Artemisia Gentileschi: The Long Road to Recognition

She’s described as the most celebrated female artist of the 17th-century but Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656) struggled to carry this accolade through to the modern era. Though she is greatly revered by today’s artistic establishment, her journey towards acceptance has not been uncomplicated. Undeniably due to her gender, her legacy has faced many obstacles which delayed recognition for her artistic talent and contribution to art.

In recent decades, there have been strides towards acknowledging her place in art history thanks to feminist scholars, a growing literature, and retrospective exhibitions. But I would argue that the struggle for appropriate recognition is not over.

This blog will explore Artemisia Gentileschi’s road to discovery and recognition. She is, after decades of consideration, tantalisingly close to her rightful place in the history of art.

Artemisia Gentileschi in her Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615–17). Gentileschi was born in 1593 in Rome as the eldest child of Prudenzia Montoni and the painter Orazio Gentileschi. After demonstrating a talent for painting at a young age, Gentileschi trained under her father in his workshop.

Gentileschi’s Initial Omission

Despite acclaim during her lifetime, Gentileschi suffered a great artistic injustice when she was omitted from art-historical accounts following her death. This was a sad reality that befell many female artists in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, including Sofonisba Anguissola and Judith Leyster. Gentileschi’s artistic vocation was only rediscovered in the early 1900s by the Caravaggesque scholar Roberto Longhi.

Once rediscovered, she did not easily gain admittance into the art-historical canon. Gentileschi initially sparked little interest among scholars, and many of her works were wrongly attributed to the legendary Italian artist Caravaggio or her father, Orazio Gentileschi.

In the 1990s, this work, Danae (1612), was attributed to Gentileschi due to its stylistic similarities with other works already accredited to her. But it was originally considered to be part of her father’s output. Orazio was a popular artist who worked internationally, and his style was greatly influenced by his friend Caravaggio.
This version of Danaë (1623) is accredited to Orazio Gentileschi. Note its obvious differences from Artemisia’s version: its idealisation versus Artemisia’s realism.

Her Stylistic Oversight

It was a combination of stylistic similarities to Caravaggio and Orazio, and a tendency in the 1900s to deny female artistry, that led to many of her works being misattributed. Certainly, Gentileschi’s paintings include Baroque characteristics such as chiaroscuro, drama, and emotion, which are typical of Caravaggio’s and Orazio’s style, but they also demonstrated a remarkable skill, which was believed to be exceptional to great masters.

Examining the paintings now accredited to Gentileschi, it’s perplexing that many were firstly attributed to canonical male artists. They clearly show she had a style unique from the artists who previously gained recognition for her work, one that was long overlooked.

Firstly, her choice and treatment of subject matter was quite different from other 17th-century artists. Though, like some, Gentileschi completed examples of widely popular biblical and mythological stories, she specifically favoured stories with strong female characters. She subverted the typical male portrayal of these female characters, timid and overtly sexual, by giving them power and agency. In her Susanna and the Elders (1610), Gentileschi replaced the typical shy and coy representation of Susanna with a model full of protestation and defence.
Secondly, her colour palette and formal decisions also highlight her stylistic independence. As exemplified in this painting, Esther before Ahasuerus (1628–30), her works featured less commitment to the Baroque chiaroscuro that made Caravaggio’s art so distinctive. Also visible is her penchant for jewel-toned hues and realistic flesh colours, a direct contrast to Orazio’s mundane colour palette and idealised figures, seen in his painting Danaë. (Above)

Feminist art historians since the 1970s have been committed to establishing Gentileschi’s style as part of the canon. The amount of works attributed to her have steadily increased and are greatly admired by scholars. But her art still remains somewhat tied to Caravaggio and her father. It’s common to see her artworks described as ‘inspired by’ or ‘indebted to’ her contemporaries rather than as products of her own individual genius. In fact, a February newspaper headline in The Guardian referred to Gentileschi specifically as ‘the female Caravaggio’. It sadly demonstrates that, even in 2020, she has not received full stylistic independence and, although undoubtedly intended as a compliment, she is measured by male artistic standards.


Reductive Biographical Readings

Undeniably, Gentileschi has emerged from behind the dark smoke of obscurity in recent years. But the sensationalism of one biographical event, a traumatic rape in 1611, has severely limited her potential. This event has become the hallmark of her character and the main axis on which her art is viewed.

