« You’re not born an artist, but you become one. From as far back as we can remember, the history of art was thought, written, published, transmitted by men. And when you’re born a woman, to be an artist, to prove it, to have access to it, to produce it, to show it, is a permanent fight, dangerous, exhausting physically, intellectually and psychically. » Laure Adler
International Women’s Day is the occasion to introduce this new serie of articles dedicated to women artists, often sidelined in Art History.
Why have Art Historians chosen to ignore women artists for so long? Is it because their work is not as interesting? Or because there are few works of women artists? Or is it a reflection of a social thought that women could not work in the public sphere? Women’s art has often been described as a sentimental art, an amateur art compared to men’s art.
Selfportrait of a lute player, 1615-1617. Curtis Galeries, Minneapolis
Let’s start this serie of article with an Italian artist from the caravagesque school: Artemisia Gentileschi. Born in 1593 in Rome, she learns to paint with her father Orazio Gentileschi, one of the best Roman painters of the time. The young woman however, is marked by a drama, at the age of 17, she is raped by Agostino Tassi, her father’s partner. Orazio orders Tassi to marry him in reparation – nice customs of the time! Tassi refuses and ensues a trial that would bound forever to the name of the young woman. They even had her tortured to make sure she was saying the truth. Artemisia won her trial but Tassi never served his sentence.
Susanne and the elders, 1610, Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden
That same year, just before her rape, she painted Susanne and the elders, who was subject to numerous interpretations by women researchers, some see it as a reflection of the man’s pressure on woman, before her rape by her painting teacher, a social male pressure of her time, on the professional point but also on the personal point.
Shortly after, she got married and moved to Florence, where she forgedherself a solid reputation. While women are generally limited to portraits or still-life, Artemisa, from her beginnings, painted biblical or historical subjects that staged heroines.
Sleeping Venus, 1625-1630, Richmond, Virginia Museum of fine arts
As a woman, it was difficult for her to find male models. In consequence, from her beginnings she used her own image as a model and this explains the large number of paintings with female subjects.
Cleopatra, 1635, Private collection.
Cleopatra or Sleeping Venus are good examples, just like her Judith and Holopherne, a painting that was subjets to a lots of interpretations as well: that Holopherne would be a portrait of Tassi and that the scene could be seen as a childbirth – look at Holopherne’s arms and head, now imagine legs instead of his arms- But the thing that everyone agrees on is that it is a masterpiece!
Judith and Holopherne, 1611-12. Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples
She even becomes the first woman to be accepted to the Accademia del Disegno in Florence, she thus obtains emancipation, she can sign contracts and travel without her husband! She went to Venice, London and then moved to Naples where she founded a successful workshop. Convinced by her own talent, she even maked her portrait in the allegory of painting! Only a woman can paint herself as an allegory of painting, because painting is a woman. It is therefore a real affirmation from Artemisa Gentileschi, she embodies painting!
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-39. Royal Collection, Windsor
After her death in 1653, she fell into oblivion and many of her works were attributed to men. It will be rediscovered in the 20th century but she will be described as a “lascivious and early child”. 450 years later her rape is still causing damage to his reputation… It was not until the intervention of feminist historians in the 1970s that his work was properly valued. Now we personally consider her like a badass artist!