Artemisia Gentileschi’s Maria Magdalen in Ecstasy

One of the great Italian Baroque painters just happened to be a woman: Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656). The daughter of another painter, her father Orazio, Artemisia concentrated on painting women subjects, frequently using herself as the model. She was raped by another painter of her father’s generation and was hurriedly married off to protect her.

Her paintings have frequently compared to Caravaggio in their sense of immediacy and their lushness. Julian Bell describes her painting Lucretia in The New York Review of Books:

Lucrezia (1621)

The half-stripped woman picked out against the dark in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Lucretia is viewed from above, yet as I stand before this yard-high canvas, she seems to bear down on me. Light, here, is weight: the gleam on shoulder, knee, breasts, arm, and neck presses on my eye and there is no distance from the presented flesh. I have to do with this stout woman as if I were wrestling or embracing her. For whether you interlock with someone in anger or desire, that person will always possess a separate life, will, mind, and narrative, and so it is here. Lucretia tugs not at me but at the dark above, at God. Her prayer, stab-sharp, convulses not only her temples and the hand that clutches a dagger, but the whole rough thrash of limbs, gown, and sheets that fills this single-minded canvas.

Interestingly, the ancient Roman subject of the painting, Lucretia, was—according to Livy—raped by one of her husband’s kin and committed suicide to assuage her violated honor.

Small wonder that Artemisia is regarded as some kind of proto-feminist! But if you disregard for a moment her subject matter, she is also a great painter. She is more than a feminist: she is a profoundly great artist.