This audacious artist shocked 17th-century Italy with her work

Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings were bold, vibrant, and sometimes violent. Her undeniable talent helped overcome prejudice to secure her legacy.

Gentileschi’s 1620 “Judith Beheading Holofernes” portrays an Old Testament story of the Israelite widow Judith who saved her people by assassinating the Assyrian general besieging her city. This work is Gentileschi’s second known representation of the biblical story; an earlier version of Judith’s revenge was begun in 1612, the year after the artist had been raped by an instructor. Although the Judith legend was a popular subject with male artists of the period, the decisiveness and strength of Gentileschi’s Judith, as well as the solidarity of her female accomplice, provides a unique feminine perspective of violence and revenge in the early 17th century.
BRIDGEMAN/ACI

Artemisia Gentileschi was an artist who knew the pitfalls of being a woman. As she wrote to her patron, Antonio Ruffo, in 1649, “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.”

At age 56, she had achieved something close to impossible for a woman in 17th-century Italy: She had become a highly accomplished and successful painter. Yet, as admired as she was in her profession, she could still be wounded—as the letter to Ruffo shows—by prejudices arising against her gender. There were other troubles from the past to contend with, the legacy of which found expression in her greatest works. (This Renaissance warrior woman defied powerful popes.)

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. Her father, Orazio, was a highly regarded painter. Her mother died in 1605, and Orazio did not remarry. At the age of 12, Artemisia became the matriarch of the Gentileschi family.

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