Art as Metamorphosis: Artemisia Gentileschi

Can something as horrible as rape produce something as refined as beautiful art?
The answer comes from Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few female painters that managed to immortalize her name among Baroque painters. She was the first female artist to join the Art Academy of Florence and eventually enjoyed the patronage of nothing less than the Medici.

One look at her paintings would reveal ruthless, determined women, many of them committing brutal acts: Judith Slaying Holofernes, Judith and her maidservant, Jael and Sisera…these are just a few examples. Artemisia was raped by an artist (Agostino Tassi) hired by her father to teach her drawing, but it was not the rape that would mark her character and her art, but rather the aftermath: she let the aggressor have sex with her again and again, hoping he would honor that with marriage. Little she knew. The tragedy was just beginning, because upon pressing charges against Tassi, she was given a humiliating virginity test and even tortured using thumbscrews to confess she was lying (when, obviously, she wasn’t). Even worse, Tassi got away with it, and never served the scandalous sentence (only one year in prison).

Artemisia used her art to promote her cause: her protagonists were avengers, they did not wait for justice to take its course, they ‘made’ it happen. An unmistakable ‘Caravaggist’ influence in her works comes as no surprise: the master of tenebrism lent her the dark technique necessary to theatrically stage her dramas. Artemisia did not hide and wither away in oblivion, on the contrary, her art immortalized her as one of the greatest painters of her epoch, while Tassi (who was hired to teach her) is remembered by no one.

This is not a story about good things happening to those who struggle against their misfortunes…this is a story about how art is capable of transforming pain into beauty, horror into glory, one woman’s rape into masterpieces for the next generations…all made possible by Artemisia’s talent.

Jael and Sisera

Judith slaying Holofernes

Salome with the head of John the Baptist