Art is divine

From Shadow to Light

Alessandra Cenna





Susannah and the Elders (1610) 

© Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden

Danaë (about 1612-13 ) © Saint Louis Art Museum

Susannah and the Elders(1622)  

© The Burghley House Collection


On the occasion of the acquisition of one of her paintings, “Self-portrait in Saint Catherine of Alexandria”, the National Gallery of London celebrates Artemisia (1593- 1654), Italian painter, and disciple of Caravaggio in a monographic exhibition. Thirty baroque works from private and public collections with letters from her passionate correspondence are exhibited for the first time in Great Britain.

Orphaned from mother in her childhood and daughter of the mannerist artist Orazio Gentileschi, she learned drawing from her father and the art of mixing colors. Without really understanding her immense talent, she grew up in the Roman artistic milieu and will remain one of the few women of the time to know notoriety under the protection of several patrons. She began her career in Rome before settling in Florence, then in Venice and Naples. She will also settle in London at the Court of Charles I for a short time.


More known for her personal vicissitudes than for her works, it was not until the 20th century that her talent was rediscovered.


Raped by one of her father’s collaborators at the age of 19, she was forced to undergo a bestial trial, which subjected her to torture to test the veracity of her accusations and to undergo a most humiliating gynecological examination. This violence will forever mark her works in bloody authenticity.



Despite the promise made to her father, the man who rapes her, Agostino Tassi, will not marry her and, despite his trial, his sentence to exile will never be executed thanks to the intervention of his powerful protectors. Artemisia got married, however, immediately after this drama. Her husband allows her to escape shame, but he is a weak man and incapable of loving this strong woman. Pier Antonio Stiattesi will make her unhappy before she leaves him. From there union will be born four children but only one girl will survive. She will however have another daughter outside the union. Passionate letters from Artemisia to her Florentine lover, however, show that she could finally know love.

To survive the accumulation of debts from her husband, Artemisia will be forced to accept numerous orders and will have to adapt her style to the tastes of the time bringing her dark lights closer to the Caravaggio style. Artemisia is renowned in her time for being a woman with extraordinary charm and, if this has earned her much torment, it has opened doors for her as well. Often in her paintings her busty and energetic heroines have her own features at the express request of her sponsors. This fascination that she exerts and her success fed many jokes on her private life throughout her career.


Precocious artist, tenacious, free and daring woman, she apprehends her relationship to painting as a physical and liberating act. This gaze of female youth in the face of male old age obsessed her work. She painted her first canvas "Suzanne et les Vieillards" at the age of 17 and will revisit this subject all her life, making a last canvas 42 years later.


The exhibition takes place chronologically in several rooms, starting from her apprenticeship in Rome in her father Orazio's workshop, to follow the Italian cities where she stayed. Her early Roman works embodied female figures inspired by the Bible or Antiquity, "Cleopatra" (1611), "Danae" (1612) and "Judith beheading Holoferne" in two different Florentine versions. These mythological works bear witness with force and power to her desire for revenge in the face of the violence suffered.

Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes(about 1623-5)  

© The Detroit Institute of Arts

The last two Neapolitan rooms retrace the last twenty-five years of her life. Her magnificent self-portrait in allegory of painting shows her appeasement, she has finally found her place and her tranquility.


Artemisia, a singular and gifted artist, court painter under the patronage of the Medici, was one of the only women to paint biblical and mythological heroines with brutal realism and yet total femininity in an atmosphere heavy with stuff and chiaroscuro.


Artemisia, like the goddess whose name she inherited, her life was made of freedom, beauty and fury in a hunt worthy of Olympus.





The National Gallery - Trafalgar Square -Londres UK 

Judith and her Maidservant (about 1615-17) 

© Gabinetto fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615-17) 

© The National Gallery, London

Corisca and the Satyr (about 1635-7) - Private collection, Italy © Photo courtesy of the owner