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The Art Story Homepage Artists Artemisia Gentileschi Art Works

Artemisia Gentileschi Artworks

Italian Baroque painter

Artemisia Gentileschi Photo
Movements and Styles: The Baroque, Mannerism, Proto-Feminist Artists

Born: July 8, 1593 - Rome, Italy

Died: c. 1656 - Naples, Italy

Artworks by Artemisia Gentileschi

The below artworks are the most important by Artemisia Gentileschi - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Susanna and the Elders (1610)

This accomplished painting is the first work known to be entirely painted by Artemisia Gentileschi, completed when she was 17 years old. The work shows a frequently depicted biblical scene: two voyeuristic elders spy on the virtuous Susanna while she is bathing, then attempt to blackmail her into having sexual relations with them with false accusations of adultery. While many artists have chosen this subject, Susanna is usually presented as unaware of the elders' presence, or even welcoming them in a flirtatious fashion. Gentileschi, on the other hand, shows Susanna's distress at being watched and accosted by the men, presenting the incident as a traumatic event. Although the work shows the clear influence of her father stylistically, the subject matter is more dramatic and expressive than his.

Susanna's response is at the center of the painting, demonstrating Gentileschi's unprecedented psychological realism, particularly in her presentation of women. Feminist art historian Mary Garrard argues that "Artemisia's Susanna presents us with an image rare in art, of a three-dimensional female character who is heroic". She goes on to explain that "the expressive core of Gentileschi's painting is the heroine's plight, not the villains' anticipated pleasure," and this offers an entirely different set of concerns to many of her male counterparts. Gentileschi painted this image prior to her rape by Tassi and the subject matter may reflect sexual harassment that she was receiving at his and other artists' hands once she began training at his studio.

Danae (1612)

Danae (1612)

The Greek myth of Danae tells the story of a young woman confined to her bedchamber by her father, King Acrisius of Argos. It was a ploy to prevent her getting pregnant as an oracle had predicted that she would bear a son who would cause Argos’ death. The King of the Gods, Zeus, transformed himself into a shower of gold and succeeded in impregnating her in this form and it is this moment that Gentileschi depicts here. The son Danae bore was Perseus who later fulfilled the prophecy.

Danae was a traditional subject for paintings and had previously been depicted by artists including Titian and Tintoretto. Representations were either of Danae as pure and chaste or promiscuous and greedy, eagerly accepting the gold. In the work, Gentileschi references some of the these tropes, including the servant in the background catching the gold, but she also subverts them. Gentileschi's Danae is neither sexually aggressive nor innocently unaware, instead she is shown in the process of experiencing the consummation. There is some debate as to the meaning of this and it has been suggested by art historians Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann that "the painting depicts the sexually aroused Danae". They go on to argue that "Danae's fist, the coins pushed between the clenched fingers, also becomes a metaphor for sexual embrace" and that she is shown enjoying her sexual union with Zeus. Alternatively, professor Jeanne Morgan Zarucchi has argued that this image shows sexual violence and resistance as Zeus forces himself onto Danae. This is in line with the semi-autobiographical nature of Gentileschi's early works which often reference sexual assault.

This painting was originally attributed to Orazio Gentileschi but this was reconsidered in the late 1990s, predominantly due to the similarities in pose and composition to Artemisia's Cleopatra (1621) painted some ten years later. Artemisia's use of rich colors, subtle flesh tones, and texture are also evident in the work, particularly in the red sheet and the contrast between the metal coins and Danae's bare flesh.

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1620)

Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1620)

In this painting, Gentileschi depicts another popular biblical scene (which she herself returned to more than once during her career): the slaying of Holofernes by Judith. Traditionally portrayals had focused on the beauty and courage of Judith rather than the process of the beheading itself. In 1598, however, Caravaggio painted the scene with an unprecedented degree of realism. Gentileschi took this realism (both psychological and physical) a step further, by considering the identities of the women and the significant physical demands of beheading someone. The painting contains an intense energy, from Holofernes' grasping fist and the struggle of the women to complete the task to the spurting blood from the neck wound. This dynamism is further highlighted by the use of bold colors and dramatic chiaroscuro.

In this painting, Gentileschi presents a portrait of women's power, while simultaneously asserting her own power as an artist with the capacity to choose her own subjects and make her own decisions about how to treat them. As The Guardian's senior art critic Jonathan Jones argues, "In most paintings, including Caravaggio's hallucinatory rendering, Judith has a servant who waits to collect the severed head. But Gentileschi makes the servant a strong young woman who actively participates in the killing. This does two things. It adds a savage realism that even Caravaggio never thought of - it would take two women to kill this brute. But it also gives the scene a revolutionary implication. 'What,' wonders Gentileschi, 'if women got together? Could we fight back against a world ruled by men?'" Notably, this is one of several paintings by Gentileschi that depict women taking revenge or punishing men. This can be seen as an expression of her frustration and anger after her rape and trial as a teenager and it has been suggested that Judith is a self-portrait of the artist.

