The hand of the famed Artemisia

Artemisia Gentileschi's celebrity during her lifetime

Self Portrait as a Lute Player (c. 1615-18) by Artemisia GentileschiWadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Artemisia Gentileschi was not the only female painter working in Italy during the first half of the 17th century. 

But she was by far the most celebrated.

Over a career that lasted more than four decades from 1610 onwards, she painted for many of the leading families in Europe, including royalty, and her work was much sought after by collectors. 

Artemisia's singular status as a famous female artist, as well as her renowned beauty and wit, made her a figure of great curiosity among her contemporaries.

Depictions of Artemisia – including her own self portraits in various guises, such as this Self Portrait as a Lute Player – became prized possessions.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615-17) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

In 1613 Artemisia's career really took off when, aged 19, she moved from her native Rome to Florence. 

Within a couple of years she was receiving commissions from figures around the ruling Medici court, including the Grand Duke of Tuscany himself, Cosimo II de' Medici.

A painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, closely related to this self portrait, hung at one of the Medici villas.  

Artemisia became a well-known figure among intellectual circles that included the astronomer Galileo Galilei, who became a personal friend.

In 1616 Artemisia was the first woman to become a member of Florence's prestigious Academy of the Arts of Drawing.

Recognition for Artemisia's gifts as an artist went hand in hand with praise for her physical attractiveness, sharp tongue and forceful personality.  

These attributes became the recurring themes of poems and images extolling her many virtues.

In 1620 Artemisia returned to Rome. Her celebrity status and demand for her work caused her husband Pierantonio to write:

'She has a great deal to do and a lot of work and the house is always full of cardinals and princes... she barely has time even to eat.' 

Right hand of Artemisia Gentileschi holding a brush (1585-1656) by Drawn by Pierre Dumonstier IIBritish Museum

This delicate drawing in coloured chalks is fascinating evidence of Artemisia's fame at this time.

Made in Rome on the last day of December 1625 by the French artist Pierre Dumonstier II, it depicts Artemisia's right hand.

Showing her delicately holding a paintbrush, it suggests her beauty, poise and elegance of movement – as well as her skill as an artist. 

The inscription written in French along the top gives the artist's name, the date, and then on the second line, a description that translates:

'after the worthy hand of the excellent and learned Artemisia, gentlewoman of Rome.'  

Another inscription on the reverse compares Artemisia to the goddess Aurora:

'The hands of Aurora are praised and renowned for their rare beauty. But this one is a thousand times more worthy for knowing how to make marvels that send the most judicious eyes into rapture.' 

Artemisia Gentileschi Romana Famosissima Pittrice Accad. Ne' Desiosi (1628 (circa)) by Print made by Jérôme David. After Artemisia GentileschiBritish Museum

On moving to Venice in the late 1620s, Artemisia's celebrity endured.

This print, which refers to Artemisia's fame, was probably made in the city in about 1627–8.

Based on a lost painted self portrait by Artemisia, her image is surrounded by an inscription in Latin which translates:

‘Artemisia Gentleschi [sic] from Rome, very famous painter, academician in the Desiosi’

The Accademia de' Desiosi (to which the inscription refers) was an informal academy which included musicians, composers and poets among its members. This engraving suggests Artemisia took a high-profile role in Venetian artistic and cultural life. 

Beneath Artemisia's portrait is a Latin inscription based on a Roman epigram praising the greatest artists of the ancient world. It translates:

‘A marvel in the art of painting
more easily envied than imitated’ 

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (c.1638-9) by Artemisia GentileschiRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Artemisia worked extremely hard to obtain commissions and maintain her profile in the various cities in which she worked, or wanted to move to.

Her surviving letters suggest she often sent works – unsolicited – to prospective clients, in the hope of gaining their attention.

She could be very flattering to patrons. But she also seems to have been unafraid to remind them of her worth and did not always do their bidding.

This Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura)  was probably painted when Artemisia was in London at the end of the 1630s.

King Charles I had repeatedly issued invitations for Artemisia to come and work for the royal court in England. He even sent Artemisia's brothers to fetch her from Naples, where she was living at the time. He was disappointed on both occasions. 

On eventually arriving in London Artemisia received, by her own account, ‘great honours and favours’. But she remained dissatisfied, and in a letter written to the Duke of Modena sought a position at his own court.

The 'excellent and learned' and 'most famous' Artemisia returned to Naples where she continued to successfully run her own studio for the rest of her life. 

She died in her sixties, probably some time shortly after August 1654.

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