Following repeated requests from blog readers, Agora Gallery assistant Chiara has agreed to contribute another fascinating episode of Renaissance art and life. As usual, it’s a topic that might strike you as a little surprising – the story of a professional woman artist during the Renaissance.

Did you know? by Chiara Mortaroli

Women are often featured in stories about artists of the Renaissance period, but usually in the role of model, muse, lover or influential patron or partner. It is rare to hear about a woman who is well-known for actively contributing to the history of art as an artist herself – not because women were any less talented then than they are now, but simply because ‘artist’ was not considered an appropriate profession for women during the period.

Lucky for us, there are still some documents and pieces of artwork that demonstrate the exceptions to this rule and tell us of some unusual women who took the risk of bucking the social norm to express their creativity, and their talent. One of these women is Artemisia Gentileschi, a Renaissance painter whose work is nowadays considered to be important in appreciating the art of the time. In 1593, Artemisia was born into an artistic environment, as her father Orazio was an artist himself, in close contact with some of the most controversial and discussed painters of his age, including Caravaggio. He encouraged his daughter to start painting under his influence and remained one of her most active supporters, teaching her the first steps in painting and promoting her work.

The first recognized work attributed to Artemisia is dated to 1610, when she was 17, and is known as “Susanna e i Vecchioni” or “Susanna and the Elders.” Today the painting is part of the German Graf von Schönborn art collection. It is in this painting that we can find the first signs of her strength as a painter – and also the first signs of the relationship that changed the artist forever. The scene represents the moment in which Susanna is surprised whilst bathing and sexually blackmailed by the two Elders, who threaten to say that they saw her meeting a lover if she does not agree to their demands. Critics have recognized the resemblance that one of the Elders bears to the famous artist and family friend Agostino Tassi, and have also noted the unusual nature of the painting, which is one of few that depict Susanna as traumatized by the incident. Tassi had taught Artemisia privately, but it quickly emerged that he had committed rape against her under her father’s roof. The result was a trial that lasted seven months, during which even more scandalous allegations were made against Tassi. The experience clearly had an impact on the young artist, whose paintings often feature defiant women.

The painting “Giuditta che decapita Oleoferne” or “Judith decapitating Holofernes” is dated between 1612 and 1613 and has commonly been recognized as the psychological revenge of Artemisia against her experience. The painting is strongly realistic, and the representation of the figures, their expressions and their stance all combine to create a moment of dramatic horror and revenge. Artemisia, who married another painter shortly after the trial, continued to paint throughout her life. She obtained considerable recognition, and was the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (the Academy of the Arts of Drawing). Yet despite all this, it has taken until modern times for her work to be really appreciated for its significance and power.

In the past few decades, Artemisia has been the subject of both books and movies. Susan Vreeland wrote “The Passion of Artemisia” in 1988 and director Agnes Merlet shot the movie “Artemisia” – both of which contributed to raise the profile of this remarkable woman, spreading her story and knowledge about her art in the modern day.

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