Artemisia Gentileschi—Judith & Holefernes

From the first day, I was introduced to Artemisia in a darkened lecture hall in college, I have been fascinated and intrigued by the seventeenth-century artist’s story.

Artemisia was a sixteenth-century artist pitted against a
male-dominated society.

During her lifetime Artemisia suffered through many dark days. She lived in a male-dominated society, and because of her gender, she lived a very restricted life. Orazio Gentileschi sought to protect his daughter from the rough and lawless Roman society, where thieves and brutal men roamed the streets, keeping her a virtual prisoner within her own house. But in the end, he failed. Artemisia endured sexual harassment and rape at the hands of her painting instructor Agostino Tassi in the privacy of her bed-chamber.

Artemisia Gentileschi—Susanna & the Elders

Artemisia was raped by her
painting instructor Agostino Tassi

Tassi, a friend of the family, was hired by Artemisia’s father to teach her painting techniques and perspective drawing. Tassi, who became quickly enamored with Artemisia, seduced her and forced her to have sex with him despite her pleas to the contrary. She threatened him with a knife to prevent him from harming her, even threw the dagger at him to keep him at bay. But, still, he overpowered her and took her. After the act, he promised to marry her — a lie he told her — to keep her honor intact and to have free access to her bed.

Artemisia Gentileschi—Santa Caterina

In a time when women didn’t take
their rapists to court — Artemisia
was forced by her father to do so.

Eventually, Agostino Tassi was found out by Artemisia’s father, and he finally reneged on his proposal of marriage. Of course, he couldn’t marry Artemisia as he was already married, with children by his wife, as well as with his sister-in-law — making him a bigamist. Artemisia only found these details out after she and her father took the man to court in a very public trial. During the year-long process, Artemisia endured great indignities and was subjected to physical inspection of her vagina in front of a judge. She was tortured as well, with the sibyl having her hands bound with metal rings and a rope which was wound tighter and tighter to cause pain to determine if she was telling the truth. Meanwhile, Agostino Tassi, Artemisia’s rapist looked on complacently and never had to submit to the same kind of torture to determine if he was telling the truth.

Artemisia Gentileschi—Judith & Holefernes

Artemisia won her case against Tassi but still left the courtroom in disgrace – her life in shambles

Artemisia won her court case but left the courtroom in disgrace and almost lost her promising painting career. In an attempt to save her reputation, her father decided to send her to a convent, thinking no man would ever touch her since she was soiled goods. In the end, he bartered her off to a philandering Florentine man, and Artemisia was forced to leave her hometown and begin life all over again in a new city. There she lived with a man she didn’t love or respect, and who stole her money. During her years in Florence, she also suffered several miscarriages.

Artemisia Gentileschi—Judith & Holefernes

But, Artemisia persevered, using her art as therapy to rise from the ashes to become a world-renowned artist.

And yet, none of these early-life, devasting events prevented Artemisia from maturing into a strong, independent woman, a successful artist. In Florence, she became great friends with Galileo, and Cosimo II de Medici was her patron. It was Cosimo who championed Artemisia recognizing her talent, inviting her to be the first female admitted into Florence’s exclusive Art Academy. In her own time, she became a world-renowned artist, painting for Kings and Dukes all over Europe and even in England. She surpassed her male peers because she developed her own unique style and did not imitate the work of other men.

Artemisia Gentileschi—Judith & Holefernes

Was Artemisia the first to
start the ME TOO movement?

It can be argued; Artemisia was one of the first to champion the woman’s movement, refashioning traditional biblical themes, repurposing them so that in her canvases, women become the center of the viewer’s focus. Women are depicted as strong protagonists in her work, redefining old stories in favor of women who triumph against all the odds.

Was Artemisia the first to use painting
as art therapy to heal her wounds?

All Artemisia ever wanted to do was paint. She was obsessed with it. She persevered, using her art as therapy to rise from the ashes allowing her to find solace and work through her pain — and perhaps find revenge against her aggressors on her canvases. For indeed, one of the reoccurring themes in Gentileschi’s work is that of Judith and Holofernes. In a series of paintings depicting the beheading of the Syrian General by the Jewish heroine, Artemisia paints her own image, and the visage of her rapist Agostino Tassi’s becomes the face of the general.

Artemisia, like the Roman goddess Artemis for whom she was named, demonstrates that when women unite and take control of their lives and their destinies, they become the heroes of their own story, and they are unstoppable.

To learn more about Artemisia and her life story, pick up a copy of my novel about her, entitled “Eternally Artemisia.”

Book Synopsis:

They say some loves travel through time and are fated to meet over and over again. For Maddie, an art therapist, who wrestles with the “peculiar feeling” she has lived previous lives and is being called to Italy by voices that have left imprints on her soul, this idea is intriguing. Despite her best efforts, however, proof of this has always eluded her. That is, until one illuminating summer in Italy when Maddie’s previous existences start to bleed through into her current reality. When she is introduced to the Crociani family—a noble clan with ties to the seventeenth-century Medici court that boasts of ancestors with colorful pasts—she finally meets the loves of her life. One is romantic love, and another is a special kind of passion that only women share, strong amongst those who have suffered greatly yet have triumphed despite it. As Maddie’s relationship develops with Artemisia Gentileschi—an artist who in a time when it was unheard of to denounce a man for the crime of rape, did just that—Maddie discovers a kindred spirit and a role model, and just what women are capable of when united together. In a journey that arcs back to biblical days and moves forward in time, Maddie encounters artists, dukes, designers, and movie stars as well as baser and ignoble men. With Artemisia never far from her side, she proves that when we dare to take control of our lives and find the “thing” we are most passionate about, we are limitless and can touch the stars

Eternally Artemisia by Melissa Muldoon is available on Amazon

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