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Artemisia Gentileschi: Artist and Rape Survivor

July 18, 2009

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia GentileschiThe story of seventeenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileshchi has generated several books and one truly awful movie. Her art alone would be enough for her to be remembered, but her life has also drawn considerable interest. In particular, the story of her mistreatment at the hands of an older male artist and by the court that did eventually convict him sheds light on the way rape victims are regarded today.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, her best known work, shows the remarkable vision and skill that earned her admission into the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. What it does not show is why she was the first woman admitted. Even with all her remarkable talent, she could not have achieved this without the support of her father, Orazio Gentileschi, who introduced her along with her less-talented brothers to painting in his workshop and secured tutors for her when, as a teen, she was denied entry to the all-male art academies (though it was one such tutor who would cause Artemisia’s most painful experience).

This painting, created at a time when few women dared attempt to represent historical or Biblical scenes, also illustrates the reason why Artemisia is today considered one of the most accomplished artists of the generation influenced by Caravaggio. Compare her version (above) with his: Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio Traces of his influence can be found in the shadows and draped fabrics, but she has made the scene more realistic. In Artemisia’s work, it is clear that Judith not only has arms strong enough to cut through Holofernes’ neck but also is willing to use that strength to get the job done. Caravaggio’s Judith, meanwhile, gracefully stretches out her arms, maintaining her distance from the rather unpleasant task, while her face assumes an expression of concern and distaste. Artemisia’s Judith and her servant, by contrast, show concentration and determination. Their faces take on the grim expressions of women who know what must be done no matter how unpleasant.

I imagine Artemisia wore just such a face during her trial. Technically, she was not on trial. Agostino Tassi, an artist her father had hired to teach her perspective, stood accused of raping her. Artemisia, however, was the one who was tortured to see if her story would remain consistent. The authorities used thumbscrews, tied cords around her hands and pulled them tight, which would be agonizing for anyone to go through but for a painter held a special horror. Tassi was not tortured, though his testimony was so contradictory that the judge told him repeatedly to stop lying. Artemisia was also subjected to a public examination to determine whether she had in fact been a virgin before the rape.

While most people today would rightfully find such physical torture and examination to be repulsive, we continue to engage in symbolic versions of it. A woman who accuses a man of rape is likely to have her sexual history publicly examined, not through any record erroneously believed to be left on her pudenda but by questioning her reputation and her past. A woman may not be physically tortured in court, but she is expected to tell the same story while dealing with police officers and other officials who may doubt her story. Underlying both the early modern version of this experienced by Artemisa and the more “civilized” version that exists today are two assumptions:

  1. that women often lie about rape
  2. that if a woman consents to sex once, she has consented for all time

The first of these developed primarily to protect male power and privilege. The second of these is based in the notion of women as property and virgins as particularly valuable. Once a woman has had sex, her value is reduced, so no more harm can be done. See also the Madonnawhore dichotomy.

Artemisia Gentileschi painted Judith Slaying Holofernes between 1612 and 1613; her trial lasted for seven months in 1612. While those critics who have reduced this work to the product of a desire for revenge have done the artist a disservice, it would be equally reductive to imagine that her experiences during the trial did not impact her vision and creation.

Years later, she would create an image of herself as the allegory of painting. She thereby put herself, her body and her being, directly into the process of creation. In understanding her work (and life), we would do well to remember this:Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

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