“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” -Bernice Johnson Reagon
No matter how true this statement may be, when you’re under a dark cloud its hard to see the silver lining. The road of life is filled with countless twists, turns, and potholes. Most of us would rather take an alternate route or call the Department of Transportation to fix the problems instead of putting the pedal to the metal and making it through dolo. Not Artemisia Gentileschi. Her entire life was one big struggle, but battered and bruised she made it through. As a result of her lifetime of pain, she made an eternity’s worth of art. Many of her paintings reference the Bible and the risk-taking women within its pages. The subjects of Artemisia’s paintings are women who have been hurt, wronged, or judged by men. They are taking matters into their own hands and letting a monsoon of hell rain down on the masculine figures who inflicted such emotions.
Artemisia was born in Rome, July 8, 1593 to Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi and his wife Prudentia. Prudentia died when her daughter was twelve. Artemisia became formally acquainted with painting in her father’s studio. Since her father’s style of painting was heavily influenced by Caravaggio, so was hers. To say the least, she lived up to the first four letters of her name. She learned to draw, mix color, and paint. She was an intelligent, and talented, girl who surpassed her brothers in the art of painting.
Artemisia’s first work was completed when she was 17. “Susanna and the Elders” depicts a scene from the Book of Daniel. In this Biblical tale, the Hebrew wife Susanna is bathing in her garden when two elders spy on her. The two men then approach Susanna and threaten to claim that Susanna was meeting a man in the garden if she doesn’t agree to have sex with them. She refuses. When Susanna is on trial and about to be executed, Daniel saves the day. The scene Artemisia chooses to portray is the scene in which the two elders are observing Susanna and mapping out their plan. Few artists choose to illustrate this part of the story. Some speculate that Artemisia endured sexual harassment, thus giving her the urge to paint someone in her situation.
In 1612, Artemisia attempted to enter school to study art on an academic level. She was denied enrollment due to her gender. At the time of Artemisia’s rejection, her father was employed painting the vaults of Casino della Rose inside the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace in Rome with his comrade Agostino Tassi. To save money and fulfill his daughter’s wishes, Orazio hired Agostino to tutor Artemisia. Soon after, Artemisia accused Agostino of raping her.
Amazingly, the transcripts from the 7 month trial are still around. According to Artemisia’s statement, Agostino repeatedly attempted to get Artemisia alone. He finally cornered her in her bedroom and raped her. He tried to pacify her after the rape and justify his urge to have sex with her by claiming he would marry her. He also informed her that if word about the rape ever got out, she would be frowned upon by society because of her impurity. After the initial rape, Artemisia continued to have sex with Agostino under the assumption they were going to be married. Agostino eventually retracted his promise after hearing of Artemisia’s alleged canoodling with another man. Orazio was aware of the rape and the sex and kept quiet until he heard of the proposal being cancelled. Once Agostino refused to marry Artemisia, Orazio scurried to the authorities and tattled. Not only did he inform the police about the rape, but also of Agostino’s stealing of paintings from the Gentileschi household. Talk about drama!
Agostino attempted to preserve his status in society by claiming Artemisia was not a virgin when they had sex. He even called her “an insatiable whore.” Such an accusation forced the courts to have Artemisia examined and tortured. The torture portion of Artemisia’s trial consisted of having miniature tongs placed on her fingers and tightened continuously while she was asked a series of questions. The courts believed that if Artemisia could tell the same story under torture, the story must be true. We all know getting a paper cut hurts like hell, imagine having your fingers pinched while trying to answer life or death questions. Oh no! In the end, Artemisia’s life was spared and Agostino was imprisoned for a year. Turns out he was already an ex con. He had been to jail for incest with his sister-in-law and charged with arranging the murder of his wife. Dude was a career criminal and a Grade-A sicko. To make matters worse, upon his release, Agostino was invited into the Gentileschi household again by Orazio. Now if that’s not some bull I don’t know what is!
During and immediately after the trial Artemisia worked on “Judith Decapitating Holofernes.” This story, also Biblical, is about Judith seducing Holofernes and beheading him while he is in a drunken stupor. Artemisia’s depiction of the murder is extremely graphic and full of rage.
One month after the trial Orazio arranges for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, an artist from Florence. Shortly afterwards the couple moved to Florence. Artemisia enjoyed huge success while in Florence (1614-1620) and became the first woman accepted in the Academy of the Arts of Drawing.
From 1621 until her death, Artemisia moved around a lot and painted non-stop until her final day. She was last documented as living in Naples. She was originally assumed to have died in 1652 or 1653. Recent evidence reveals that she was accepting commissions in 1654.With no know death date; we are left to assume she passed away in the plague that swept through Naples in 1656.
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