Lucretia (1623-25)

Lucretia (1623-25)

In this painting, Gentileschi presents Lucretia, a figure from classical mythology who was raped and, after confessing what had happened, killed herself. In doing so Lucretia became a popular symbol of female defiance against male tyranny. Here, Gentileschi depicts the moment in which Lucretia makes the decision to stab herself. The image is pared down in terms of detail - Lucretia is without jewelry or the trappings of wealth seen in other images and she wears only a disheveled slip, perhaps indicating the rape has only just occurred. This simplicity along with the close crop and dramatic lighting, which highlights her face and breast, places the focus firmly on Lucretia, presenting her as a solitary figure and emphasizing her personal agency in her decision to commit suicide after being mistreated by men. Whereas other (male) artists had often depicted Lucretia's rape or the pathos of her death, Gentileschi instead focuses on the psychological consequences of the rape. By grasping both her breast and the dagger, Gentileschi draws attention to the character's femininity and the nurturing potential of the woman, as well as indicating her bold intention. The act that is about to occur is anticipated in the blood red of the fabric which spills across her lap and out of the pictorial frame.

Gentileschi's portrayal of Lucretia is an important example of what the art historian Mary Garrard has termed the artist's creation and promotion of the 'female hero' in her art - "a three-dimensional female character who is heroic in the classical sense" - something which is otherwise missing from 17th century painting. Garrard argues that Gentileschi repeatedly presents women in this way by focusing on the psychology of her subjects and moving the viewer to feelings of pity and awe.

Cleopatra (1633-1635)

Cleopatra (1633-1635)

In this work, Artemisia Gentileschi presents yet another woman who had been exoticized as a sexual temptress by her male counterparts. Gentileschi shows the moment when Cleopatra's suicide is discovered by two of her female attendants. Cleopatra's stiff position indicates the onset of rigor mortis, pointing to Gentileschi's quest for realism, and many of the details follow Plutarch's description of the moment of Cleopatra's death. The pose also recalls the Roman sculpture Sleeping Ariadne (believed to be Cleopatra in the 17th century), indicating Gentileschi's knowledge of classical art.

In this painting, Gentileschi presents a complicated vision of female power and powerlessness. She shows Cleopatra's self-inflicted and solitary death brought about by her mistreatment by men. In some ways this can be seen as an example of female agency in that she made the personal choice to respond in this manner. Conversely, by not focusing on the decision itself, as in Lucretia, but on the aftermath, the painting acts as a strong symbol of the lack of recourse that women had available to them and the impact that this had on those around them, in this instance the female attendants at the back of the painting.

Gentileschi, however, also uses some tropes typical of male painters of the period to present Cleopatra's semi-nude body to the viewer. In this as in other similar works, Gentileschi portrays nude women in sleep or in death, placing the viewer in the position of voyeur. In their book about Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann argue that in such images Artemisia sometimes played to the demands of the art market in presenting some of her female heroes: "The representation of a slumbering female raises questions about reading Artemisia's imagery in terms of forceful heroines with whom Artemisia could identify. While she has minimized some of the patently sexual references used by other artists, she has presented a vulnerable female, unaware of the viewer's gaze, who becomes an inadvertent object of male desire, evidence of Artemisia's willingness to respond to the requests of male patrons".

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Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-39)

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-39)

In this confident later work, Artemisia Gentileschi presents an allegory of painting using her own self-portrait as the subject. Painting was traditionally presented as a woman in allegorical scenes, giving Gentileschi a unique opportunity as a professional woman artist to present herself in the role. In doing so, she creates a realistic portrait of a painter at work, carefully rendering the tools of her trade such as the palette and brushes with quick and fluid brushstrokes. The brown background is often interpreted as the blank canvas onto which she is painting, demonstrating her ongoing and unfinished work as an artist.

Gentileschi follows the standard iconography for the allegory of painting. This is described in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, the key iconographical handbook of the period, as "a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front 'imitation'". The gag, intended to indicate that painting is silent, however, is notably absent from this depiction. Through this omission, Gentileschi suggests both a painting's ability to speak volumes and her own refusal to be silenced as a woman and as an artist. References in her personal correspondence note that Gentileschi painted a number of self-portraits, although few survive and it is likely that these were in demand from collectors who were attracted by her ability as an artist and her unusual status as successful female painter.

Related Artists and Major Works

Danae (1636)

Danae (1636)

Artist: Rembrandt van Rijn (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This richly appointed scene depicts the story of Danae, a character from Greek mythology. In the tale, her father King Akrisios secludes the young woman after he receives a prophecy that his daughter will have a son who will eventually kill him. But Zeus manages to appear to Danae as a ray of golden light, slipping by the eyes of her maidservant. Through the union of Danae and Zeus, Perseus is born, and he indeed goes on to kill his grandfather.

