Hearts Through History Romance Writers

A Terrible Woman – Artemisia Gentileschi

by | November 14, 2013 | 17 comments

She had been raped as a teenager by an associate of her father. She was tortured to test the veracity of her accusation. She was physically examined in public to test the veracity of her virginity. She was also an artist.

Susanna and the Elders - painted when she was only seventeen

Susanna and the Elders – painted when she was only seventeen

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656) was of the school of Caravaggio, whose Biblical paintings featured raw realism. Much has been made of her life story, the rape and later forced marriage, single motherhood and the struggle to be professionally recognized. But these perspectives are modern ones and tend to overshadow her as a painter, and a “marvelous storyteller.”

Her technique was bold and expresses “raw violence and feeling.” Her first authenticated painting, Susanna and the Elders, features the aggressive palette coloring of Michelangelo. Susanna is being harassed by the village elders–she shows nothing of the coy nature earlier painters attributed to her. If she doesn’t acquiesce to their demands for sexual favors, she will be accused by them of adultery. Whatever they say will be taken as true. They have the power of testimony as they sit behind a carved wall that appears like a judge’s bench.

Then came the fury of Judith slaying Holofernes. This is perhaps her most famous painting, viewed as a feminist outcry by many modern critics. Perhaps this was an expression of frustrated impotence in the aftermath of rape and public trial. More to the point, it is a great work of art telling a great story. The bed with its luxurious fitted sheet, the rich brocade sheet falling away, the exquisite bracelet put on to entice the enemy. It is the hilt of the sword in Judith’s capable hand–she knows the weapon intimately. Is it hers or does it belong to the man she is beheading with almost expressionless determination?

"No one would have imagined it was the work of a woman."

“No one would have imagined it was the work of a woman.”

She enjoyed many wealthy patrons, notably the de Medici family and Charles I of England. It was the latter who commissioned the painting that brings us more of the artist than all of the images of women she had painted before. The king was so intrigued by Artemisia that he had her paint a picture of herself.

"The only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing and other fundamentals."

“The only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing and other fundamentals.”






  1. Nancy

    Fantastic. Thanks for telling us about her. The paintings are wonderful.

  2. Ella Quinn

    Wonderful post. What a strong woman.

    • Angelyn

      Thanks, Ella. She was indeed.

  3. Lani

    Oh, I loved this post! So good!

    • Angelyn

      Thanks for the compliment–very gratifying!

  4. Vonda Sinclair

    Fascinating! I love studying art history.

    • Angelyn

      Art history is such an insightful window into what resonated with historical peoples. Glad you could stop by!

  5. Suzi Love

    Thanks, Angelyn, for a great post about an amazing woman.

    • Angelyn

      Any time, Suzi. I always look forward to your posts as well.

  6. Anna Kathryn Lanier

    Great post. I blogged about Artemisia, too. She was a brilliant painter and very strong woman for her time.

    • Angelyn

      Yes, you did and an admirable post it was. I’ve posted the link in a reply above. The book you mentioned in your post is a keeper. Thanks, Anna!

  7. Lyn Horner

    I sat through three years of art history in college and she was never mentioned. What a pity! she should be included among the great Italian painters of her time. But then, most of the art history books I was required to read were written by men. Maybe all of them.

    Thanks for informing us about this remarkable woman!

    • Angelyn

      It was a man’s world. Artemisia knew this intimately, which makes her story altogether quite remarkable. Good to hear from you!

  8. Ally Broadfield

    Wonderful post, Angelyn. I don’t remember her name coming up in art history either.

    • Angelyn

      It’s good to hear what others have experienced in their formal education on this subject. Thanks for coming by, Ally!

  9. Angelyn

    Thanks always for retweeting and facebooking, Ella. You’re a wonderful supporter!



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