Artist Stories

Artemisia Gentileschi: The Rape Survivor and Her Revenge

Zuzanna Stańska 14 December 2023 min Read

Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the best Italian Baroque painters. This strong woman painted plenty of paintings of strong and suffering women from both mythology and the Bible. Regarded as both a genius and an anomaly, she defied societal expectations by pursuing a profession primarily dominated by men. However, she also experienced a traumatic event: Gentileschi was sexually assaulted by her mentor Agostino Tassi when she was 18 years old, leading to Gentileschi being thrust into the middle of a rape case that received considerable publicity and ruined her reputation. Tassi was convicted but released by the judge who also ordered Gentileschi to be tortured as a means of proving her honesty.

After the trial, she started to paint all those scenes of courageous women. Here you will find some of them:

1. Susanna and the Elders

Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610, Schloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610, Schloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons (public domain). 

This is the first painting by Gentileschi painted before the assault. It is also one of the few paintings on the theme of Susanna showing the sexual accosting by the two Elders as a traumatic event.

2. Judith and Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1611-1612, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1611-1612, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy. Vox.

This painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes is striking for the violence portrayed. Although the painting depicts a classic scene from the Bible, Gentileschi’s rape had a big impact on the composition. She drew herself as Judith and Agostino Tassi, who was tried in court for her rape, as Holofernes. A month after painting this piece, Gentileschi’s father Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. Shortly afterward, the couple moved to Florence. She became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the Medici family and Charles I of England.

3. Judith and Her Maidservant

Artemisia Rape: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, 1613-1614, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, 1613-1614, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy. Pinterest.

Here Judith has just killed Holofernes and with her maid, Abra is preparing to abscond with his head. Many male artists have depicted Judith as standing triumphant with Holofernes’ head, but Gentileschi chooses to capture the danger and risk.

4. Jael and Sisera

Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera, 1620, Szepmuveszeti Museum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Gentileschi also chose another biblical story in which a woman slays an aggressor. Sisera was a cruel Canaanite warrior who ruled the Israelites for 20 years. An Israelite Barak defeated his 900 charioteers with a surprise attack. Sisera escaped and sought refuge in the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. She gave the terrified Canaanite sanctuary. When he fell asleep, she drove a tent peg into his brain. The act fulfilled the prediction of Debora, a prophetess and Israeli leader, who had foreseen that a woman would slay Sisera.

5. Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-1639, Royal Collection, UK.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-1639, Royal Collection, UK. Royal Collection Trust.

This painting demonstrates a rare feminist theme from a time when women seldom held jobs, let alone were well-known for them. Gentileschi’s portrayal of herself as the epitome of the arts was a bold statement back then. Though today the painting is overshadowed by many of Gentileschi’s other, more dramatic, and raw scenes reflecting the artist’s troubling younger years, this Self-Portrait was very controversial in its time.

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