Artemisia Gentileschi once vowed, “As long as I live, I will have control over my being.” This was a bold statement for a woman who was born in Rome in 1593. She was the eldest daughter of Orazio Gentileshi. Orazio was a painter who followed in the Baroque style of Caravaggio. He tried to teach painting to his sons, but it was his daughter who had a genius for drawing, mixing colors, and painting. Artemisia surpassed her father’s abilities. Because she was a woman, she could not study in any of the art academies. Orazio hired Agostino Tassi who he was working on a commission with to give his daughter private lessons. Tassi was not a virtuous man. Unbeknownst to Orazio he had been convicted of trying to murder his wife. Tassi attempted to seduce Artemisia and when that was unsuccessful he raped her. Because Artemisia thought that he would marry her she carried on as his sexual partner for several months. It soon came out that he had tried to commit violence on his wife and he attempted to steal a painting from the Gentileschi household. Orazio sought justice. Agostino Tassi was charged with raping Artemisia even though they had a months long affair because he had deflowered her. Justice in the 17th century involved torture techniques from centuries previous. Artemisia was subjected to thumbscrews, a gynecological exam, and lacing of her fingers. Under torture she maintained her story that Tassi had initiated their affair by raping her. Agostino Tassi was sentenced to one year in jail which he never served. Artemisia was married to Pierantonio Stiattesi who was an artist and minor nobleman from Florence. The marriage was a match to bring respectability to Artemisia. The couple moved to Florence where Artemisia bore five children– a daughter and four sons. Her daughter was the only child to survive to adulthood.
Because of the rape and trial Artemisia’s amazing talent was secondary to her story for a very long time, but her ability to portray her subjects in a naturalistic fashion makes her one of the most important artists of the generation after Caravaggio. In a time period when women were considered to have insufficient intelligence to work and contribute anything of significance to society, Artemisia Gentileschi brought thought and passion to her works. When she was only 17 years old she depicted the sexual assault of Susanna by the Elders as a traumatic event. Much of her work shows violence and stirs with tension. Her painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, is memorable for violence that it portrays.
Artemisia Gentileschi was recognized within her own time period for her talent. The Medicis, Charles I, and Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger (the nephew of the Michelangelo) all commissioned work from her. She was the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. The tone in her paintings of strength and defiance lessened and became more feminine over the years, but she was always a strong women who was freed from the constraints on women of her time period. Roughly 57 of her paintings are known about and of those approximately 94% feature women as protagonists or equal to men. Her paintings depict courageous, powerful women. Artemisia herself was a courageous and powerful woman. She left her husband over money and went back to Rome on her own to set up her studio. In addition to her daughter from her marriage, she had another natural daughter that little is known about. She was friends with scholars and humanists such as Cassiano dal Pozzo and Galileo Galilei. Artemisia Gentileschi was a dangerous woman who expanded the possibilities for women.