Position:Critical Essay

"I find myself with a female daughter and three other sons, and this daughter, as it pleased God, having been trained in the profession of painting, in three years has become so skilled that I dare say she has no equal today, for she has made works that demonstrate a level of understanding that perhaps the leading masters of the profession have not attained." With these words, in mid-1612 Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) assured Cristina di Lorena, the Dowager Grand Duchess in Florence, of the talent of eighteen-year-old Artemisia (1593-ca 1653). "In the proper time and place," he added from Rome, he would show Her Serene Highness that what he said was so. [1]

Nearly four centuries later, art historians, novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers remain focused on issues raised by Orazio's brief pledge: the father-daughter relationship; Artemisia's artistic education; whether she was a prodigy and thus capable of painting on her own a Susanna and the Elders inscribed with her name and dated 1610; her standing compared to the leading (male) masters; Orazio's managing of her career; and, above all, what Orazio emphasized through redundancy, that, although an artist, Artemisia was "una figliuola femina," a woman. What he did not mention, however, has proven to be even more captivating in the modern mind: the rape of Artemisia a year earlier by Orazio's artist-associate, Agostino Tassi; the resultant trial that was still under way when Orazio was writing to Florence; and Artemisia's penchant for painting powerful, often-nude female protagonists.

Among the various myths surrounding Artemisia Gentileschi is that she was badly neglected by writers of her time (as this essay attests, there has been a compensatory outpouring during the past decade thanks to the women's movement, so much so that attention can be given only to representative tides).2 It is true that she was not discussed by Mancini, Scannelli, Bellori, or Passeri, and that she deserved mention because she worked for some prominent clients in Rome, Florence, Naples, and London. But it is important to bear in mind that, as a woman, she predictably painted no frescoes and scarcely any altarpieces (not one in Rome or Florence)-that is, those works that were the most obvious signs of a history painter's significance and success. Other biographers--Baglione, Sandrart, Baldinucci, and De Dominici--nevertheless took notice of her career. Thereafter little of substance was written until Roberto Longhi devoted a youthful essay (1916) to "Gentileschi padre e figlia." [3]

It is ironic, if seldom noted, that Longhi, who is credited with resurrecting Artemisia from scholarly oblivion, was mistaken in fully two-thirds of his attributions to her (generous allowance must be made for the primitive state of research on Italian Baroque painting then), and especially that his discussion of Artemisia's work, as Laura Benedetti recently emphasized, was full of sexist criticism, notably with regard to her dramatic versions of Judith Decapitating Holofernes (Fig. 1): "This is a terrible woman! How could a woman paint all this? We beg for mercy....Unbelievable, I tell you!" and more such ranting. [4]

In time, Longhi's primitive catalogue of Artemisia's work was slowly corrected and enlarged, often by Longhi himself, although a firm documentary basis for understanding her career awaited Ward Bissell's fundamental "New Documented Chronology," published in this journal a generation ago. [5] A few years later, six of her best pictures were selected for the exhibition Women Artists: 1550- 1950 (1976), which for the first time offered the modern public an opportunity to see what a good painter Artemisia could be. [6]

Mary Garrard's Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art appeared a decade ago and changed the discourse entirely. Except for Ann Sutherland Harris's perceptive entries in Women Artists: 1550-1 950 and a section of Germane Greer's The Obstacle Race (1979), the art historical literature on Artemisia had been fundamentally conventional, meaning that it dealt foremost with attributional, chronological, and iconographic problems from a traditional perspective, and was biased by androcentric, often misogynist, rather than feminist values. Garrard overthrew that tradition by adopting what she called "a line of investigation ... whose premise [is] that women's art is inescapably, if unconsciously, different from men's, because the sexes have been socialized to different experiences of the world."

Working from the premise that Artemisia's imagery reflects her gender and more specifically her suffering of sexual harassment and rape, Garrard replaced traditional connoisseurship with what might be called "gendered expression" as an attributional basis. Thus, "while the formal differences between Artemisia and her father are subtle, the expressive differences are vast. Hers is an art of energy and drama, not mood and poetic silence. And although Artemisia's female characters may superficially resemble those of Orazio, they respond and act in an entirely different way." [7] From this essentialist perspective on human behavior, one theoretically can distinguish between narratives designed by men and by women.

