. In 1638 she was invited to the court of Charles I of England where her father had been working for over a decade. She may have gone there to help him finish a large commission as he was 74 at the time. He died the following year.
Artemisia stayed in London for a short time after her father’s death before returning to Naples. She spent the rest of her life there, continuing to paint. Documentation from this part of her life is sparse and her date of death is unclear. Some place it as early as 1652, but some of her later work is dated after that. What we do know is that she died in Naples, where the plague struck in 1656. It can’t be proven, but many believe she died of the plague that year along with many other great artists.
**At one point Orazio and Caravaggio were charged for graffiti in Rome They wrote some not-to-nice things about another artist and even went to trial!
***Some articles say Artemisia had two daughters. Wiki says she had five kids and Prudentia is the only one that survived into adulthood. The only thing that any of them agree on is that Prudentia (also known as Palmira) grew up to be a painter like her mom.