Despite her exclusion from art education, academies 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.
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.
The title and subject matter depicts Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612).
‘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’s a immediate impression of force, struggle and hopeless resistance and a shocking and bloody realism to the brutality of the violence..
It isn’t 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 only 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.
It is most significantly, however, a painting of metaphorical revenge and of expressing female rage in a patriarchal world still indifferent to the sexual, psychological, physical abuse of women, perpetrated by men, patriarchal systems and institutions within society.
Up to 3 million women and girls across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, stalking, or other violence each perpetrated by male abusers. On average more than two women a week are killed by men through domestic violence in England and Wales. Rape victims still face both institutionalized neglect and ignorance with rape myths, victim blaming etc. still prevalent.
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 (apparently!) derogatory epitaphs as a result of unsettling the patriarchs…..
“By painting one likeness after another/ I earned no end of merit in the world/ While, to carve two horns upon my husband’s head/I put down the brush and took a chisel instead.”