Ultimately, because Gentileschi painted numerous scenes of violence and abuse, feminist readings in the 1970s interpreted these works as products of her sexual assault. Paintings such as Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620), which depict women punishing men, were and still are read as semi-autobiographical manifestations of Gentileschi’s desire for revenge on her own attacker. Branded popularly as her ‘revenge works’, they have been seen less as demonstrations of her notable artistic ability and more as feminist images that are tied to her biography and gender.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (1610–15) tells the biblical story of Salome who is convinced by her vengeful mother Herodias to have John the Baptist beheaded for wrongdoings against her. It is seen as one of Gentileschi’s well-known ‘revenge works’. She has become infamous and recognisable for these dramatic and violent artworks, characterised by blood and gore. Art historians now look for links to retribution in many of her paintings, neglecting alternative readings.

In the 1980s, feminist scholars Mary Garrard and Griselda Pollock promoted alternative readings of Gentileschi’s ‘revenge works’, in an effort to expand and reveal her diverse artistic identity.

To illustrate, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620), Gentileschi’s most famous ‘revenge work’, and possibly her most famous artwork in general, has been recurrently interpreted as a product of her rape. Art historians have envisioned Artemisia in the guise of Judith, enacting her violent revenge on her rapist Agostino Tassi, who, assuming the character of Holofernes, meets his untimely death by sword. Pollock proposed something different from this stock reading, suggesting that, instead of having a personal connection, it was intended powerfully as a story of courage and collaboration between two women who conspire to commit murder.
It’s often forgotten that biblical stories like Judith were popular subjects within Baroque art and male artists like Caravaggio completed their own versions. His Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) is strikingly similar in terms of its violence and gore but it is viewed as a feat of artistic mastery rather than being personally motivated. Gentileschi’s artworks are scarcely interpreted this way, with scholars frequently looking for ties to her gender and sexual assault. As Gentileschi herself remarked on the difficulty of being a woman, ‘if I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way’.

The centrality of Gentileschi’s sexual assault to her artistic character has meant that works outside of the ‘revenge’ category are scarcely considered, even though these works encompass more than three quarters of her identified output.

Little attention is paid to her artworks with seemingly less dramatic subjects such as the Birth of John the Baptist (1635), the Madonna and Child (1613) and the Adoration of the Magi (1636–37) as seen above. During her lifetime, these works were significant commissions, which helped her to establish her position as a sought-after female artist in the 17th-century. But, since they don’t fit her typical style or dominant reading, their possible meanings and importance have been less explored.
This artwork, David and Goliath (1630), was recently attributed to Gentileschi, now that her style and presence in the canon is more greatly known, but it was previously attributed to a student in Orazio’s workshop. It exemplifies the different subjects that Gentileschi did complete, but is not commonly recognised for. Perhaps it wasn’t initially accredited to her because the subject was not seen as traditionally ‘Artemisia’.

Female Artists in the Age of #metoo

As a result of the modern climate, numerous news headlines have labelled Gentileschi a ‘#metoo Baroque heroine’. This label effaces the important work accomplished by Pollock, Garrard, and other scholars, who offer less biographical interpretations of her work. Associating her with the #metoo movement perpetrates the reductive readings of her artistic character being mostly shaped by her sexual assault. Her art is not just a product of her rape, or even a product of other artists, but it’s continually viewed that way, overshadowing other readings and aspects of her impressive career.

While modern scholars do promote significant facts – such as Gentileschi being the first female accepted into the Academia delle Arti del Disegno, or the fact that she worked internationally for Cosimo II de’ Medici and Charles I of England – they are realistically lesser known, but are and should be integral to her legacy.

The majority of the work has been done; Gentileschi today is widely celebrated in art history, but her diverse and unique contribution is still being somewhat overlooked. Until her talent and oeuvre are wholly appreciated, the step to complete recognition could still be a giant leap.

This October the National Gallery in London is opening the first UK solo exhibition on Artemisia Gentileschi. Watch this video to find out more information about Gentileschi and also the upcoming exhibition.

Hi, my name is Katie Price and I’m a Student Ambassador for the second cohort at The Art Story. I’m currently a second-year student at the University of Birmingham studying a joint-honours in history and history of art. Personally, I love the fact that art provides access to the past and a way to understand it, through analysing the processes and products of human creativity from different periods.