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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
This article contains mentions of sexual assault that may be troubling to some readers.
“I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.” These words, spoken by the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, embody the dauntless spirit of one of the Renaissance’s most famous painters.
When I first learned of the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, I was immediately captivated by what seemed like an empowering feminist tale. A gifted young painter growing up in the birthplace of the Renaissance, Gentileschi began her life studying under her father Orazio in Florence. Her world was torn apart, however, when another one of her father’s artists, Agostino Tassi, sexually assaulted her. Orazio and Artemisia sued the man in Florentine court, and, thanks to misogynistic laws concerning a woman’s virginity, they won the case. Florence was so taken with the scandal that Artemisia Gentileschi was propelled into artistic stardom, and her artworks, depicting feminist retellings on biblical stories, became wildly popular.
While this dramatic retelling sounds like the plot of a popular new period drama or award-winning YA novel, it was her life: The repercussions of Tassi’s act both limited and enriched her artistic career and aspirations. Yet the truth is more complicated than our initial impressions.
Gentileschi’s artistic journey began when she was just a child, when her father noticed her promise. By her teenage years, she was reproducing works of great technique, artistry, and emotion, and her style embodied the essence of the Baroque artistic tradition — biblical themes with elaborate anatomical forms, theatrical use of light and shadow, and meticulous attention to detail that imparted a sense of drama and realism. Her art was already beginning to be infused with a distinctly feminist pathos that set her artworks apart from her inspirations, such as Caravaggio and her own father Orazio.
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“Susanna and Elders” is one such work, painted by Gentileschi at the age of 17. While other works of the time danced around the perverted details of the story, with Susanna blissfully unaware of the creepy old men lurking near, Gentileschi’s depiction brings this harsh conflict to light. A frightened Susanna twists away from the men in clear distress as they leer over her, attempting to coerce her into sex. Susanna’s form is painted with detail and naturalism that reflects Gentileschi’s own skill and focus on rendering the body accurately, and the vibrant colors and shadows practically leap off of the canvas. The work is a triumph of Baroque art and an early example of Gentileschi’s skill in communicating feminist themes to the viewers clearly and powerfully.
After her tragic rape and highly publicized trial, Gentileschi married and set up her own personal studio in Florence, which gave her the freedom to create the art she wanted. Her work often featured scenes of strong and empowered women taking down tyrannical male villains, and were laden with double meanings in the context of her own trauma.
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Take “Judith Slaying Holofernes” as a prime example. One of her most famous and celebrated works, this painting depicts the story of the Israelite woman Judith bravely seducing and then beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes. Previous examples of this popular biblical image, such as Caravaggio’s own painting of the scene, depict a feminine and timid Judith with a passive maidservant, daintily holding the general’s neck, the brutal act she is taking part in barely registering on her face. Gentileschi’s painting, by contrast, shows a muscular and powerful Judith, straining against the writhing figure of Holofernes as she plunges a bloody dagger into his neck. Her maidservant actively helps with the strenuous feat that emphasizes the bond of womanhood and the triumph of the female heroine over a male antagonist.
Art historians have offered a surface-level interpretation based on the contextual information we know of Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” is a revenge painting, plain and simple. Gentileschi is expressing her rage and pain through the medium of art, and Judith is a semi-autobiographical figure, slaying the man that has terrorized her people as Gentileschi may have wished to do to her abuser. Indeed, many of Gentileschi’s women were painted in her image, and these works certainly echo this feminist sentiment of taking back the power and standing up to the oppressor.
But Gentileschi was more clever than many historians give her credit for. As a self-made, self-supporting artist, she needed to fight hard, and well, to survive in a male-dominated world. Gentileschi knew that her story was appealing — or at least interesting — to the wealthy patrons of Florence who would be lining her pockets with commissions. In a stroke of cunning genius, she infused her works with strong feminist undertones, crafting the narrative for herself as a bold female painter. “Judith Slaying Holofernes” is a superb example of this common theme that would play out throughout all of her works, building upon her narrative as an empowered woman seeking to express the anger of her injustice through her art and fulfilling the demands of a market of eager patrons.
Gentileschi was truly one of the finest artists of the Renaissance, and by reducing her story to that of just a “feminist” painter, audiences fail to appreciate her full-fledged artistic talents. Her paintings are a hallmark of feminist art, but Gentileschi deserves to be known for more than her story. Her prolific works also display a sensitivity to the human form, light, and color, and she explores the various biblical themes with skill, subtlety, and nuance. Her art was prized among collectors because of the rarity of her status as a female artist, the compelling story behind her works, and her considerable artistic prowess. It is all of these aspects together that reveal the true narrative of Gentileschi’s life.
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The final painting I wish to bring attention to is “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting.” The painting’s central figure contains aspects of the Allegory of Paint herself, yet it is also self-referential, resembling Gentileschi’s form poised in the art of her craft. This painting is incredibly sophisticated, showcasing her skill through the artwork’s technical virtuosity and emphasizing both Gentileschi’s own dual identity as a woman and artist, thus immortalizing her in the act of creation.
It is exceedingly important to recognize such brilliant women artists in our world. Art is the most powerful tool of expression throughout human history, and by looking at the stories of these talented and creative women, we celebrate the persistence of the female spirit. Gentileschi’s tale is an inspiration to us all, and her courage, cleverness, and creativity have paved the way for the women artists and visionaries of the modern world.
—Staff Writer Arielle C. Frommer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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