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Artemisia Gentileschi: Defying the Odds

“She was a woman in a man’s world, destined to fail. Her life was tarnished with injustice, oppression and unimaginable tragedy. But there was one thing that nobody could take away from her: her artistry.”

As I flick through the glossy pages of my new book on Artemisia Gentileschi, the pioneering Roman Baroque artist whose unflinching work has remained relevant across the centuries, I am reminded of a thrilling exhibition I visited a little over a year ago at London’s National Gallery. The show, which was the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in the UK, showcased some of the artist’s most prominent works — and quite literally took my breath away.

I vividly recall stepping into the dimly-lit exhibition space and almost instantly finding myself in front of an astonishing painting Gentileschi painted in 1610 when she was just seventeen years old. The masterpiece in question is Susanna and the Elders, and is the artist’s first known work. It depicts a well-known biblical scene from the Book of David, a tale set in Babylon during the Jewish exile. While most women artists working in the 17th century were encouraged to stick to ‘feminine’ subjects such as still life and portraiture, Gentileschi insisted on painting the drama-filled biblical narratives that had brought her male counterparts artistic recognition. But unlike her male peers, Gentileschi turned these traditional tales on their head, depicting women as capable, defiant, and powerful. Her women are heroines with their own agency, determined to free themselves of the male gaze and its constraints.

I study the painting in front of me, which depicts an uncomfortable scenario that women everywhere will relate to, even four centuries later: men’s attention is often unwelcome, but not easy to ward off. The naked Susanna sits on a stone bench, her foot still dipping into the water she has just bathed in. But her privacy is interrupted by two ogling elders who appear behind her. The painting shows the men whispering, conspiring over the young woman and how they might seduce her. Susanna’s arms are raised in protest as she shields herself from these uninvited intruders, her expression distraught. In most artistic representations of this popular narrative, Susanna’s expression appears unbothered and ambiguous it is the lustful men who take center stage. But in Gentileschi’s interpretation, the focus is on Susanna’s psychological response to her lascivious observers. For the first time ever in the history of art, a painting depicted sexual harassment from an explicitly female perspective and the result is just as relevant today as it was back in 1610. 

How many times have my friends and I been Susanna, I wonder? How many times have women all over the world fallen victim to the unwanted advances of men, and when will saying no finally be enough? Luckily, Susanna’s story continues off the canvas. The conniving elders attempt to blackmail Susanna into sex, and when she refuses, she is put on trial. But justice is just around the corner: Eventually, the fearless Susanna is exonerated, and the men executed for their crime. This staggering painting confirms what the fan-girl inside of me already knows: Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the greats, and it is time the whole world finally learned her name.

I continue to stare at Susanna and the Elders, stupefied. My eyes scan the accompanying text, which informs me that Gentileschi painted this mind-boggling piece from her bedroom. I instantly wonder: what the hell had I accomplished by seventeen? I believe I spent a lot of time gushing over mediocre boys and browsing the internet. Not quite the same. I let out a sigh and walk over to a glass vitrine in which a tattered manuscript outlines a trial held in 1612. Just a year after Gentileschi had finished painting Susanna and the Elders, she was raped by her teacher and mentor, Agostino Tassi. Although sexual assault was not illegal in the 17th century, taking a woman’s virginity was, which allowed the Gentileschi family to press charges for sexual misconduct —  an act that was almost unheard of at the time. 

The original manuscript recounts the story of how Artemisia voluntarily endured torture in order to convince the court that she had not made up Tassi’s attack. As rope was gradually pulled tighter and tighter around her bound fingers, it is documented that she cried out: “È vero, è vero, è vero.” It’s true, it’s true, it’s true. Reading these words sends a shudder down my spine; they remind me of the countless stories of women who, despite years of progress and the #MeToo movement, continue to be scrutinized and torn apart by the media when testifying against assault. Tassi would be sentenced to a year in prison, one that he would never serve because the Pope was a fan of his paintings. Susanna found her justice, Artemisia, however, did not. 

I ask myself how the young artist coped with the trauma of her rape and the brutal trial that followed, and think of all the survivors, before and after her, who have experienced the same anguish. Moved, I make my way to the next room and quickly find out: retribution, it seems — via art. Two of the fiercest paintings I have ever laid eyes on are hung almost theatrically, side by side, the first painted only a year after Artemisia’s trial. I have seen images of these paintings online before, but nothing prepares me for their grandeur. They are both representations of the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, a popular subject amongst Baroque artists.

Judith, a young Israelite widow and the heroine of this story, is seen violently slashing the throat of Holofernes, the Assyrian general who had invaded her home city of Bethulia. The young woman does her hair and puts on her finest outfit before fearlessly heading to the enemy camp. By pretending she has crucial information that will help her enemies win the war, the naive Holofernes is seduced by Judith’s beauty, and invites her to dine with him. Moments later, Judith brutally murders the general with the help of her servant maid, her determination apparent through the stoic expression on her face. In most versions of this painting, the servant’s purpose is minimal; she is only present to help Judith collect the severed head. But in Artemisia’s version of the story, both women are equally active participants in the murder, united by sisterhood and female rage. Aside from the fact that these works are absolutely captivating in their gory execution, there is another reason I can’t seem to turn away. Do these paintings somehow represent the artist’s personal vengeance? Is Artemisia’s pain present in Judith’s rage? 

As I slowly navigate this awe-inspiring exhibition, I can’t help but think about all the obstacles Gentileschi must have faced. In a world in which women were expected to be mothers, wives, or nuns, it is remarkable that she achieved so much, and perhaps even more remarkable that it has taken art history so long to give her a long overdue seat at the table. In one of the last rooms, a number of recently discovered personal letters between the artist and her numerous patrons are on display. In a letter to a Sicilian patron, Gentileschi famously proclaimed: “I will show your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do … You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.” The content of the letters paint the picture of an empowered, resilient woman, witty despite the unimaginable hardship she has endured.

With her imaginative words and paintings, Gentileschi retaliated against the men that assaulted, undermined and persistently doubted her. If I admired Artemisia at the beginning of the show, I am obsessed with her now. Intentional or not, the artist anticipated modern feminism long before the concept even existed. I walk out of the exhibition smiling, certain of one thing. Artemisia Gentileschi was determined to control her own destiny, and her resilience in doing so represents everything Italian women continue to be, four centuries later: dynamic, defiant and daring.