A Self-Portrait of Remarkable Strength - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

A Self-Portrait of Remarkable Strength

Armstrong State University

Artemisia Gentileschi’s life in Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe was embattled yet grand. While she was no doubt an artist far ahead of her time, her boundless talent is many times lost in the story of a scandalous rape trial and her unconventional way of living afterwards. She is described by Susan Sontag as an “immensely gifted woman at the time when an independent career in the arts was a nearly unthinkable option for a woman.”1 Gentileschi’s painting, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, is a strong image in which she portrays herself as an artist in a time when women simply were not taken seriously in the role.

Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (ca. 1630)
Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting
(ca. 1630, oil on canvas, 96.5cm by
73.7cm, The Royal Collection,
Kensington Palace, London)

Artemisia, using Pittura, or personified painting, is able to capture herself at work in a light that no man had been able to achieve. To master this, painting itself was personified as a symbolic woman. Cesare Ripa’s Iconology, which is a handbook of symbols in art, describes Pittura as she should be drawn. Larry Shiner states, “To appreciate her self-portrait’s uniqueness, we need to understand Artemisia’s use of Cesare Ripa’s Iconology, a widely accepted handbook of symbols that specified that Pittura, or painting, should be personified as a woman wearing a gold chain with a pendant mask to stand for imitation, unruly locks of hair for inspiration, a colorful gown for skill, and a gagged mouth symbolizing the ancient saying that painting is ‘mute poetry’.”2 This image brought painting to life and through this image Artemisia painted her own likeness. In the portrait, her hair is loose and falling out of place, she is in colorful clothes and wearing a symbolic gold chain. What she is lacking in her own portrait is the gagged mouth. Her mouth is free and in the painting offers the idea that she is breaking the rules of what a woman of the Renaissance should be. Mary D. Garrard, in Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622, says “…Artemisia reveals in this Self-Portrait a theoretical sophistication and mature commitment to both high art and craft, theory and practice. The artist’s vigorous engagement in her work dignifies studio practice, while her thoughtful meditation on the invisible mirror alludes to art’s cerebral aspects.”3 Unlike the men, those afraid to illuminate their hands at work, she is able to capture the very essence of what an artist is. She was a painter as much on the inside as the world saw in her outward appearance.

How did Artemisia get to a point in her life that she was so brazen as to sell herself in this light? Years of anguish and the burden of a tarnished reputation at a young age gave her the will, in many scholars’ eyes, to achieve all that she did through her painting. Born in Rome on July 8, 1593, she was the daughter of the respected artist, Orazio Gentileschi, and Prudentia Montone. She was not raised with her mother and there are varying accounts of whether her mother died or simply lived elsewhere. Orazio shared his talent with his children and was quite inspired by the work he saw from Artemisia. He felt she was a gifted artist, but at that time, art schools did not accept women very easily. In Herstory, Women Who Changed the World, Ruth Ashby says, “Orazio made sure that his talented daughter had the training to be a fine artist. In 1611, he hired his colleague Agostino Tassi to teach Artemisia perspective.”4 Unfortunately, Agostino used this opportunity to spy on Artemisia and eventually rape her. She was only seventeen at the time and did not tell anyone right away. Tassi used his power over her, finding during the initial rape that she was a virgin and promising one day to marry her to “make it right”, and continued his sexual advances towards her. Orazio, her father, eventually found out what was happening and pressed charges. This act sent Artemisia into the spotlight during a long trial and exposed a secret that would follow her even after her death.

During the trial, which lasted seven agonizing months, she was tortured physically as she recounted the events of the rape and the relationship which ensued afterwards. Tracy Marks states, “During the trial, Artemisia was tortured with the sibille, thumbscrews, involving cords of rope tied around her hands and pulled tightly, in order to ‘prove’ that she was telling the truth. During the torture, which of course seriously injured her hands, she was repeatedly asked whether or not Tassi had raped her, and she continually responded, ‘it is true, it is true’.”5 Even though Tassi was convicted and served a mere matter of months before a judge released him of his punishment, her reputation as a loose woman preceded her throughout her life. Even in death, her fame brought about by her art is overshadowed by the scandalous rape trial.

After the trial, at the urging of her father, she married a family member of one of her supporters. They left Rome to live in Florence where she attempted to escape the branding of the trial and earn the respect of the art community. Artemisia left her husband after a short time. Her career flourished in Florence from 1613-1621. She was allowed to study at the Accademia del Disegno and Artemisia was the first female artist to do so.

