Artemisia Gentileschi and Early Modern Feminism

Artemisia Gentileschi is by far the most famous woman artist of the pre-modern era. Her art addresses issues that resonate today, such as sexual violence and women’s problematic access to political power. In this fascinating article, author Mary D. Garrard talks about Gentileschi’s importance and her journey to write Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe.


Having written two books on Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c1654), I didn’t plan to write another one. But when an invitation came from Reaktion Books, the format of the Renaissance Lives series struck me as just right for a subject I’d always wanted to explore in depth: the connection between Artemisia and the feminist writers of her time. Paintings such as Artemisia’s Susanna and the Elders – a sensitive image of a young woman reacting to the threat of rape – bring a chill of recognition to women today. Artemisia’s appeal to feminists is sometimes said to project a modern concept onto art made before the word ‘feminist’ existed, but in fact feminism was a vital force in Renaissance Europe, long before it was named. 

In the fifteenth century, Christine de Pisan and Laura Cereta wrote to protest misogyny and proclaim women’s equality. Over the next two centuries, writers across Europe – Veronica Franco, Moderata Fonte, Anna van Schurman, Marie de Gournay and others – decried rape, domestic abuse, and the sexual double standard. They challenged the unjust patriarchal practices sustained by men seeking to preserve power. As Fonte put it, the idea that women are men’s inferiors “is an abuse that men have introduced to the world and… gradually translated into law and custom”; and now they actually believe “that the status they have gained through their bullying is theirs by right.” 

There is a clear correspondence between the issues discussed in the feminist treatises and those addressed in Artemisia’s paintings. Artemisia may have personally known, and she certainly knew about, the Venetians Lucrezia Marinella and Arcangela Tarabotti, two of the most prominent feminist writers of her time.  Moreover, as a victim of rape herself, Artemisia knew the issues from personal experience. She expressed her outrage at gender injustice in her letters. When cheated by a patron, she wrote, “If I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way.” She addressed the political power issue in paintings like the Uffizi Judith Slaying Holofernes, in which two women execute a biblical bully – a prime model of retributive justice.

Artemisia’s popular appeal today has something to do with her colorful biography.  But I think it’s due more fundamentally to her ability to create powerful visual images that speak, directly and viscerally, about things that matter. She depicted biblical or literary stories from the viewpoint of the female subject, something quite rare in art history before her time. Women’s alternative voice, heard in the feminist texts and imaged in Artemisia’s paintings, brought a paradigm shift toward equality of the sexes, one still in process today. In their challenge to masculinist norms, Artemisia and the writers employed a wide range of emotional tones and rhetorical devices – anger, defiance, gender pride, fantasy, inversion, hyperbole, irony. In this book, I wanted to let the feminist writers speak directly, juxtaposing their sentences with my discussions of Artemisia’s paintings.

As you examine the Uffizi Judith, listen to Tarabotti on the double standard, and you’ll realize how many feminist issues this iconic painting evokes: “So, then, the reason a woman must not appear in male society is the power of her divine attractiveness, is it? But aren’t you men supposed to be the brave sex? Do you not boast about being stronger than we are? What cowards you are [when you can’t] resist a passing glance in your direction! The fault for the many downfalls caused by women’s beauty lies not with them but solely, on the contrary, with your foul, untrammeled male ego.” In Corisca and the Satyr, the story of a nymph who outwitted a lustful satyr, Artemisia depicts the moment in G. B. Guarini’s pastoral drama, Il Pastor Fido, when the satyr is left holding a wig he mistook for her hair. In her own pastoral play, Isabella Andreini similarly mocks a gullible satyr who was tied to a tree by an escaping nymph: “Have you at last understood,” the nymph exclaims, “that I am making fun of you?” Signaling the in-joke, Artemisia signed her painting on the tree. 

Writing this book was a fresh venture for me, and it brought many surprises. One was a discovery about Artemisia and music. Examining her paintings for the Florentine Medici court along with the music Francesca Caccini produced for the same court, I realized that, just as Caccini composed songs in discrete and distinct expressive modes – Phrygian, Dorian, Lydian – so Artemisia created three different versions of the theme of Mary Magdalene in very particular expressive registers – pious, melancholic, and contemplative. Stimulated by the intersection of music, drama and painting at that female-ruled court, a painter drew inspiration from a composer’s art. In turn, Artemisia’s St. Cecilia Playing the Lute may be a tribute to Caccini, a celebrated lutenist. In this and other instances, Artemisia Gentileschi reveals a sense of gender identification and pride, just as did the Renaissance feminist writers who inspired each other and expressed their sense of female community over time. 

– Mary D. Garrard

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Mary D. Garrard is Professor Emerita of Art History at American University, Washington, DC. Her books include Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (1989); Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity (2001); and Brunelleschi’s Egg: Gender, Art and Nature in Renaissance Italy (2010).  Recently, Garrard wrote a blog for ArtHerStory about Artemisia and Giovanna Garzoni.