Thanks to feminist scholars of the last century, Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) has gone from a footnote in art history textbooks to something of a household name. Her works now fetch sums in the millions. In 2020, London’s National Gallery staged a blockbuster solo exhibition of Gentileschi’s art—the museum’s first-ever show dedicated to a single woman artist.
Yet those eager to shine a spotlight on Gentileschi might do well to expand their scope. As a new exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) declares, Gentileschi was one of several women artists that forged successful careers in Italy leading up to the Enlightenment. On view through May 29, “By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500–1800” showcases masterpieces done by 17 Italian women to make the case for a broader view of women’s participation in the Italian Renaissance.
Featured artists include skilled self-portraitist and court painter Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625), Bolognese portrait painter Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), Milanese still-life painter Fede Galizia (1578-1630), and Bolognese painter and printmaker Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665), in addition to a number of lesser-known women artists, according to a DIA statement. Scholars Eve Straussman-Pflanzer and Oliver Tostmann co-curated the exhibition, which was organized jointly by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and the DIA.
The curators hope the exhibition will help visitors gain an understanding of how Gentileschi and other early Italian women artists found success in the male-dominated art world of the 16th through 18th centuries, as well as stir up broader conversations on “gender and power dynamics in the contemporary world,” per the statement.
Speaking with Maureen Feighan of the Detroit News, Straussman-Pflanzer explains how patriarchal structures kept many women from participating in the commercial art market. Academies for fine arts first opened in the 16th and 17th centuries but refused to accept women. In later years, sexist scholars overlooked women’s artwork or even mislabeled it as the work of their male contemporaries.
“For the 17 women that are represented here, there were dozens more that we either just know by name or we don’t have any surviving works,” Straussman-Pflanzer says. “Hopefully people see there were women artists in this period. But there’s a lot of women artists that have yet to be discovered but we know existed.”
Gentileschi is perhaps best known because of the traumatic events of her young life. At the age of 17, she was raped by fellow painter Agostino Tassi. Her father, also a painter, filed charges against Tassi on her behalf. During a psychologically and physically brutal trial, Gentileschi offered stirring testimony and even underwent torture to “prove” her story. Her rapist was found guilty but never punished.
It's no coincidence, therefore, that Gentileschi completed her arguably most famous painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1620) shortly after the trial, reported art critic Murray Whyte for the Boston Globe in December. The work depicts a Biblical story of revenge, where the Old Testament heroine and Hebrew widow, Judith, mercilessly beheads an Assyrian general, Holofernes, to save her people and defend her village from destruction.
While that painting resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the DIA owns a related masterpiece: Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1623-35), which depicts Judith in a tense moment after the beheading. Gentileschi’s dramatic use of light and shadow strongly resembles the chiaroscuro technique employed by famous teacher, Caravaggio, according to the DIA.
Gentileschi later married, moved to Rome, had five children and managed to establish herself as the most successful woman artist of her generation. Other standout works from Gentileschi in “By Her Hand” include the recently rediscovered Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Self-Portrait as Lute Player. As Jason Farago reported for the New York Times in 2021, Gentileschi’s self-portraits helped promote her work to clients overseas, attracting clients such as Charles I of England, who ruled from 1625 to 1649.
Several women featured in the exhibition thrived in Bologna, which became a haven for women artists in the 17th century, writes art historian Babette Bohn for Art Herstory. For instance, painter Fontana was able to make a living as a portraitist working almost exclusively for wealthy clients, and became known in the late 16th century as the “portraitist of choice among Bolognese noblewomen,” according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).
Artist Sirani, meanwhile, supported her parents and siblings from a young age after her father, also an artist, was incapacitated by gout, per NMWA. She garnered commissions from members of the wealthy Medici family and mentored several other young women—including her sisters Barbara and Anna Maria—who would go on to become professional painters themselves.
One highlight of the exhibition, Sirani’s Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664), depicts a scene from Plutarch’s Lives, a series of biographies of famous Greek and Roman men written by the first-century philosopher. In Plutarch’s tale, Portia stabs her own thigh to prove fealty to her husband, Brutus—and learn the secret details of his plot to assassinate Roman general Julius Caesar. Sirani’s rendering of Portia has been praised as a proto-feminist vision, according to Sotheby’s auction house, which sold the work for half a million dollars in 2008.
The exhibition will also feature a documentary series “On Visionary Women,” focusing on the works of contemporary women artists Hilma af Klint, Eva Hesse and Ursula von Rydingsvard, as well as music by the Sonnambula consortium, an instrumental band dedicated to highlighting unknown compositions played by period instruments, according to the DIA statement.
“This is a rare and exciting opportunity for audiences in Detroit to view firsthand artworks by so many gifted Italian women artists. It is interesting to consider the ways in which their experiences are parallel-to or differ from women artists today,” says Straussman-Pflanzer in the statement.