While her reputation as a brilliant artist kept her in work, she somehow managed to become farther and farther in debt. While some historians blame her debt on the failing health and deaths of many children, others point towards gambling and wasteful spending of the husband with whom traveled to Florence. An overall agreement brings the gender of the artist into light. Women artists, regardless of their gift, were not nearly respected as much as the men in their field and were paid a fraction of the price by well-to-do patrons. It seems that even while she had some art commissioned, she had to work continuously and meticulously to prove her worth to the patrons. Mary Garrard states, “Indeed, near the end of her life she could still complain to Don Antonio Ruffo, her Sicilian patron the ‘a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen’. Her comment reveals the circumstances women artists faced in a period when they were still rare.”6 Not many people took a woman artist in the Renaissance seriously. The work had to be seen to be believed worthy of patronage and even at that, the payment for the work had to be bargained and adjusted. With mounting debts and collectors harassing her, she left Florence, returned to Rome, and even lived in Venice for a short while searching for profitable commissions.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (Uffizi version) (ca. 1620)
Judith Slaying Holofernes (Uffizi version)
(ca. 1620, oil on canvas, 199cm by 162.5cm,
Uffizi, Florence)

She had become well known for her portraits and vivid biblical scenes. The rage she must have felt after being tortured, physically and emotionally, during the rape trial years before came to life in her paintings. Women plotted revenge and carried it out, sometimes even through their own self-inflicted deaths. The women in her portraits were made heroines as the lifeless bodies of the men who hurt them lay drawn and painted in rich colors and vibrant strokes. These women, as Artemisia painted them, were given voices and strength that no women during her time were allowed. They had the right to say no and to face their oppressors. That is just the thing that was taken from her. Through the trial of the man who raped her, it was her own reputation that was accused and sentenced. In her biblical scenes, she reveals the strength of women overcoming their oppressors through revenge. In the painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia tells the story of Judith, a Jewish widow. Christine Parker, of the website The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi, explains, “Judith was a Jewish widow of noble rank in Bethulia, a town besieged by the army of the Assyrian general Holofernes. She approached his tent as an emissary and captivated him with her beauty. He ordered a feast with much wine. After he passed out in his tent, Judith and her maid Abra saw their opportunity. Judith decapitated Holofernes with his sword and smuggled his head back to Bethulia. On seeing her trophy, the townsfolk routed the leaderless Assyrians. The story is an allegory picturing Judith as Judaism in triumph over its pagan enemy.”7 The painting is colorful with rich detail of blood stained sheets and shadows on the faces of the strong- willed women. Susan Sontag sarcastically explains, “As vocations go, a Greek queen commanding a Persian naval squadron is only slightly more improbable than a seventeenth-century Italian woman becoming a much sought after professional painter of large narrative compositions with biblical or classical subjects-many of which depicts women’s rage and women’s victimization.”8

While working in Rome, Gentileschi attracted several new patrons. Francesco and Antonio Barberino (both wealthy cardinals), Philip IV of Spain, and Charles I of England were among her list of elite supporters. She eventually moved again, this time to Naples. She stayed in Naples from that point on, only leaving to be with her father in England. She was respected as an artist and the light of the rape and torrid trial was slowly fading. She was beginning to not only be accepted but also celebrated as she made heroines come to life in portraits and biblical illustrations. Through her work, the artist we see captured in the Self Portrait is a strong individual and a pioneer in a women’s Renaissance, even though many years would pass before it was truly recognized. Her story was being told by the women who gave so much through her vivid imagination. The woman that we see today in the Self Portrait increasingly became that strong; ever more bold in a male dominated profession.

Sarah Harper

About the author

A junior at Armstrong, Sarah Harper is a middle grades education major with concentrations in history and language arts. Following completion of the program, she plans to teach in the Savannah area.

Recommended citation

Sarah Harper, “A Self-Portrait of Remarkable Strength,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no.1 (Spring 2011).


  1. S. Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), 45.
  2. L. Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 57.
  3. M. D Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity (CA: University of California Press, 2001), 68−9.
  4. R. Ashby, Herstory: Women Who Changed the World (NY: Viking, 1995), 50.
  5.  T. Marks, Artemisia, Renaissance Baroque Artist: The Rape and Trial, http://www.webwinds.com/artemisia/trial.htm(accessed March 1, 2011).
  6. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622, 106.
  7. C Parker, The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi, http://www.artemisia-gentileschi.com/index.shtml (accessed March 1, 2011).
  8. Sontag, At the Same Time, 45.
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