Susanna and the Elders (left) and Judith Slaying Holofernes.

Susanna and the Elders (left) and Judith Slaying Holofernes.


ON JULY 8, 1593, Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (pronounced “jahntee-LES-kee”) was born. At seventeen, she painted Susanna and the Elders, and at eighteen or nineteen she painted Judith Slaying Holofernes.

For a young woman, seventeenth-century Italy was a tough place to practice artistic genius. The daughter of the artist Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia completed her striking Susanna and the Elders at seventeen, and received little credit for it. Many of her contemporaries believed that women existed only for cleaning, cooking, sex, and raising children, and it was rumored that Gentileschi’s father was the true artist behind the painting of two lecherous old men harassing a nude young woman. For centuries, the did-she-paint-it-or-not debate continued, although most modern scholars believe that, yes, the painting is hers.

Artemisia Gentileschi: self-portrait

Artemisia Gentileschi: self-portrait

Gentileschi’s personal clash with sex-crime injustice, plus the subject matter and tone of Susanna and Judith Slaying Holofernes, have made her a fascinating figure for feminist study. The Susanna painting was based on a Biblical story of a married woman spied upon while bathing, then sentenced to die when the two lustful peeping Toms falsely accused her of having sex with them. Then Daniel intervened, proved the elders had lied, and they were executed instead of Susanna.

Although many male artists had painted a scene from this tale, their works often emphasized the seductiveness of the nude woman more than the conspiracy of the old men. Not so with Gentileschi’s work, which shows a shrinking, vulnerable woman besieged by wicked, scheming old frauds.

Many believe Gentileschi’s experience as a mistreated rape victim informs the anger expressed in Judith Slaying Holofernes, which depicts two fully-clothed women cutting the throat of an undressed man. The attack by Agostino Tassi, her one-time mentor, led to a seven-month trial in which Gentileschi was tortured to prove she was telling the truth. After his conviction, the rapist spent less than a year in prison.

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