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Artemisia's Moment

After being eclipsed for centuries by her father, Orazio, Artemisia Gentileschi, the boldest female painter of her time, gets her due

 

 

She must have passed the test; Tassi was convicted and sentenced to a five-year banishment from Rome (a punishment apparently never enforced). To get Artemisia away from Rome and the attendant scandal, Orazio arranged for her to marry a minor Florentine painter named Pierantonio Stiattesi. Shortly after the wedding, the newlyweds left for Florence, where Orazio had asked for patronage for his daughter from the grand duchess of Tuscany. “[She has] become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer,” he had boasted to the duchess. “Indeed, she has produced works which demonstrate a level of understanding that perhaps even the principal masters of the profession have not attained.”

 

Artemisia’s work in Florence, where she perfected her sense of color in self-portraits and paintings such as the dazzling Conversion of the Magdalene, would mark the first step in her path toward artistic renown. By the time she left Florence in 1620 or 1621, still in her late 20s, she had painted at least seven works for the influential Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici and his family. But as she wrote to him, “troubles at home and with my family,”—the loss of three children and her husband’s apparent infidelity and extravagant spending—had taken their toll.

 

Eager for a fresh start, she moved to Rome and took a house on the Via del Corso with her husband and daughter Prudentia (the only one of their four children to survive). Financial distress and her husband’s jealousy, however, continued to erode her marriage. One night in 1622, after finding a group of Spaniards on his doorstep serenading his wife, Pierantonio allegedly slashed one of them in the face. He later walked out on Artemisia and Prudentia (who would also become an artist).

 

The single mother found commissions hard to come by (Roman tastes had changed while Artemisia was in Florence). In 1627, with hope for new patronage, she moved to Venice, where she received a commission from Philip IV of Spain to paint a companion piece to Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck’s Discovery of Achilles. Two years later, fleeing the plague of 1630 (which wiped out one-third of Venice’s population), Artemisia moved on to Naples, then under Spanish rule. There she completed the first altarpiece of her career and a public commission for a major church —honors that had eluded her perhaps because of her gender. Over the years, Artemisia would repeatedly complain about the pitfalls of competing in an exclusively male domain. “You feel sorry for me because a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen,” she wrote to her last major patron, Don Antonio Ruffo, chafing at having to haggle over prices and constantly defend the value and originality of her art. “If I were a man,” she declared, “I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way.”

 

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