The 16th and 17th centuries in Italy saw the emergence of an increasing number of accomplished female artists, who were often members of artistic families. The outstanding talent among them was Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652).
Gentileschi was born on July 8, 1593 in Rome. She was the daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi and was trained by him. Our perception of Gentileschi has been colored by the legend surrounding her. Her alleged rape by her father's colleague, the "quadratura" painter Agostino Tassi, when she was 17, was the subject of a protracted legal action brought by Orazio in 1611. Although she was subsequently "married off" to Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi in 1612 and gave birth to at least one daughter, she soon separated from her husband and led a strikingly independent life for a woman of her time—even if there is no firm evidence for the reputation she enjoyed in the 18th century as a sexual libertine. After her marriage, Gentileschi lived in Florence until about 1620. She then worked in Genoa and settled in Naples in 1630. Gentileschi traveled to England in 1638-40, where she collaborated with her father on a series of canvasses for the Queen's House, Greenwich (now Marlborough House, London). Gentileschi died in Naples in 1652.
It is tempting to adduce the established biographical data in partial explanation of the context of her art: the sympathy and vigor with which she evokes her heroines and their predicaments, and her obsession with that tale of female triumph, Judith and Holofernes. But such possibilities should not distract attention from the high professional standards that Gentileschi brought to her art. In a letter, dated July 3, 1612, to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Orazio claimed that "Artemisia, having turned herself to the profession of painting, has in three years so reached the point that I can venture to say that today she has no peer." Despite the obvious exaggeration, one can agree that Gentileschi's art was of a consistently high quality virtually from the beginning.
Her earliest surviving work may be a tender Madonna and Child of c. 1609 in the Spada Gallery, Rome. But two other pictures give a clearer idea of her consummate early style. They are Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes in the Pitti Palace, which could be a picture referred to in the transcript of the Tassi rape trial, and Susanna and the Elders, dated 1610. Both pictures owe a good deal (in their crisp compositions, attractive physiognomies, and sparkling costumes) to Orazio, who might have contributed to both their design and execution. They are also, in their focussed realism, obviously works of the Caravaggist school—especially the former, with its bold chiaroscuro. But they introduce us to some distinctive traits of Gentileschi's own: in the Judith a greater freedom of brushwork than that of her father (at this stage not yet an altogether positive quality) and in both cases a certain authenticity of emotion (in the alert stare of Judith, for example; or the brilliantly evoked sense of violation conveyed by the defensive gesture and startled gaze of Susanna).
While Gentileschi's style during her Florentine and Roman years (1610s and 1620s) was a development of the idiom adumbrated by her father, her own vigorous sense of drama (more akin to that of Caravaggio than Orazio) lends most of the works a distinctive, cutting edge. The characterizations of her heroines (and nearly all of her pictures have female leads) are emotional without being sentimental. She is highly observant of both psychology and action and has a keen eye too for the natural disposition of flesh. Her sustained achievement can be seen in a series of masterpieces which includes the two versions of Judith Slaying Holofernes; The Penitent Magdalen, Florence, Pitti Palace, c. 1617-20; the powerful Lucretia of c. 1621 from the Palazzo Cattaneo-Adorno, Genoa; and Judith and Her Maidservant with the head of Holofernes (Detroit, c. 1625). These works are also distinguished by an opulent drapery style, with spirited highlights, that must have gone down well at the sartorially conscious Medicean court, where Gentileschi enjoyed the high patronage of Duke Cosimo II.
Explored Effects of Light
The Detroit Judith and her Maidservant, which is a candlelit night scene, also breaks new ground for Gentileschi in its thorough exploration of the effects of light radiating from an internal source. It was probably influenced by the fashionable candle-lit scenes of Honthorst executed in Rome in the late 1610s and well-known in Florence. But her employment of the flickering illumination is, as Spear has noted, predictably bolder than Honthorst's. Indeed this picture, like another of the very few of her works which ha ve survived from the 1620s is redolent of the spirit of the emergent High Baroque. Painterly and sensuous handling, flow of action, theatrical deployment of light and gesture, and judicious selection of dramatic moment combine to effect a riveting illusion. In such pictures Gentileschi may be said to have played her part in the formulation of the new idiom, rather than merely imitating what others had initiated. The Burghley House Susanna, in particular, reveals her empathetic originality, since it parallels without, in any way being dependent upon, the early style of Guercino.
If the 1620s represent the high watermark of Gentileschi's achievement, her subsequent career, spent mostly in Naples, succumbed to a fragmentation of purpose. While retaining, on occasions, much of the vigor of her mature style (Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, London, Kensington Palace), she grew increasingly attracted to the idealizations both of the Bolognese and, after her visit to England, of her father's late style. The former can be discerned in the poses and figure types of such works as the Capodimonte Annunciation of 1630; while the powerful impact of the latter is evident in the wholesale translation of the elongated, mannered figures of Orazio's Castle Howard Finding of Moses (c. 1633) into her own elegantly artificial Bathsheba (late 1640s, Potsdam, Neues Palast).
Gentileschi's influence on her contemporaries is still in need of detailed assessment. But it is clear that she greatly stimulated the imagination of Guerrieri in Florence (so much so that some of their works have been confused) and of Vouet in Rome, and her contribution to the development of the Neapolitan school, particularly through her impact on Stanzione and Cavallino, was arguably profound.
Garrard, Mary D., Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, 1989.
Moir, Alfred, The Italian Followers of Caravaggio, 2 vols., 1967.
Art Bulletin, 1968.
Scritti giovanili 1912-1922, vol. 1, 1961.