Kentucky Art Speaks

Artist: Present & Past

In Artist: Present & Past on September 24, 2010 at 8:00 am

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614-1620.

Artemisia Gentileschi is amongst the most successful painters of the Baroque era. She is also one of the first female artists to paint historical and religious paintings. At first glance, Judith Slaying Holofernes appears to be a typical Baroque painting, with a standard Caravaggio influence and historical subject matter. Upon further inspection, the painting does seem more violent than average. What is the reason for this excessive violence? Artemisia’s work is debated as one of the earliest examples of feminist art – her heroines have a similar appearance to her self-portraits, and it is assumed that many of Artemesia’s ill-fated experiences as a woman spurred this feminist essence to her work. In continuation of my series on how to evaluate the success of a work of art, I have chosen a single question to talk about this week:

What is the artist’s gender?

Being male or female completely effects one’s outlook and experiences in life. Many works, especially feminist art, reflect an artist’s desire to illustrate an issue or feeling pertaining to one’s gender. See if the work above takes on a new meaning after reading the artist’s story:

Artemisia Gentileschi’s father was a painter and Artemisia, being more talented than her brothers, became his student. When Artemisia was 17, she produced her first painting: the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, in which, oddly enough, Susanna is sexually harrassed by two lecherous voyeurs.

Artemisia was sexually discriminated against and was not accepted into an art academy despite her talent. Her father resorted to hiring tutor for her, a fellow painter by the name of Agostino Tassi. With the help of another man, Tassi eventually raped Artemisia. Because of her expectation of marriage, Artemisia continued to have sexual relations with Tassi. However, Tassi  broke the engagement after he heard the false rumor that she was having an affair with another man. Artemisia’s father soon pressed charges against Tassi, with the allegation that Tassi had deflowered his daughter.

If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, the Gentileschis would have to drop the charges. During the 7-month trial, as a way to test the authenticity of her story, Artemisia was given a gynecological examination in addition to being tortured with thumbscrews.

Unfortunately, at the end of the trial Tassi was imprisoned for only one year, even though it had been discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his current wife and committed adultery with his sister-in-law.

It is here many draw the conclusions about the relationship of Gentileschi’s work and her real life.

What do you think?

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