Artemisia Gentileschi

The National Gallery paid £3.6m for her Self-Portrait as St Catherine. In it, she represents herself as St Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth-century young woman who had to defend her Christian faith. She was tortured, she was attached to a wheel with iron spikes and she became a martyr saint. In the painting, Artemisia shows herself by the broken wheel, having been freed by an angel.  

One of the rooms of the National Gallery. Image by Cristina Apostoli

One of the most famous Italian artists of the seventeenth century, Artemisia Gentileschi has given us wonderfully realistic depictions of powerful women.

She was the first woman to become a member of Florence Arts Academy, and her works were collected by the likes of King Charles I of England and King Philip IV of Spain. 

Here is her remarkable story.  



Artemisia was the daughter of an artist, Orazio Gentileschi, and when she was born in Rome in 1593, the Eternal City was characterised by immense wealth and widespread violence. It was the wild, brutal, Caravaggio’s Rome. 

Artemisia, like other women artists, was trained by her father, but what set her aside, was that she did not paint only portraits or still lives, but she also tackled big, historical, biblical, and mythological subjects, which were usually the preserve of male artists. 

Artemisia had lost her mother when she was twelve and grew up in a male-dominated household. 



When he realised that Artemisia was exceptionally talented, her father arranged for his friend, Agostino Tassi, to give his daughter art lessons. Tassi was in his thirties at the time, and immediately took advantage of the seventeen-year-old Artemisia. A few months later Orazio Gentileschi brought charges to force Tassi to marry Artemisia or at least to provide a substantial dowry. There was a trial and she described what had happened. 

One day, Tassi came into the room and followed her around and then he pushed her into the bedroom, held her down onto the bed and raped her. She fought back, scratching his face, pulling his hair, and taking a knife from a drawer, in revenge for having taken away her virginity and her honour. 



During the trial, Artemisia was tortured, appalling as it may sound since she was the victim, but the judge was trying to prove that she was telling the truth about the rape. Ropes were wrapped around her fingers and pulled tight, a rather gruesome lie detector. ‘It is true, it is true, it is true, it is true!’, she screamed four times. 

Agostino Tassi was sentenced to a five-year exile from Rome, he was never jailed. 



Following the sentence, Artemisia Gentileschi was married off to a Florentine, the brother of the notary who had been involved in her legal defence.  

And so, she moved to Florence to start a new chapter of her life. 


Self Portrait of Artemisia. Public domain


Through her art, Artemisia was determined to show her own inner strength and her determination to not be seen as a victim. She strongly believed in the worth of her work, and she became an internationally acclaimed artist. 

On a more personal level, she had an extraordinarily complex personality. She had five children in five years, four of whom died before reaching adulthood. She had a lover in Florence and her husband knew about it and they both tried to exploit the lover financially. 

In Florence, she very quickly started to paint for the refined Medici court, and she developed a very polished style, a real feat for someone who had received no formal education and while in Rome was basically illiterate.



The story of Judith and Holofernes had a strong influence on Artemisia.  

Judith was an Israelite heroine, who during a siege sneaked into the enemies’ camp and into the tent of the Assyrian general, Holofernes. She pretended to seduce him, and she offered him cheese. That made him thirsty, so he asked for wine and she got him drunk. She then cut his head off and brought it in a bag to the Israelites’ camp. 

Many see the depiction of this episode of the Old Testament by Artemisia as revenge art, with herself killing Agostino Tassi, on the bed where he had raped her. And she is helped by her young servant, so here we see two women allied in fight. 


The Queen’s House, Greenwich.


In 1616 she became the first woman to be accepted by the Arts Academy, but she did not stay in Florence, in 1620 she moved back to Rome and then she separated from her husband. 

She then moved for a couple of years to Venice and finally, in the 1630s she moved to Naples, where she settled for the rest of her life, except for a short spell in London. 

Her father Orazio had been working as court painter in London since 1626. It is thought that she may have come to London to assist his dying father with painting a series of ceiling canvases for the Queen’s House in Greenwich. 



In Naples, she continued to paint into her sixties. It is not clear exactly how and when she died. All we know is that she was apparently ill, and she signed a contract in 1654 as she needed help in her studio.  

What sets Artemisia apart? When she portrayed women, she really put herself in their shoes and she brought a feminine perspective, a different point of view that came from the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated art world. 

A woman who had to fight hard to succeed as an artist, but the results of her struggle are extraordinary. 


About the author:
Cristina Apostoli is a Blue Badge guide passionate about history and art. You can join her on many walking tours of London or on a virtual tour of Jane Austen’s London.