In a pitch-black room, Judith saws a sharp blade through Holofernes’ neck. His eyes still open; teeth still visible; mouth slightly ajar as if to save a last breath, as blood begins to seep through the thin white bedsheets in which he rests. Judith, the heroine, epitomises female power with her strong, focused, determined and calm gaze as she slaughters the male subject.
With her dynamic masterpieces full of female heroines, Artemisia Gentileschi reigned at the time of the Baroque. Often overlooked by her male counterparts – from Caravaggio to her father Orazio Gentileschi – it is only in recent years that her reputation has solidified as one of the greatest artists of all time.
This is partly thanks to female scholars such as Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris, who included her in their touring 1976 exhibition, Women Artists: 1550–1950, and artists who have referenced her, heralded her as inspirations, and embraced her determined energy in their feminist-spirited work.
Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia GentileschiMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
1. Judy Chicago
During the years 1974–79, along with hundreds of volunteers, the ‘godmother’ of feminist art Judy Chicago masterminded The Dinner Party. One of the most seminal, feminist works of art ever created, now permanently installed in New York’s The Brooklyn Museum, The Dinner Party honours thirty-nine women from history in the form of place settings, including Artemisia.
Emblazoned on a rich bed of luscious, gold, velvet fabric is the words ‘Artemisia Gentileschi’, with the ‘A’ pierced by a sword similar to the ‘J’ in Judith’s illuminated letter in Judith Slaying Holofernes, in which Judy Chicago remarks “signifies each woman’s physical and emotional strength”
The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago by Judy ChicagoBrooklyn Museum
Due to women not having access to life classes, it is known that Artemisia Gentileschi would have likely used herself as a life model for many of her works, including her early masterpiece, Susannah and the Elders.
The ‘body’ has always been a powerful and political tool used especially by female performance artists in the 1970s. This was partly due to the reason that they saw it as being an entity they had complete control over, as well as a medium that had not been previously pioneered by their male contemporaries.
Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia GentileschiMoravian Gallery in Brno
2. Yoko Ono
Artists who embraced the body as a political tool include the Japanese-born Yoko Ono, whose 1964 work Cut Piece saw her kneel on a stage and invite members of the audience to gradually cut off her clothes, thus exposing the female body and challenging power dynamics between men and women.
Yoko Ono preparing for her exhibition, Have you seen the horizon lately? by Yoko OnoModern Art Oxford
3. Marina Abramovic
Marina Abramovic, the performance artist, uses the body as a radical tool to test both the physical and emotional limits in her performances to this day, ranging from lying naked on blocks of ice, to screaming until she lost her voice.
Kaldor Public Art Project 30: Marina Abramović 2015 by Marina AbramovićKaldor Public Art Projects
4. Barbara Kruger
In the spirit of Artemisia platforming powerful heroines from history, for the past few decades, female artists and art collectives have looked at countering male ideals and gender imbalances through strong, powerful slogans.
Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero) depicts two young girls in a stereotypically-fashion male pose clenching their biceps, as if to prove they too are worthy of a high-ranking status.
Untitled (Inserts) by Kruger, BarbaraPublic Art Fund
5. Guerilla Girls
The artist-activist group Guerrilla Girls, too, questioned not only the objectification of women in the abundance of male paintings hung at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the lack of historic works by females on view in their signature black and pink text emblazoned on a yellow background.
Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? by Guerrilla GirlsPomona College Museum of Art
6. Celia Paul
Contemporary portrait painters working today are also still creating art directly inspired by the feminist spirit and strength of Artemisia Gentileschi. The painter Celia Paul is known for her hauntingly beautiful self-portraits, in which she appears in statuesque and determined poses. She also paints her four sisters as powerful and strong women.
“Artemisia Gentileschi is aware of the male gaze in all her self-portraits,” Paul says. “She was very savvy. There is none of the cloistered inwardness of a Gwen John self-portrait. Gentileschi confronts and challenges. She represents herself as the object of desire, yet she is never passive.”
Speaking about Gentileschi’s Self Portrait, Rome, Celia remarks: “She has depicted herself in the act of putting the finishing touches to a portrait of a man. Her face is turned defiantly to the viewer: her expression implies that her power as an artist cannot be argued with.”
Study: My Mother and the Cross by Celia PaulLakeland Arts - Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum
7. Caroline Walker
Caroline Walker, a London-based painter known for her large-scale paintings of women at work in different professions, ranging from office workers, cleaners, and tailors, also finds Artemisia Gentileschi “very inspiring on number of levels”.
When discussing Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant, Caroline makes a point of saying “Like many of her subjects from this period, we really feel we're looking at 'real' women, not an ideal presented purely for our visual pleasure.”
Despite painting four centuries ago, Artemisia Gentileschi remains as relevant as ever with her determined poses, female power and realness, and a strong feminist spirit.
Discover more about Artemisia's life and work.
Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Artemisia GentileschiMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte