Artemisia Gentileschi: Controversial Realities

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes.1625. The Detroit Institute of the Arts

Artemisia Gentileschi lived a stormy life, to say the least. A lightning rod of sorts in her day (1593-1653) and at present, her tragically violent existence creates alternate realities for some. Years ago, I watched the movie, Artemisia, which I thought good, though inaccurate historically. Some of the inaccuracies can be forgiven, for they added beauty to the story, to the look and flow of the film. But one change is unforgivable, possibly unconscionable: the movie depicts a passionate love affair between student and teacher, between Artemisia and the artist Tassi, who actually raped her. Artemisia suffered additional violence during the subsequent trial, as she was tortured by the authorities to gain true confession. Her heroism in the face of this is apparent in her perseverence as painter, in her eventual success in that field, and in building a family of her own. The movie gives us a sense of this heroism as well.

Impacted by Caravaggio, as many artists were in her day, the painting above shows his influence at its best: the dramatic contrast, the Baroque diagonals and gestures, the strong chiaroscuro, and the high drama of violent events, often taken from the Bible. Some critics have suggested that Artemisia’s repeated use of Judith and Holofernes in her paintings is an obvious sign of personal trauma. A form of catharsis for her, perhaps. Others see it more as her desire to portray strong women in extreme situations, and bristle at the idea that she was permanently disfigured, psychologically, by Tassi’s violent attack. I think we can never really know what drove her to paint, and to paint what she chose to paint, and it’s a mistake to set up boxes for her. A violation of her freedom, yet again.

The mystery of why. Why do we express ourselves in the way we do? Why does the passage of time bring about a loosening of the desire for accuracy, a greater sense that we have the right to distort and alter and wash out events of our choosing? For some. For others, that passage brings a sense of duty to adhere to historical realities, even to strip away falsehoods in order to go back to the truth . . . . the way Michelangelo talked about sculpting . . . that the truth was already there in the stone . . . that it was his duty to get to it, chip away the lies, chip away the trivial and the literally superfluous.

Artemisia’s life and works have stood the proverbial test of time. Her heroism moves me whenever I think about it. Perhaps the diversity of reaction to Artemisia, when all is said and done, is merely a summa, a testament to that life of overcoming adversity, creating art, becoming immortal.


Artemisia Gentileschi: Controversial Realities
Scroll to top