Another characteristic of Garrard's method, which is noted only as background for discussion of the literature under consideration, should be kept in mind--namely the assumption that Artemisia borrowed many motifs from earlier art with complex, high-minded intentions, and that by recognizing such purposeful imitation of, and identification with, esteemed models, her own worthy place in the canon and genial status are confirmed. [8]

When I refer to "the literature under consideration" I mean more than numerous scholarly articles, a Florentine exhibition catalogue of 1991 devoted to Artemisia's work, and Bissell's recent monograph (which will be discussed in detail in the third section of this essay). I am interested, too, in exploring the varied approaches taken by Sally Clark and Olga Humphrey in their plays about the artist, by novelists who have re-created her life, especially Alexandra Lapierre, and by the director Agnes Merlet, whose controversial film Artemisia in many ways epitomizes the dilemma that historians and writers face, whether feminists or not, when dealing with a long-dead woman artist, and the question of what constitutes fact or fiction.

Anna Banti's early novel, Artemisia (1947), wants mention as well, though more will be said about its nature later. For, like the essay by her husband, Roberto Longhi, the article by Bissell, and Mary Garrard's monograph, which together laid the foundation for subsequent art historical research, Banti's book lies behind later fiction, and still remains one of the most intriguing portrayals of Artemisia Gentileschi.


Artemisia's Judith Decapitating Holofernes in the Uffizi (Fig. 1) is the second, bloodier version of the subject. It was painted ca. 1620 for the Florentine court, whereas the first one (Capodimonte Museum, Naples) was executed in Rome ca. 1611-12, that is, shortly after the assault (May 1611), possibly while the trial was still under way (March-October 1612), and before Artemisia married Pierantonio Stiatessi (November 1612) and moved with him to Florence (most likely in early 1613). This later version is the image that disturbed Longhi so much, whose defensive sarcasm and thinly veiled sexism in referring to its painter as "Signora Schiattesi" fits the sexual dualism underlying Garrard's reductive view that "the most dangerous and frightening force on earth for Man [is] women in control of his fate." [9] And it fits Agnes Merlet's scripting of Tassi's lawyer at the trial, who first exhibits Artemisia's "lewd" drawings of naked men as evidence of her wanton sexuality (Orazio interrupts, claiming that they ar e by him instead, but the defense declares, "it's not the work of a painter, but of a woman!"). Judith and Holofernes then is displayed as other incriminating evidence, for obviously Tassi is cast as Holofernes, Artemisia is Judith, and hence she is a criminal, a traitor, and Tassi is "the victim of her scheming." "Who is the victim of whom?" asks Tassi's lawyer in the film.

The operative assumption here, which is at the core of most, but not all, modern approaches to Artemisia, is that, "given the artist's unusual biography, and given the validation by modern psychology of the Aristotelian principle of catharsis, it is surely justifiable to interpret the painting [of Judith Decapitating Holofernes], at least on one level, as a cathartic expression of the artist's private, and perhaps repressed, rage." [10] As a writer who has adopted a psychoanalytic approach for studying Guido Reni's imagery, I have a stake in defending the validity of this working premise, though only stating my bias begs the question of which psychoanalytical method is most suitable for Artemisia, and how persuasive analyses have been. [11]

I vacillate in raising this subject for two reasons. Not only cannot its methodological complexities be considered in the scope of this essay, but by opening the question of the relationship between Artemisia's rape and imagery at all, which has dominated and sensationalized the literature and Artemisia's fame in a way that CNN should envy, I am adding further weight to an already bloated discourse, inescapably becoming party to what Mieke Bal calls a "problematic of the politics of citation," in which endless discussion, no matter how well intended, ends up with a negative effect. [12]

Despite Garrard's apt warning against "sensationalist fascination with the melodrama of Artemisia's rape" and oversimplification of Judith Decapitating Holofernes "purely as an expression of fantasy revenge against a rapist," [13] a lot of psycho-babble has distorted both Artemisia's art and the worth of psychoanalytical investigation. I will leave aside amateurish writings on...

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