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Meet Artemisia Gentileschi, The Feminist Contemporary Of Caravaggio

Raped by her teacher, illiterate, and triumphant in a male-dominated field, Artemisia Gentileschi and her women-centric paintings were the perfect ingredients for a feminist icon. So why are her later “feminine” paintings considered so lame?

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In the past 100 years, Artemisia Gentileschi has become one of the most recognizable painters from the 17th century, male or female. Her Caravaggio-inspired paintings—full of blood, dramatic violence, and striking uses of shadow and light—are massive draws in the museums that hold them. It could even be argued that her series of paintings on the story of Judith beheading Holofernes are more captivating than a similar series by Caravaggio.

Yet audiences and critics alike usually find themselves dumbfounded and let down by the paintings made in the last decades of her career, when she was at the height of her fame and influence. Ironically, these paintings are seen as too feminine or too soft, so bland compared to Artemisia’s early work. They are “pictures that to modern eyes appear anodyne, excessively finished,” writes art historian Jesse M. Locker in his new book on the artist, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting.

Locker’s book provides a much-needed answer to the disparity in the feminist icon’s work—to the question of what happened to Artemisia’s painting style, and why?

Artemisia was born the daughter of the decently established Tuscan painter, Orazio Gentileschi, in 1593 in Rome. Her grandfather and uncle were also painters, and her father’s circle included Caravaggio and Agostino Tassi. In 1611, Tassi, well known for his illusionist architecture, took on Artemisia as a student. He then proceeded to rape her—a crime that is well known because Orazio sued him for “defloration.”

In 1612, after being married to a family friend, Pierantonio Stiattesi, Artemisia left for Florence, where she created some of her most famous works, including the gory “Judith Beheading Holofernes” that would for years be hidden in the shadows at the Uffizi so as not to shock audiences. While in Florence, Artemisia achieved professional success—commissions that paid as well as her male counterparts, patrons including Granduke Cosimo II, a friendship with Galileo and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger. She also became the first woman to be inducted into the Accademia del Disegno.

In 1620 she and Stiattesi skipped town and headed to Rome, apparently because of debts. While in Rome, Artemisia’s career continued to flourish, but it is also in Rome, Locker contends, that the underlying causes of her evolution become clear.

So why don’t we like Artemisia’s later paintings as much as her earlier works?

The answer comes in two parts. The first involves the stunning ascent in popular tastes of Caravaggio, to the point where over the past half-century he has been written about more than Michelangelo. I would contend that the reason Gentileschi is largely seen as the inheritor of Caravaggism is not just the skill apparent in her painting, but that, like Caravaggio, she had an interesting biography.

Modern audiences love knowing the “story” behind each painting—who the artist was, their traumatic history, and so on—and try to find its manifestation in the works. Caravaggio’s violence and sexual escapades lend themselves perfectly to audiences gazing upon his “Bacchus” or his “The Fortune Teller.” Similarly, Gentileschi’s story of overcoming rape and striving in a man’s world give audiences a way to approach, understand, and relate to her early works. Her works are also fascinating because they are what we stereotypically expect from a man from that period. Her later works, on the other hand, are remote and can feel sterile by comparison. Gone is the empowered woman laying bare her struggles on the canvas, replaced by stereotypically “feminine” paintings.

As for the first issue, Locker’s tome makes a convincing case that Artemisia’s shift in style was due to a handful of reasons, including the importance of Spanish tastes and her desire to become a distinguishable artist in her own right. His argument may not make one like her later paintings, but it will help appreciate them.

“From the vantage point of the 1630s, clinging to the Caravaggism of her early years would have reduced her to being merely an interesting relic from the previous decade,” contends Locker. While we may want her early work to represent her and her biography, Locker argues that it was her later work, particularly her skills as a colorist, that gained her fame during her lifetime. “[Early critics] were largely unresponsive regarding her early Caravaggesque paintings,” he writes. “But it is precisely at the moment when Artemisia sheds her early Caravaggism and the apparent biographical content of her painting becomes inaccessible that there is the first evidence of her critical reception.”

Locker looks to the Bolognese School for Artemisia’s new influences and her “softer, more graceful and idealized manner.” Unfortunately, he writes, “while in her own time this was seen as a sign of her artistic maturity, the Bolognese masters have not captured the popular imagination of the twenty-first century as has Caravaggio.”

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However, there was something besides artistic development at work in Artemisia’s shift. In Baroque Rome, Venice, and of course, Naples, one of the sources of patronage for artists was the Spanish court. The Florentines, notably Vasari and Michelangelo, had been dismissive of paintings that had “excessive finish, sweetness, and naive pietism,” which can be found in Artemisia’s later works, as “they were often seen as desirable by Spanish painters and patrons.” Paintings that were overly devout, that focused on color and idealized beauty, that were “feminine” so to speak, “were often seen as desirable by Spanish painters and patrons.”

The Spanish preferences in the 1630s to 1650s, which was when Artemisia and her art were at the height of her fame in Naples (then part of Spain), notoriously lagged behind tastes in Italy. Locker writes that, “Roman criticism of Neapolitan art—admittedly from later in the century—describes it, like Spanish art, as lacking discipline and disegno, and Neapolitan patrons as similarly naive and susceptible to surface appearances.” Locker points to Bernini, who once told a French papal nuncio while in Paris in 1665 that “in Naples … only trifles and gilding are appreciated ... [and] Spaniards have no taste or knowledge of the arts.” The Spanish also had a particular preference for paintings of this style, painted by women.

A good example that Locker offers up is Artemisia’s “Virgin and Child with a Rosary” from 1651. Apparently its awkwardness and “archaism” is so jarring that some critics contend it might not be by Artemisia at all. However, as Locker writes, “this archaism can only be deliberate: it appears intended to invoke the sweetness and devout naivety of late cinquecento works” that her patrons would appreciate and while scholars and viewers may want to skip past it, “it was precisely these qualities that guaranteed its success in Spanish Naples.”

While one may want to dismiss Artemisia’s shift as a Baroque version of a sellout, Locker maintains it shows “her willingness to adapt her style—assuming, if need be, the mantle of a ‘woman painter’—reveals her shrewd reading of the artistic, professional, and political landscape of the Neapolitan court, her ability to adapt to new markets, and her sensitivity to the needs of her patrons.” In addition, Locker’s tome is brimming with accolades both during Artemisia’s life and afterwards. In both Venice and Naples, copious amounts of poetry were produced glorifying both her and the paintings we now dismiss. Locker also insists that her work as a colorist was especially influential to her Neapolitan contemporaries. After her death, she was the subject of multiple accounts of her artistic output, including one by Averardo de’ Medici.

There is perhaps no painter more emblematic of the ironies of shifting tastes in historic painting than Artemisia. The paintings that made her the toast of one of the art centers of the world are now shoved aside for the ones that won her far less acclaim. Given time, who knows how tastes may change. Just look at how much an exhibition, such as the one at the Palazzo Strozzi for Agnolo Bronzino, can do for an artist’s historical reputation.

For now though, Artemisia, when it comes to your Neapolitan works, it’s not you, it’s me.