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by
Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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There have been few female artists more skilled or influential than Artemisia Gentileschi. She was amongst the finest 17th century Baroque painters and overcame significant gender barriers as well as significant traumas in order to forge out a succcessful career.

She was born into a family which was already heavily involved in the art world, with her father, Orazio, having established a strong reputation. She immediately saw her promise as a young student and promoted her talents to his many connections in order to help her to receive the best training possible. Artemisia, herself, was forced to move around Italy on several occasions in order to find the best environment for her career and was best received in Naples, where she spent the second half of her life. Prior to that she had spent time in Rome, Florence and Venice. She even travelled to London at one point, when her father was living and working there for an extended period. The painting shown here was titled Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting and is the only London-based work that we can confidently attribute to her.

"...My illustrious lordship, i'll show you what a woman can do..."

One of the secrets to her success as an artist was that she used her femininity as an advantage and never tried to mimic the successful male artists of the time. Yes, her style was particularly similar to the dramatic scenes of Caravaggio (of whom her father was a great admirer), with an extreme use of lighting and also a similar set of themes within the works. But she also brought a sensitivity to her portraits that her male counterparts couldn't quite match. She could get into the mind of some of the figures in her work and use that to display their emotions more accurately and vividly. This emotional precision interested collectors who saw that she could offer something different. Whilst not all were willing to work with female artists, plenty enough were and even more so once they had seen the high quality of work that she was consistently producing.

Artemesia produced a number of self portraits, some entirely as herself, others whilst playing characters. She would become inward looking after a series of traumatic events which are covered in her biography, but she also found this format to be particularly easy to set up and work from. She had also complained at times about how expensive it had become to hire models, thus making this alternative a particularly good option. These portraits, plus the many items of correspondence that have been uncovered from her lifetime, have enabled us to build a clear picture about her personality, which was more vulnerable than some realise when considering how she is often portrayed as a strong women in a man's world, tenaciously burrowing ever onwards. Her experiences also help to provide a comparison between the different major cities in Italy at the time, and the different ways in which they treated her career - with a combination of both encouragement and at other times, insults.

The artist lived a somewhat restricted life before her marriage, unable to leave her family home without prior warning. Her father's studio would provide a number of connections to other artists as well as visiting models but she was could seek other avenues of inspiration. Once married, she would leave this environment and start to become more of an independant person. She was now living with the pressures of having to support herself but thrived on these new opportunities and found that she could survive away from the influence of her father. This helped to build her confidence and also to overcome some of the traumas that she had experienced earlier in life. Her work continued to be powerful and dripping in emotion, this talent never left her even as her life began to become more comfortable and enjoyable. It was not that her relationship with her father was damaged - she simply needed room to grow, both artistically and also in other avenues of her life's journey.

"...As long as I live I will have control over my being..."

Whilst working with her father he would arrange for many different artists to tutor her on different aspects of art, be it control of colour, lighting, perspective or other elements that go towards putting together a successful artistic career. He knew immediately of her natural talent and wanted it to travel as far as it possibly could. Even as a teenager he could see her ability surpassing that of all the other artists in his workshop. He was proud but also aware of how he would soon struggle to continue to be useful to her development. It took time before she was ready to spread her wings and attempt the difficult task of establishing herself as a successful, independant female painter. Circumstances would eventually force her to take this path and she travelled to a number of Italian cities from that point onwards.

There had been a number of female artists within the Renaissance and Baroque periods who had achieved some success, prior to the arrival of Artemisia Gentileschi. But they were generally restricted to subjects that women were supposed to focus on, such as the everyday scenes of domestic, often family life, or alternatively some still life pieces. Artemisia was not interested in these, and wanted to achieve fame in the hardest genres possible, where her skills would be tested to the full and also a variety of technical ability would be necessary. This would make her acceptance harder to achieve, but all the more pleasing once obtained. Even her early works were bold and challenging, featuring multiple figures and huge bouts of emotion which left the viewer in shock. Initially, some even misattributed some of her work to her father, being unconvinced that the hand of a young woman could produce such extraordinary paintings - thankfully, this was later corrected, but served as an early warning as to the barriers that she would come up against during her career.

The artist famously depicted women in powerful positions within most of her work, certainly as the equal to men. This represented her view of herself and there was plenty of crossover between her own mind and the content of her paintings. In some cases she would produce self portraits with her dressed as a famous character from the past. Her strong character is also to be found in the boldness of some of her depictions, with brutality to be found in a number of eye catching piece - this was no shrinking violet. As she progressed in his career there would be a slightly greater influence of femininity, perhaps as the earliest influences from her father started to fade. She is also known to have studied the work of Annibale Carracci and taken elements of his style into her own.

"...You will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman..."

It is quite probable that the artist's use of violence as well as the misuse of power within her paintings would allow her to process some of her own experiences. It was essentially a form of therapy. Whilst her artistic style was heavily influenced by Caravaggio and also her father, particularly early on, she did add her own unique touches which helped to make her career stand out from all that had gone before. She empowered the women in her paintings and attempted to avoid depicting them as weak or as victims. These paintings could then inspire other women to realise that they do not have to accept the role as subordinate, but were all capable of fighting back. This helped to establish her as a feminine icon which has also helped to increase focus on her career in recent years, due to the changes in society around gender imbalances. The same can be said for Mexican Surrealist, Frida Kahlo.