Gender and The Artist: the Case of Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the few female painters that had a prominent place amongst her male contemporaries as she was the first woman admitted to the Academy in Florence and received patronage from the major political figures of her day including the King of England. Her work is exemplary of the Italian Baroque outlined by Caravaggio and she is the only known female artist working in that style. Since feminist art historians began enquiring “who the great women artists were,” she has held a place in every major survey of Western Art. How does gender play a role in our understanding of Artemisia Gentileschi and is the artist’s gender important in understanding her unique contribution to art history?
Gentileschi had a predisposition for themes portraying iconic female protagonists including: Lucretia, Susanna, Judith and Cleopatra. One particularly powerful depiction comes from the Old Testament book of Judith, as depicted in Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes dating from the early 17th century. Judith was a Hebrew widow who lamented that her people lost the faith to do battle against their occupiers, King Nebuchadnezzar’s host. Judith gained the trust of the general of the Assyrian army, Holofernes, who invited her to his tent while he was in a drunken stupor. Judith decapitated his head with the help of her maidservant Abra, and returned to her village, Bethulia. The next morning the Assyrian hosts dispersed and the Hebrew people were triumphant with faith. Depictions of Judith functioned in a similar manner to David, a stronger foe falling at the hand of a weaker one with the help of God.
Most depictions of this theme in the history of art focus on the drama after the beheading. In Gentileschi’s Judith we see her in the act of severing the head, while her maidservant holds Holofernes down. Judith’s sword forms a vertical line connecting with Abra’s arm further connecting the two as partners in the assasination. But the shape of the sword as a cross, aligns it within Christian iconography of righteousness. Judith does not flinch at her task; her body and will are unswerving in their commitment, despite the gory spurts of blood which stream from his neck.
To understand the uniqueness of Gentileschi’s Judith, we can compare it to a similar painting by Caravaggio, which Artemisia may have seen. In Caravaggio’s version, the woman daintily holds a sword that seems far to heavy for her to wield. She seems to hesitate and wince, where Artemsia’s Judith grabs the hair on the head tight with the demeanor of a surgeon performing a routine amputation. Caravaggio depicts an old maidservant to heighten the beauty and innocence of Judith.
Some art historians argue that Artemisia Gentileschi as a woman, offers a dramatically different take on a subject that is relatively common in art history. From this historical record we know that Artemisia brought her art teacher, Agostino Tassi, to trial for Rape and from her letters, we know that she was conscious of the role of gender in her society. Where Caravaggio sees the protagonist in a stereotypical or allegorical manner, Artemisia imbues in Judith a dynamic realism that is valued in Caravaggio’s other works but absent in his depiction of Judith. Furthermore, the bracelet that Judith is wearing in Artemisia’s version has images of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, making a direct reference to the artist herself. The story of Judith is that of a femme fatale, as much as it is about triumph with the help of God.
Not all historians agree with this interpretation. There is an earlier version of this painting which now hangs in Naples. One historian feels that the earlier version was painted by her father Orazio, and that Artemisia merely copied her fathers composition. If this is true, then there is little argument that a female perspective is offered by Artemisia’s painting. Others cite that the rape trial has little bearing in this social context, as most women in this situation would have chosen to seek marriage or make accusations to preserve their reputation. Would any of the interpretations be valid during the time period they were created? Looking closely at Artemsia’s Judith allows us to examine how gender plays out both past and present.