Progression of Art
Susanna and the Elders
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.
Oil on canvas - Schönborn Collection, Pommersfelden
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.
Oil on copper - Saint Louis Art Museum
Judith Slaying Holofernes
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.
Oil on canvas - Uffizi, Florence
In this painting, Gentileschi presents Lucretia, a figure from classical mythology who was raped and, after confessing what had happened, killed herself. In doing so Lucretia became a popular symbol of female defiance against male tyranny. Here, Gentileschi depicts the moment in which Lucretia makes the decision to stab herself. The image is pared down in terms of detail - Lucretia is without jewelry or the trappings of wealth seen in other images and she wears only a disheveled slip, perhaps indicating the rape has only just occurred. This simplicity along with the close crop and dramatic lighting, which highlights her face and breast, places the focus firmly on Lucretia, presenting her as a solitary figure and emphasizing her personal agency in her decision to commit suicide after being mistreated by men. Whereas other (male) artists had often depicted Lucretia's rape or the pathos of her death, Gentileschi instead focuses on the psychological consequences of the rape. By grasping both her breast and the dagger, Gentileschi draws attention to the character's femininity and the nurturing potential of the woman, as well as indicating her bold intention. The act that is about to occur is anticipated in the blood red of the fabric which spills across her lap and out of the pictorial frame.
Gentileschi's portrayal of Lucretia is an important example of what the art historian Mary Garrard has termed the artist's creation and promotion of the 'female hero' in her art - "a three-dimensional female character who is heroic in the classical sense" - something which is otherwise missing from 17th century painting. Garrard argues that Gentileschi repeatedly presents women in this way by focusing on the psychology of her subjects and moving the viewer to feelings of pity and awe.
Oil on canvas - Gerolamo Etro, Milan
In this work, Artemisia Gentileschi presents yet another woman who had been exoticized as a sexual temptress by her male counterparts. Gentileschi shows the moment when Cleopatra's suicide is discovered by two of her female attendants. Cleopatra's stiff position indicates the onset of rigor mortis, pointing to Gentileschi's quest for realism, and many of the details follow Plutarch's description of the moment of Cleopatra's death. The pose also recalls the Roman sculpture Sleeping Ariadne (believed to be Cleopatra in the 17th century), indicating Gentileschi's knowledge of classical art.
In this painting, Gentileschi presents a complicated vision of female power and powerlessness. She shows Cleopatra's self-inflicted and solitary death brought about by her mistreatment by men. In some ways this can be seen as an example of female agency in that she made the personal choice to respond in this manner. Conversely, by not focusing on the decision itself, as in Lucretia, but on the aftermath, the painting acts as a strong symbol of the lack of recourse that women had available to them and the impact that this had on those around them, in this instance the female attendants at the back of the painting.
Gentileschi, however, also uses some tropes typical of male painters of the period to present Cleopatra's semi-nude body to the viewer. In this as in other similar works, Gentileschi portrays nude women in sleep or in death, placing the viewer in the position of voyeur. In their book about Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann argue that in such images Artemisia sometimes played to the demands of the art market in presenting some of her female heroes: "The representation of a slumbering female raises questions about reading Artemisia's imagery in terms of forceful heroines with whom Artemisia could identify. While she has minimized some of the patently sexual references used by other artists, she has presented a vulnerable female, unaware of the viewer's gaze, who becomes an inadvertent object of male desire, evidence of Artemisia's willingness to respond to the requests of male patrons".
Oil on canvas - private collection
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting
In this confident later work, Artemisia Gentileschi presents an allegory of painting using her own self-portrait as the subject. Painting was traditionally presented as a woman in allegorical scenes, giving Gentileschi a unique opportunity as a professional woman artist to present herself in the role. In doing so, she creates a realistic portrait of a painter at work, carefully rendering the tools of her trade such as the palette and brushes with quick and fluid brushstrokes. The brown background is often interpreted as the blank canvas onto which she is painting, demonstrating her ongoing and unfinished work as an artist.
Gentileschi follows the standard iconography for the allegory of painting. This is described in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, the key iconographical handbook of the period, as "a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front 'imitation'". The gag, intended to indicate that painting is silent, however, is notably absent from this depiction. Through this omission, Gentileschi suggests both a painting's ability to speak volumes and her own refusal to be silenced as a woman and as an artist. References in her personal correspondence note that Gentileschi painted a number of self-portraits, although few survive and it is likely that these were in demand from collectors who were attracted by her ability as an artist and her unusual status as successful female painter.
Oil on canvas - Royal Collection, London