Celebrating International Women’s Month — Artemisia Gentileschi, The Unsung Heroine of the Art World

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Throughout history, the art world has been dominated by the names of incredible creators but scarcely does a woman’s name glisten on the list of the greats. Women have faced judgment and disapproval for pursuing the arts, which throughout the ages was widely considered a man’s task. Whether in the spotlight or not, women did not falter and fought through trials to contribute to the development of art, offering a valuable insight into the conceptualization of the world through a female’s eyes.

Why does the female dialogue matter so much in art? For centuries women have often been at the visual center of art, being regularly used as muses, objectified, naked and misrepresented, and arguably morphed to the wants of the male gaze. As women have faced oppression, commodification, judgment, and prejudice throughout history, it is ever-more important to allow women to represent women through art, offering a pivotal and acutely relevant narrative, let’s hear it for the ladies!

Of course, it would be preferable that there was no need at all for an article written to commend an artist for their contributions to art with significance placed on their gender, but have them revered as artists alone; regardless of their sex, however, a lot of headway is still to be made with bringing female creative’s into the spotlight and laying the foundations of an equal platform for all artists.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Gentileschi (1593–1654) was privy to the art world from her infancy, as a daughter of a great painter she often mixed paints and dedicated her life to the study of art. Creating large scale biblical paintings, she used her experience as a woman to offer a raw, organic and natural depiction of womanhood. Notice how her female visuals own natural, curved bodies, furrowed brows, and unapologetic expressions, there is no sign of the female stereotype; ‘meek and mild’ in Gentileschi’s masterpieces, and this shocked and unprepared 17th century Italy.

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Striking light and dark come to play in this thought-provoking, simple visual, a woman leans back in seeming ecstasy as attention is bought to the realistic, unexaggerated femininity of her exposed shoulder that reflects the focal point of light in the image, the face is masked in shadow, a refreshing novelty in its subtlety and personality.

Her widely revered depiction of Judith and Holofernes is considered to depict a narrative of the fury and rage she experienced with her own experience of sexual assault by her art teacher and father’s friend; Agostino Tassi. She faced years of hardship and judgment in the public eye as a result of her attempts to bring him to justice, much like women in the media have faced victim-blaming and stigmatism for coming forward about their assaults.

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Judith Beheading Holofernes by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
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Notice the fiery intent and concentration on the killer’s face, no revulsion or coyness, just pure power. Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Notice the difference between Gentileschi and Caravaggio’s portrayal of this biblical murder scene, whilst both are technically brilliant, the facial expression of the murderer in the latter is meeker, as though almost repulsed by the task she is actively committing, less violence and rage is visible, compared to the grappling, brutal scene Gentileschi delivers.

Gentileschi has been a pivotal figure in the recent #MeToo movement, by offering her acute depictions of female rage, power and organic, unmuted femininity, her depictions bring home the poignancy of a woman’s perspective in art, and seem to act as an antidote to the unnatural depictions often produced by her male counterparts.

“I fear that before you saw the painting you must have thought me arrogant and presumptuous … You think me pitiful because a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen.” — Gentileschi.

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This shocking visual Lucretia (1630) shows a semi-nude woman, hair tousled in a seeming sense of mania. Note the strong clasping hand that envelopes the knife and the rolled-back eyes, there is something divine and disturbing about this piece. Incredible light work bounces off the creases of the shedding robes that highlight an exposed chest. An elegant hybrid of strength and vulnerability.
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Mary Magdalene as Melancholy (1625)

This gorgeous scene is a wonderful essence of Gentileschi’s artistic attitude, notice how Mary Magdalene sits naturally in a melancholy posture, her skin folding realistically around her breast with no element of airbrushing, her dress drapes off the shoulder, an old fashioned symbol for prostitution, however, Gentileschi places a scarf partially covering her skin, so as not to draw the attention of the piece to Mary’s occupation, and more onto her raw emotion.

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Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Gentileschi’s unapologetic representation of womanhood was shocking to a 17th-century audience, but now, it gives a clear window into the mind of a forward-thinking and fierce woman fighting with courage in the face of oppression. International Woman’s Day is not just a day to celebrate the achievements and talents of women across the world, but remembering the struggles, discrimination, and abuse of women that continues today, and aiming to achieve equality for men and women worldwide, where everyone has a voice.

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