The first woman to get accepted into the Florence Academy of Art during the Renaissance was almost completely forgotten in art history. When she is mentioned, it’s usually due to a traumatic event in her past: her rape and court trial. But Artemisia Gentileschi was a great painter and a groundbreaking woman who was truly ahead of her time.
Gentileschi was born in Florence in 1593. Her father, a painter himself, recognized his daughter’s artistic talent. He sent her to intern with one of the most famous artists in town, Agostino Tassi. In a city that was full of talent, Gentileschi was quickly marked as a rising star. Her paintings set her apart from other artists because they tended to focus on women. Her series of paintings on Biblical women were especially successful, and she began to become famous as one of the leading painters of the time.
Several of Artemisia Gentileschi’s most famous paintings
But then, in 1616, Tassi violently raped Gentileschi when she was 19. Gentileschi’s father tried to force Tassi to marry her. After several months of negotiation, Tassi refused. Her father decided to sue him for rape and non-compliance with agreements.
The trial caused a storm in Italy. Evidence for the interest the case caused can be found in the amount of documentation we have today. The evidence from the trial was so well preserved that we know, for example, that every single one of Tassi’s maids was called as a witness. All of them claimed that Gentileschi was on her period during the rape.
Gentileschi herself was called to give witness and spoke in first-person about the rape, which was very rare in those days (and to be honest, even today). Still, most of the witnesses and speakers in the trial were men.
Unsurprisingly, Tassi’s method of defense was to blame the victim. He claimed that Gentileschi was promiscuous, that she seduced him, and that her father sold her into prostitution for a piece of bread. This was Tassi’s second court case after he stood trial for an incestuous relationship with his step-sister.
The court ruled in favor of Gentileschi. Tassi was found guilty of rape and was sentenced to (only) 9 months in prison. Her father quickly arranged a marriage for Gentileschi, but for the rest of her life, an image of a promiscuous woman stuck to her. Among the Italian public, she was already marked as a broken woman.
Two paintings from the series Susanna and the Elders. We can clearly see that Susanna feels discomfort and threatened by the men’s gaze.
Gentileschi moved to Rome, kept painting, and managed to earn a living as an artist – a rare accomplishment for women in that period. As previously mentioned, she was the first woman to be accepted into the Florence Academy of Art during the city’s heyday as an international art center.
As the years passed, she was pushed to the sidelines and forgotten. Her paintings are rarely mentioned, and when people talk about the Golden Age of Florence, she is seldom brought up. When she is mentioned in the Baroque art history, it is almost always due to the rape case and trial, and not for her art. Gentileschi deserves better.
In recent years, Gentileschi’s paintings have gained popularity in their own right. And yet misfortune didn’t leave her. Recently, before the arrival of COVID-19, the National Portrait Gallery in London planned to host a festive retrospective exhibition of her painting. COVID had other plans, and the museum was forced to postpone the opening of the exhibition. Currently, for various logistical reasons, it is unknown if it will materialize.
Want to learn more about Artemisia Gentileschi? Try The Passion of Artemisia: A Novel by Susan Vreeland.