For centuries, artists have captivated us with their works, their masterpieces, inspiring us, challenging us, confusing us and using their skills to convey important messages, be they moral, social or something else entirely. Inevitably with time, works have been lost, and information about these artists lost, so we are faced with complex creations and no way to comprehend them. As such, art historians have often turned to artists’ biographies as a means for interpretation. In this article, I will examine the impact an artists’ life has upon the readings of their work, and look at a particular artist in this context, Artemesia Gentileschi.
Artemesia Gentileschi was an Italian artist born in Rome in 1563, who painted in the Baroque era. Baroque art is a very grandiose style of art, often featuring a hyperbolic sense of motion and very definite details with the aim of creating tension. The Catholic Church supported this artistic movement as a form of retaliation to the Protestant reformation, deciding that the arts should largely convey Religious themes, and in particular focus on the emotion subsequently evoked.
Gentileschi is now regarded as one of the finest female painters of all time. Initially taught by her father who was heavily influenced by Caravaggio, her own work reflected the same dramatic style with sharp juxtapositions between light and darkness. However, Artemesia’s father Orazio, painted in an idealised style, whereas Artemesia herself painted naturalistic works, not beautifying her models, nor shying away from darker subject matter. As such, she attained a great deal of respect for her work.
Much of Gentileschi’s work featured Biblical stories and characters, common for the Baroque era she was working in. Though, unlike some other artists, she often captured gorier episodes from the Bible, such as ‘Judith slaying Holofernes,’ and did so in a completely brazen way, freely showing both the terrified and angry faces, and the act itself. Without any other biographical information, a historian could simply read Gentileschi’s paintings as products of the Baroque era, violently demonstrating Catholic narrative. However, a traumatic event that occurred in Artemesia’s late teenage years is often attributed as motive for a large proportion of her works. The question is, is it fair to reduce all of such a wonderfully talented artist’s works to a reaction against a trauma?
In her late teens, Artemesia’s father hired her a tutor, another painted named Agostino Tassi. Tassi went on to rape Artemesia, destroying her ‘integrity’ and prospects as a woman in 17th century Italy. If women wished to be married, with any sense of respect in society, they were expected to remain virgins until marriage, otherwise they were viewed negatively, as promiscuous, the idea being that they could no longer fulfil their duties to their future husband. Gentileschi continued to engage in a relationship with Tassi following this horrific event, and was even arranged to marry him, entirely in the hope of restoring her prospects and dignity. However, Tassi went back on this promise, leading Artemesia’s father to press charges against the offender. Typically, this type of case would not have gone to court or been of any concern, as rape was generally regarded as just part of courting, but Artemesia belonged to an esteemed family, wherein rape was deemed as a great insult and violation. Equally, Orazio was only able to press charges as Tassi had taken Artemesia’s virginity, which was highly prized at the time.
Subsequently, we do see a rise in the graphic Biblical paintings which depict violence towards men in Gentileschi’s works. As an esteemed artist, Gentileschi was often commissioned to do portraiture, but her other works are predominantly Biblical acts of violence, which could be viewed as allegorical given the knowledge of her biography. However, I ask, is it fair for us to automatically attribute revenge as a motive to these works?