July 21st, 2009


Women and Art

Moving on from my favourite female vocal/musical artists to an area I am passionate about - the visual arts.  Once again, Western Art History is another area which is dominated by white males and women struggle to get a look in.  One of the earliest (named) female artists I can think of is Artemisia Gentileschi and I want to mention her here because she is a rather interesting case.  I truly fear that she is known today not because of her art but rather her art is known because of her.  This is a shame because she was a very talented Italian Baroque artist, greatly influenced by Caravaggio in style.  Instead I believe her art has become known because of her tragic story. 

Self Portrait - note the contrast of pose to traditional (Western male) self portraits where the sitter usually challenges the viewer.

Gentileschi was the daughter of the moderately celebrated artist Orazio Gentileschi and because of that background was able to explore her talents in his studio.  At 17 she painted Susanna and the Elders:

Unlike other versions painted by males (pretty much in any century), Susanna here is shamed and quite obviously harassed by the lewd men.  Generally she is depicted as a temptress, lounging provocatively or just ignorant of the male presence.  Here she overpowered by their figures.  Some suggest this image reflects the harassment Gentileschi was suffering at the time in the studio by fellow male artists, in any case it foreshadows what was to come.

As a woman Gentileschi was denied access to the all male academy of art despite her talent and as a result her father hired a fellow artist, Tassi, to tutor her.  While under his tutelage Tassi and another man raped Gentileschi.  Gentileschi continued relations with Tassi after this on the understanding they would marry.  I would imagine that she had little choice in the matter as she had been dishonoured by him.  Tassi however did not uphold his promise of marriage, claiming that she was involved with another man and so further slandering her reputation.  Gentileschi's father pressed charges on the grounds that his daughter was a virgin before the rape and the case went to trial.  Even more awful was that there would have been no trial had she not been a virgin.

After this incident, which undoubtably scarred her for life, Gentileschi executed one of the most powerful images in Western art history:

Judith Slaying Holofernes

Once again, this scene is usually executed with Judith casually holding the decapitated head.  Nowhere else have I seen the full action shot but no guesses what Gentileschi was thinking at the time.  If you can, find a larger image of this painting and take a look at Judith's face, the technique is brillant, granted, but the look of sheer determination and cold calculation is something to behold.  The paintbrush really is mightier than the sword.