Art history books are littered with the ‘big names’. Bernini, Caravaggio, Da Vinci, Manet. The big male names. If you cast your mind back to art lessons at school it’s probably the same. I studied Monet, Picasso, Dali. I never had the pleasure of learning about the diverse range of women creating mind-blowing art until I studied art at degree level.
I recently read a book on art history and didn’t find a single female name until the final chapter. After 200 pages of men and male art history, Artemisia Gentileschi was finally mentioned in a brief paragraph about art and feminism. Her history and achievements brushed over.
Gentileschi (b. 1593) became the first woman to be accepted into the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts. Her work is striking, and provides a key female perspective missing from much of art history.
Gentileschi was raped by her art tutor Agostino Tassi. Tassi was found guilty of this rape, however wasn’t ever convicted. Gentileschi was tortured for her evidence, and her artistic reputation was damaged by this event. Not to mention her own personal sufferings from the criminal act she was subjected to. Gentileschi, however, continued with her education and her career. She found the freedom to move around Italy, forging a successful career as an artist during her lifetime. An amazing achievement for a woman in the 17th century.
At the time female artists were painting portraits and still lives, however Gentileschi followed the subject matter of her male peers. This in itself it astounding.
Judith Slaying Holofernes is said to be inspired by Caravaggio’s work of the same biblical scene. Caravaggio’s piece depicts Judith killing him in a passive way, she is calm, relaxed almost despite the act of murder taking place at her hand. This is in stark contrast to Gentileschi’s painting, which shows a brutally passionate killing. Gentileschi brings the power of women to the forefront of her work.
Her other pieces are in a similar vain, her work champions the idea of women being strong and powerful. Judith and her Maidservant shows Holofernes’ head in a basket, following on from the previous work. Art historian Mann described the pose of Judith as “something we expect of a male hero, so it is a very powerful representation.” Her work begins to question gender roles, and how women are viewed by society.
Gentileschi shows women in a different light to how they were depicted by other artists. They become strong rather than passive. Their passion is put before beauty. Their power put before societal expectations of what a woman should be.
After her death Artemisia Gentileschi was a name that became lost in art history. Her paintings were no longer celebrated, and her success was forgotten along with a lot of painters from the same era.
However, in 1974, Gentileschi took her place at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. This piece of work celebrated women’s contributions to history and art, and is now on show at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.
This celebrates the often unsung talents of women, focussing on using artistic techniques often ignored, such as needlework and ceramics. Sitting beside artists such as Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe, Gentileschi’s place setting celebrated her use of light and dark in her paintings. Chicago added a twisted pattern, full of turns which represented the “extraordinary efforts required of women on [Gentileschi’s] time who desired to become an artist” (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 97).
While her work is now recognised and exhibited, Artemisia Gentileschi still sits in the shadow of her male counterparts. Her work sells for less, she still doesn’t feature in books on art history or the school syllabus. Women are now recognised in art, Frida Kahlo, Judy Chicago, Tracey Emin etc. but, just as within society, women and men are still not equal.