The movie Artemisia, directed by Agnes Merlet and released in early May, 1998 in the US was widely criticized for its historical inaccuracies. Below is a reprint of an evaluation of the problems written in part by Mary Garrard, the noted art historian. Included are some Web sites on the movie, on Artemisia Gentileschi, and on women artists active before 1900.
INDEX On the Real Artemisia Bibliography for Artemisia Web sites for Artemisia the film Web sites for Artemisia Gentileschi, the painter Some Web sites for Women Artists Before 1900
In the film, Artemisia Gentileschi and Agostino Tassi are presented as voluntary and passionate lovers. When her father (Orazio Gentileschi) brings Tassi to trial on the charge of r*** (to protect his own reputation), Artemisia testifies even when tortured that Tassi did not r*** her. Tassi is presented first as a reluctant lover, then as a flawed but noble character who protects Artemisia by accepting the false charge of r***.
In the fully documented trial of 1612, Agostino Tassi was charged with and convicted of the r*** of Artemisia Gentileschi. He never confessed to the crime, and on the contrary, tried to accuse Artemisia's father of having deflowered her, and to insist she had also written love letters to other men -- though she could barely write at the time. Artemisia testified repeatedly under oath and torture that she had been r**** by Tassi. She described the event in explicit and graphic detail, and her own resistance to the point of wounding him with a knife. After the r***, Agostino promised to marry Artemisia, which would have been the only socially acceptable remedy in 17th century Italy for a woman who had become "damaged property." She evidently believed him at first (though she came to doubt his intentions) and had reluctant sexual relations with her assailant: "What I was doing with him, I did only so that, as he had dishonored me, he would marry me" (from her r*** trial testimony).
In reality, Tassi was known as what might now be called a multiple s** offender. He had been sued for r***** and impregnating his sister-in-law, equated with incest, and there was testimony at the trial that he had arranged and paid for the murder of his own wife, whom he had also acquired by r***.
The theme of the film is that Artemisia's sexual awakening, initiated by Tassi, launched her artistic creativity. Tassi is cast as a guiding creative spirit, whose ability to visualize landscape inspired Artemisia's art. His work is also portrayed as rivaling that of Artemisia's father, Orazio Gentileschi
Tassi is known for technical skill in perspective and for conventional marine landscapes. Artemisia's art had nothing to do with landscape (she hired other artists to paint the landscape backgrounds in her pictures). Contrary to the film, she never drew or painted independent images of the nude male body. There was no known effect of Tassi's "teaching" on her art, and Tassi's own art is judged to be second rank, no rival for that of Artemisia or her father.
Artemisia Gentileschi is today considered the most important woman artist of the pre-modern era, and a major artist of the Italian Baroque. She was the first female artist to paint large scale history and religious pictures, subjects considered off-limits to women at that time, and she specialized in themes with female protagonists. Her depiction of traditional stories of rape and vengeance -- but from the viewpoint of a woman -- marked a breakthrough in the history of art. In fact, a year before the r***, Artemisia produced an important early painting, Susanna and the Elders of 1610, whose unusual treatment of this biblical theme has been recognized as a subtextual protest againtst the sexual exploitation of women. The Judith and Holofernes painted shortly after the r*** -- which is used in the film as an erotic tableau vivant -- has been interpreted by art historian Mary Garrard as a metaphoric expression of female resistance to masculine sexual dominance.
The idea that a woman artist is the creation of a male mentor has been a persistent myth in the history of art, frequently asserted by artists and critics of the 16th and 17th centuries. So has the romanticization of violent r***, as in the r*** scenes in this film, and the idea that women wish to be raped or fall in love with their r******. Perhaps it seemed to the filmmaker that presenting Artemisia as a sexually independent woman was a positive gesture, a step beyond casting her as a sexual victim. However the focus remains upon her sexuality and not her art. Perhaps unwittingly, the film Artemisia taps into pervasive stereotypes about women artists in general, and it perpetuates the stigma of a primarily sexualized identity that has followed Artemisia Gentileschi from her own lifetime down to the present.
Thanks to "Paint and Passion," the current exhibit [sic] at the Richard Feigen Gallery in New York, the art of Artemisia and her father can be contrasted with that of Tassi. Her work shows not only her artistic skills, but her unique creation of images of strong and struggling women. They speak to both her own life and to ours in the present.
A Woman Like That. A film by Ellen Weissbrod. Released in early 2010.
From the Art History Archive. Artemisia's Moment. From Smithsonian, May 2002. Biography and paintings from the Web Gallery of Art The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi. Exhaustive site on her life and paintings. Gallery of Paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi "All of the paintings reproduced here are referred to in The Passion of Artemisia..." [a novel by Susan Vreeland]
Here's a critique of the exhibition by New York art dealer Richard Feigen: "There's a split, he [RF] argues, between those who believe in caring for objects and developing exciting exhibitions around them on one side (Him) and those who see museums as Cineplex-like entertainment palaces that only give the public what it already knows about on the other (The Met). Particularly, Mr. Feigen writes that a Met show scheduled for 2001 under the title Gentileschi: Father and Daughter, will damage the reputation of a serious artist (the father, Orazio Gentileschi) in order to draw people in through the salacious reputation of a minor artist (Artemisia Gentileschi, the daughter, whose rape and dramatic trial has generated far more attention than either of their art). Between his gallery and his private collection, Mr. Feigen owns three of the 60 known works by Orazio Gentileschi, whom he considers to be a far more important painter than his daughter Artemisia. To him, a much needed major Gentileschi exhibit should focus on Orazio and his influence, not on his relationship with Artemisia. "With the press and the feminists at work, you're going to read about Artemisia and her father who also painted," he writes. [From Sindy Goldman, New York Observer, 1 May 2000. See www.observer.com]
Other Sites for Artemisia (and Orazio)
- A biography From the University of Arizona. Includes links to the course Women and Western Culture taught by Kari Boyd McBride.
- A small selection of her paintings Also Orazio Gentileschi.
- Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes At the Detroit Institute of Arts.
- A Web site copied from this one Unsigned, of course.
- Artemisia Gentileschi From the "Smart-Ass Guide to Art."
Artemisia on Broadway!
Some Web sites for Women Artists Active Before 1900
- The National Museum for Women in the Arts Washington, D.C.
- Women Artists in History By Wendy Murdock and Carrie Carolin.
Shown above right: Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. 1630. "London, Kensington Palace." (The curator wrote me to say that the painting is no longer there but he doesn't know where it is now...)