Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Rape, Violence Against Women
I was taught about Artemisia Gentileschi in a grade-eleven art history class about seven years ago, and since then, I’ve been asking myself: “Is there a way to name my first-born daughter after her? Is there a nickname for Artemisia that isn’t impossible for a kid to say?” So many questions. What isn’t questionable, however, is how incredible this baroque painter really was. Artemisia Gentileschi was a survivor of sexual assault, a gifted (understatement) artist, and probably the most bad-ass woman of the baroque era—scratch that—pretty much the only woman and the most bad-ass person of the baroque era. Step aside Caravaggio, it’s Gentileschi time.
If you’re unfamiliar with Gentileschi, that’s totally understandable. When most people think of Baroque artists (if you’re thinking about them at all), they think Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Rubens. These are incredibly talented artists whose timeless work has been absolutely haunting art historians for centuries, but one thing lies between them beyond being very talented: they’re all men.
Throughout the Baroque period, which lasted nearly a century and a half between 1600 and 1740, women were often not permitted to paint, as it was often seen as a waste of time. Women were expected to raise children, marry, and sit and look pretty, but as the daughter of a talented and successful artist—Orazio—Artemisia Gentileschi had other plans.
Artemisia grew up around art and artists. Her father was very close friends with celebrated Baroque painter Michelangelo Caravaggio; as a child, she would visit Caravaggio as he would stop in periodically to visit or borrow props as painting reference from her father.
As a young lady, Artemisia’s own artistic talent was recognized by her father, who decided to help her artistry flourish rather than put an end to it, which would’ve been considered the right thing to do at the time. In her teenage years, Artemisia’s father hired a painting teacher for her to further her talent, and a somewhat famous painted Agostino Tassi was brought into the home to teach and encourage Gentileschi. This was quick to be determined the worst mistake ever made by poor Orazio, because a loving father’s gift to encourage his daughter’s career as an artist quickly turned sour when Tassi broke into Artemisia’s room and violently raped her.
Gentileschi, who was a large and powerful woman, fought back the best she could, and it was an absolutely grizzly scene, with her quoted as saying, “I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh.” After the assault had happened, Artemisia ran to retrieve a knife from her dresser and threw it at her attacker (unfortunately); he shielded himself and left the room unharmed.
Gentileschi was not afraid to vocalize what had happened to her and quickly told her father of the brutal assault. Because marriage was—and arguably still is in some cases—a political transaction, because Artemisia had been raped, she had lost her “value” as a marriage-eligible woman. This rape was not only damaging to Gentileschi’s physical and emotional well-being, but it also took away any prospect for her to live financially comfortable as she would have to depend on a husband to take care of her financially during this time.
Her father (who honestly seemed like a pretty good guy) believed Artemisia right away and confronted Tassi about the assault. According to specific cultural norms of the time, a rapist would often marry his victim as he was the one who ruined her “market value”, and when confronted, Tassi offered to marry Artemisia, which Artemisia agreed to save her honor. Still, Tassi didn’t intend to go through with it.
After this confrontation, a marriage proposal, and a yearlong affair between the two as Artemisia waited to be wed by her rapist, in 1611, Orazio officially accuses Tassi of raping his daughter, and it’s brought to court and turned into a seven-month-long trial. Fortunately for us, this 400-year-old testimony is still available to read and used in several books about Artemisia and her life. Because of these saved transcripts, we get a very in-depth look at how rape trials would go and the trauma inflicted on women who accused men of rape at this time in history.
The trial was seven months of hell for Artemisia. Tassi was put in prison during the trial, but Artemisia was brought to her rapist’s cell to accuse him to his face (in an attempt to catch her in a lie or to intimidate her into recanting); she did not reject or change her story. She was thoroughly examined by two midwives to see if her hymen was intact (which if you read my article about the hymen and myths of virginity, you know isn’t an accurate way to determine if someone has had sex); she was also forced to put her thumbs into a torture device that would squeeze them so tightly they could break in order to get her to recant—which again; she didn’t. While she was in excruciating pain and her thumbs were being squeezed tighter and tighter, Artemisia Gentileschi yelled, “It’s true! It’s true! It’s true!”
Despite her humiliating and traumatic trial, Gentileschi was favored by the jury. Artemisia was seen as a clever and talented teenaged painter who mostly kept to herself and her studio, while Agostino Tassi was already known as a pretty bad guy, who the community speculated had killed his first wife. So why did Tassi end up walking free? Because the pope at the time favored him and wanted him to continue making art. The pope said of Tassi and his art: “Tassi is the only one of these artists who has never disappointed me,”. At the time, Baroque art was very important to the church, as it depicted bible stories as interesting and dramatic and brought people in.
After all the trauma that Gentileschi endured, Tassi walked free, his art faded into obscurity, and he became known in history as the scumbag piece-of-shit who assaulted the great Artemisia Gentileschi. Artemisia went to become the most talented and celebrated woman in 17th-century art.
Gentileschi was not going to let her rapist take away her art, so she began painting even more—but this time with a vengeance. Gentileschi spent the rest of her life painting incredibly lifelike pieces depicting powerful women in lore who took justice into their own hands and slaughtered the men who oppressed them. Huge paintings depicting Sampson and Delilah, Jael and Sisera, and Judith and Holofernes, showing big, strong, beautiful women who looked like herself perpetuating horrific acts of violence against men (representing Tassi) in order to unravel the restraints of oppression became Gentileschi’s signature.
Gentileschi’s talent was undeniable to the men around her then, as well as artists and art historians throughout the past 400 years. She took to her craft as a form of therapy and expression. By doing so, she became one of the first celebrated women in art ever, and all for painting bad-ass women doing crazy shit, not just for flowers or painting the female form as a nonconsensual observer.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s life was somewhat of a tragedy. She was victimized as a teenager and horrible scrutinized and tortured by the court of law. Artemisia had more strength, resilience, and power at 19 than I think I’ll ever have. Through that alone, she’s an inspiration—but you add her incredible talent and persistence in painting, which was totally known as a boy’s club. The power in her therapeutic pieces, and she becomes the most incredible artist I’ve ever known of.
I’m still wondering how I can name my first-born daughter after her seven years after hearing her story. Can you blame me?