Despite her exclusion from art education and resources on the grounds of her sex, the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) became one of the most accomplished painters of the Italian Baroque period.
She often painted herself for her work as she was unable to access models, therefore imparting a sense of her own physicality, spirit and experience into the images she created. Her rare talent and skills eventually allowed her something even rarer- independent womanhood.
Gentileschi’s ability to carve out a profession as a female artist is an exceeding rare case in the context of Western history. It is therefore interesting to consider how she presents her female subjects.
Unlike many of her male contemporaries who commonly highlighted women as objects of beauty, emphasizing their passivity or alternatively as seductresses (based on the virgin/whore dichotomy), Gentileschi created work highlighting the emotional, mental and physical power and/or suffering of her females.
Artemisia was, however, raped aged 18. Her attacker had previously raped his sister-in-law and wife. The artist was tortured during the resulting trial to “prove” she was telling the truth, as was common practice. Officers of the court routinely used thumbscrews on women in such cases which would sometimes break bones. Artemisia’s sexual history, ‘virtue’ and ‘honour’ were repeatedly questioned and she faced many months of intense and devastating public scrutiny. Eventually her attacker was found guilty. He was, however, soon released from prison on the orders of the judge.
Due to the apparent ‘shame’ brought to Artemisia’s character by these events, she was forced to move to another city and was sold off into marriage to an elderly friend of her father’s. They soon separated.
In the same year as her trial ended Artemisia produced this artwork (below).
The title and subject matter depicts Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1620).
‘Judith’ was regarded as an icon of female power within the Baroque period. Artemisia’s heroine appears strong, muscular and dominating. The painting depicts Judith working in unison with her female servant as she utilises her sword to tear into her prone male victim as he is held down. There is a immediate impression of force, struggle and hopeless resistance and a shocking and bloody realism to the brutality of the violence.
It is not difficult to surmise that the artist has created an allegorical, cathartic work. She appears to subvert her own experience of male sexual violence by reflecting a role reversal of the violating, brutal act. As men were the main sex to buy, sell and view such works for many centuries, it may be presumed that Artemisia wanted her male audience to contemplate and feel the horrors and reality of being victims of extreme violence, as if it was their own experience.
Artemisia survived her abuse by both attacker and state and went on to live an unusually independent life through her art. She produced many more paintings depicting strong women struggling/battling against male dominance. And so she received many derogatory epitaphs as a result of unsettling the patriarchs…..
Having considered the context behind Artemisia’s painting which included her educational exclusion, her rape and subsequent rape trial, it interesting to compare the work with that of a male artist. Although Franz Stuck’s interpretation, ‘ Judith’ (1924) (below), features the same mythical scene, it incorporates very different messages for the viewer.
Franz Stuck, ‘ Judith’ (1924)
Despite alluding to the theme of the myth, here Judith is still, statue-like, passive.The female figure is sexualized, an object of male fantasy for the male gaze as the painter directs the viewer’s eye to the naked female torso for their voyeuristic pleasure. There is a dream-like quality to Judith and despite the fact she is holding a sword, she is portrayed as more playful temptress to both male character Holofernes and male viewer alike, rather than the cunning assassin of myth.
The painting is also interspersed with allusions and motifs relating to the psychological theories of Freud, and the era in which it was created. Judith holds an erect sword, a phallic object, alluding to such condescending ideas as female ‘penis envy’, involving girls devotion to the father and blaming the mother for their female ‘disadvantage’. (Female oppression is therefore accepted as biological and not through patriarchal societal, economic and cultural repression). The work similarly implies castration anxiety, fear of emasculation, loss of male power and patriarchal control.
In contrast, Gentileschi’s version highlights Judith as a non-idealized woman, as the artist is more concerned with being representative of female strength, determination and struggle. Judith is portrayed in an active role, she is subject not object.
In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” feminist Laura Mulvey highlights the male gaze, stating that women were/are objectified in film because heterosexual men are largely in control of the camera. In the art world, likewise, men have controlled the canvas artistically, socially and economically for centuries and the images they impart.
Not only is Judith used by Stuck as a vehicle and embodiment of male fear, but akin to the most common narratives in contemporary heterosexual pornography, the female is representative of a non-human vessel to hold and satisfy male heterosexual fantasy and desire.
Gentileschi’s perspective is that of a woman. Her painting is of metaphorical revenge and of expressing female rage in a culture colluding in the sexual, psychological, physical abuse of women by men.
Male perspectives, like Stuck’s, however are still pervasive in Western culture, in turn normalising certain views of acceptable/unacceptable womanhood….in film, advertising, pornography, media……and so on.
This, in turn creates what feminist artist and writer Valie Export describes as ‘a masculine reality’ detrimental to the experience of actually being female.