Magnificent exceptions: Artemisia and female artists in 17th-century Italy

Artemisia Gentileschi's success in the context of three other female contemporaries

The National Gallery, London

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

 Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later), seen in this self portrait in the guise of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, has been called 'the magnificent exception'. 

This in part refers to her status as a uniquely successful female painter of grand religious and mythological subjects in 17th-century Italy.

But she was not entirely alone. There were a small number of contemporary female painters who also overcame tremendous obstacles to pursue a career in the arts. 
 
In comparison to their male counterparts, women artists had limited freedom of movement and suffered serious legal and social restrictions to owning property and running their own affairs.

The very first hurdle they faced was gaining access to training, which is why the majority of women artists in the 17th century were daughters of artists. Artemisia, for instance, was the eldest child of an established painter, Orazio Gentileschi, who trained her alongside her three brothers.

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

Once Artemisia had negotiated the break from her father’s workshop in Rome to set up in Florence, she overcame the next major hurdle to success as an independent artist.
 
In 1616, not long after she painted this self portrait as a lute player, she became the first woman to gain membership to the city’s artists’ academy ­– the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. Somewhat similar to guilds, these academies gave artists their stamp of approval in addition to offering them professional support.

In Artemisia’s case, entry to the academy also gave her increased access to elevated cultural circles in Florence and the ruling court of the Medici. Such links were vital in maintaining and expanding patronage for any artist of ambition. This self portrait, for example, entered the Medici collection early on, and was probably painted for them.

The Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1581) by Lavinia FontanaLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) was about forty years older than Artemisia and, like her, also painted for illustrious patrons. In Lavinia’s case these included the French royal court and Popes Clement VII and Paul V in Rome.

This depiction of the Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria, painted in 1581, shows the elegance and tender grace of her devotional work, although she was also in high demand as a portraitist.

Born in Bologna, Lavinia was the daughter of a successful painter (Prospero Fontana) and, like Artemisia, she went on to forge a very successful independent career. She became the chief breadwinner of her family with her husband, a nobleman, acting as her agent. Like Artemisia, she became a mother – she had 11 children.

Lavinia Fontana, 1552-1614, Bolognese Painter [obverse], Felice Antonio Casone, 1611, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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Lavinia Fontana Painting [reverse], Felice Antonio Casone, 1611, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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This medal from 1611 has a portrait of Lavinia Fontana on one side and a depiction of the Allegory of Painting on the other. Painting’s wild hair was intended as an expression of the energy of artistic creativity. Such medals celebrating an artist’s fame were made for collectors. A portrait medal of Artemisia also exists.

Still Life with Bowl of Citrons (late 1640s) by Giovanna GarzoniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The artist of this delicate painting of a bowl of lemons was an exact contemporary of Artemisia’s, Giovanna Garzoni (1600–1670). 

Giovanna worked in a variety of media on different scales but is best known for her still lifes, painted in tempera on parchment, like this one. 

Unusually for women of her day, Giovanna was highly educated and, in works like this, she shows a scientific eye not only for accurate observational detail, like this fly, but for botanical precision.

This bowl of citrons illustrates the entire life cycle of the fruit; from blossom and various stages of ripening to the withered fruit and pips. 

Like Artemisia, Giovanna travelled to Venice and Naples, and the two artists shared some key patrons including Cassiano dal Pozzo and the Duke of Alcalá.

Santi Luca e Martina, Rome

Giovanna became a member of the Accademia di San Luca – the artists’ academy and guild in Rome – when she was in her fifties. Although as a woman she was barred from taking part in the Academy’s meetings and activities such as drawing lessons, she was nevertheless embraced by the community. 

At her death she was buried in this church right by the Roman Forum, which belonged to the Academy. She also left the academy her house which abutted the church itself.

The Deliverance of the Demoniac of Constantinople by Saint John Chrysostom (c. 1659) by Elisabetta SiraniNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665), like Lavinia Fontana, was also a native of Bologna and the daughter of an artist. Elisabetta’s father, Giovanni Andrea, himself a pupil of the celebrated painter Guido Reni, tutored her along with her two sisters, who also became painters.
 

This complex study for an ambitious religious painting depicting The Deliverance of the Demoniac of Constantinople by Saint John Chrysostom was made in about 1659.
 
By this time, Elisabetta had been running the family workshop for five years, owing to her father being incapacitated by gout.

She supported her entire family and used the workshop to teach girls and young women how to draw and paint. 

It was the very first ‘academy’ for women outside a convent. 

Elisabetta was an extremely prolific artist with over 200 paintings, engravings and drawings to her name.
 
This is all the more extraordinary when we consider that she died at the young age of 27. It was suspected she may have been poisoned by a maid, although this was never proved.

Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna

Elisabetta’s funeral in August 1665 was a lavish affair with a ‘catafalque’ (raised platform) including a life-size statue of her painting at an easel.
 
She was buried here, at the Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna, in the same tomb as Guido Reni himself. You can still find it in the Basilica’s Rosary Chapel.

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

In the context of these other female artists, Artemisia’s fame and international success was still remarkable.

She may well have painted this self portrait of herself as the Allegory of Painting (her wild hair rather more tamed than in the depiction on Lavinia Fontana’s medal) when she was living and working at the royal court of Charles I in London in around 1639.  

Artemisia lived the majority of her later life in Naples where she successfully ran her own busy workshop, like Lavinia Fontana and Elisabetta Sirani, and trained her own daughter Prudenzia to paint.

Artemisia’s career in painting, like those of her female contemporaries, required overcoming overwhelming odds. Like them, her exceptional success was probably largely due to tremendous determination, resilience and unwillingness to stay in the narrow confines demanded of women in 17th-century Italy.

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