Important Art by Artemisia Gentileschi
This accomplished painting is the first work known to be entirely painted by Artemisia Gentileschi, completed when she was 17 years old. The work shows a frequently depicted biblical scene: two voyeuristic elders spy on the virtuous Susanna while she is bathing, then attempt to blackmail her into having sexual relations with them with false accusations of adultery. While many artists have chosen this subject, Susanna is usually presented as unaware of the elders' presence, or even welcoming them in a flirtatious fashion. Gentileschi, on the other hand, shows Susanna's distress at being watched and accosted by the men, presenting the incident as a traumatic event. Although the work shows the clear influence of her father stylistically, the subject matter is more dramatic and expressive than his.
Susanna's response is at the center of the painting, demonstrating Gentileschi's unprecedented psychological realism, particularly in her presentation of women. Feminist art historian Mary Garrard argues that "Artemisia's Susanna presents us with an image rare in art, of a three-dimensional female character who is heroic". She goes on to explain that "the expressive core of Gentileschi's painting is the heroine's plight, not the villains' anticipated pleasure," and this offers an entirely different set of concerns to many of her male counterparts. Gentileschi painted this image prior to her rape by Tassi and the subject matter may reflect sexual harassment that she was receiving at his and other artists' hands once she began training at his studio.
The Greek myth of Danae tells the story of a young woman confined to her bedchamber by her father, King Acrisius of Argos. It was a ploy to prevent her getting pregnant as an oracle had predicted that she would bear a son who would cause Argos’ death. The King of the Gods, Zeus, transformed himself into a shower of gold and succeeded in impregnating her in this form and it is this moment that Gentileschi depicts here. The son Danae bore was Perseus who later fulfilled the prophecy.
Danae was a traditional subject for paintings and had previously been depicted by artists including Titian and Tintoretto. Representations were either of Danae as pure and chaste or promiscuous and greedy, eagerly accepting the gold. In the work, Gentileschi references some of the these tropes, including the servant in the background catching the gold, but she also subverts them. Gentileschi's Danae is neither sexually aggressive nor innocently unaware, instead she is shown in the process of experiencing the consummation. There is some debate as to the meaning of this and it has been suggested by art historians Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann that "the painting depicts the sexually aroused Danae". They go on to argue that "Danae's fist, the coins pushed between the clenched fingers, also becomes a metaphor for sexual embrace" and that she is shown enjoying her sexual union with Zeus. Alternatively, professor Jeanne Morgan Zarucchi has argued that this image shows sexual violence and resistance as Zeus forces himself onto Danae. This is in line with the semi-autobiographical nature of Gentileschi's early works which often reference sexual assault.
This painting was originally attributed to Orazio Gentileschi but this was reconsidered in the late 1990s, predominantly due to the similarities in pose and composition to Artemisia's Cleopatra (1621) painted some ten years later. Artemisia's use of rich colors, subtle flesh tones, and texture are also evident in the work, particularly in the red sheet and the contrast between the metal coins and Danae's bare flesh.
In this painting, Gentileschi depicts another popular biblical scene (which she herself returned to more than once during her career): the slaying of Holofernes by Judith. Traditionally portrayals had focused on the beauty and courage of Judith rather than the process of the beheading itself. In 1598, however, Caravaggio painted the scene with an unprecedented degree of realism. Gentileschi took this realism (both psychological and physical) a step further, by considering the identities of the women and the significant physical demands of beheading someone. The painting contains an intense energy, from Holofernes' grasping fist and the struggle of the women to complete the task to the spurting blood from the neck wound. This dynamism is further highlighted by the use of bold colors and dramatic chiaroscuro.
In this painting, Gentileschi presents a portrait of women's power, while simultaneously asserting her own power as an artist with the capacity to choose her own subjects and make her own decisions about how to treat them. As The Guardian's senior art critic Jonathan Jones argues, "In most paintings, including Caravaggio's hallucinatory rendering, Judith has a servant who waits to collect the severed head. But Gentileschi makes the servant a strong young woman who actively participates in the killing. This does two things. It adds a savage realism that even Caravaggio never thought of - it would take two women to kill this brute. But it also gives the scene a revolutionary implication. 'What,' wonders Gentileschi, 'if women got together? Could we fight back against a world ruled by men?'" Notably, this is one of several paintings by Gentileschi that depict women taking revenge or punishing men. This can be seen as an expression of her frustration and anger after her rape and trial as a teenager and it has been suggested that Judith is a self-portrait of the artist.