Mythological stories are often complex but in this painting, Danae has been described as welcoming. In the foreground, an elaborate sparkling gold bed support, a thick rug with Danae's bejeweled slippers, and a velvety draped form bring the viewer into the composition. A majestic celestial shower of golden light pours in from the left to warmly illuminate Danae's face and body. The effect creates softness and sensuality in all the bedding, draperies, and shining metalwork that surround the alluring woman. The female figure, adorned only with floral bracelets and other jewelry, is the subject but the golden light truly occupies this space and is the heart of the story. Hovering above Danae in the life size painting is a golden Cherub with bound hands, symbol of chastity.

Rembrandt did not paint many mythological scenes but this one is possibly his most masterful due to the tender beauty of the young nude, perhaps influenced by Titian, and the genius handling of the light.

The painting influenced other artists such as Correggio, Titian, and Tintoretto due to its erotic nature. Upon studying this Danae, the German Impressionist Max Leiberman remarked, "Whenever I see a Franz Hals...I feel the desire to paint; but when I see a Rembrandt, I want to give it up..."

Judith Beheading Holofernes (2012)

Artist: Kehinde Wiley (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

In this painting, a black female with a large elaborate "up-do" hairstyle and a long blue gown is shown holding a knife in her right hand, and grasping the decapitated head of a white woman by the hair. The background is comprised of orange and blue flowers and green foliage against a solid black backdrop.

This painting was part of Wiley's exhibition An Economy of Grace, his first-ever series dedicated to female subjects. The models for the paintings were cast on the streets of New York City. Wiley worked with Designer Riccardo Tisci from Givenchy to create gowns specifically for each woman in the series. He says that the impossibly large hairdos were meant to reference the language of Western European paintings, (such as over-the-top powdered wigs), but also to reference the language of the American streets, (such as hair weaves).

In this, and other paintings in the series, Wiley's subjects confront the viewer with an active, confident stare, thereby subverting the traditional convention of the (white) male gaze. This serves as an example of the "oppositional gaze", outlined by feminist scholar bell hooks in her 1992 book Black Looks: Race and Representation. Hooks put forward this concept as a way that racial minorities can reclaim power and assert resistance toward the racialized, male gaze typical of narrative cinema and other forms of visual media. North Carolina Museum of Art curator Jen Dasal states, "Wiley's Judith is the star of the story, the embodiment of fierceness. She stands triumphant, and her direct, challenging gaze doesn't allow us to forget it - lest we become her next victim."

There are numerous historical references for this painting, with several artists (including Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi) having depicted the subject matter of Judith beheading Holofernes. This story from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith tells the tale of a woman who seduces and then beheads a male general who intends to destroy her home city of Bethulia. Historic paintings of the story are often read as a feminist victory - a woman using her beauty (which is meant to indicate her passivity) to murder the man who tries to destroy her people. However, this reading is tellingly devoid of racial consideration. Wiley's painting reflects on bell hooks' critique of Laura Mulvey's earlier work on the male gaze, in which (white) women are represented for the pleasure of (white) men - thus, black folk, and especially black women are denied both agency (as the person looking) and the capacity to be sexually desirable (as the person being looked at). The painting also draws attention to the disparity in feminism to focus on white women, and forget the racial disparities in terms of power and beauty standards.

This repositioning of a black woman as murderer of a white woman has received a great deal of criticism and concern that it encourages violence against (white) women, and portrays black women as perpetrators of violence. However, others, including the artist, consider it as threatening predominately as it serves as a symbolic threat to white supremacy.

The Calling of St Matthew (1599-1600)

The Calling of St Matthew (1599-1600)

Movement: Baroque Art and Architecture

Artist: Caravaggio (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This work shows a dark tavern where a number of men dressed in contemporary clothing have turned to face Christ, his right arm pointing toward St. Matthew. The light, creating a diagonal that follows Christ's gesture, highlights the expressions and gestures of the men, conveying a sense of the dramatic arrival of the divine. The figures are depicted realistically, their strong muscled calves and thighs in mid-movement. The man at the end of the table is slumped over counting coins.

This work was one of three paintings that the artist created in a commission to depict the signature moments in the life of St. Matthew. Employing chiaroscuro, the intense contrast of light and dark, the work exhibits the direct realism and intense sense of psychological drama that distinguished Caravaggio's work. His technique involved using ordinary people as models and painting them directly, leaving out the drawing stage, and, as a result, as art curator Letizia Treves said, he "made these Biblical stories so vivid, he brought them into his own time - and he involves you, so that you don't just passively watch. Even today, you don't need to know the story...to feel involved in the drama."

In the early 1600s, noted artists including Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt, and the Caravaggists throughout Europe were widely influenced by Caravaggio's style. He also influenced lesser-known artists like Dirck van Baburen, Gerrit van Honthorst, and Valentin de Boulogne. By the end of the century, his work fell into obscurity displaced by a rising emphasis on classicism, and wasn't revived until the mid-20th century with a major exhibit in Milan in 1951. His work has again become influential, for example, upon photographer David LaChappelle, the artist Mat Collishaw, and filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Scorsese said of his work, "You come upon the scene midway and you're immersed in it ... It was like modern staging in film: it was so powerful and direct."


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