Gentileschi vs. Gentileschi

Orazio and Artemisia – father and daughter, master and pupil, independently successful. A look at the similarities and differences between the art of the two great Gentileschis

Orazio Gentileschi, Lucas Emil Vorsterman after Sir Anthony van Dyck, probably 1626/1641, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Artemisia Gentileschi Romana Famosissima Pittrice Accad. Ne' Desiosi, Print made by Jérôme David. After Artemisia Gentileschi, 1628 (circa), From the collection of: British Museum
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The two Gentileschis, father and daughter, were both celebrated artists during their lifetimes. Orazio Gentileschi established himself in Rome and after 1600 came under artistic influence of Caravaggio. Artemisia, his eldest child, was born in 1593. He trained her to paint along with her three brothers.

Portrait of a Young Woman as a Sibyl (c. 1620) by Orazio GentileschiThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Artemisia proved herself to be the most talented painter of Orazio's three children. 

She also occasionally acted as his model, as some believe she was in this Portrait of a Young Woman as a Sibyl, painted by Orazio in about 1620.

Artemisia's earliest signed work dates to 1610, when she was no more than 17 years old.

In 1612 Orazio wrote to Christina of Lorraine, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, praising his daughter's work.

'I find myself with a female daughter and three other sons, and this daughter, as it pleased God, having been trained in the profession of painting, in three years has become so skilled that I dare say she has no equal today.'

The Virgin with the Sleeping Christ Child (c. 1610) by Orazio GentileschiHarvard Art Museums

Orazio was admired for the sense of naturalism and immediacy he brought to his art.

He in part achieved this by painting from live models, rather than creating idealised inventions – as this Virgin and Child of about 1610 makes clear.

Orazio's depiction of the sleeping Christ Child, with his little hand resting on his plump body is remarkably naturalistic.

And the Virgin Mary also appears to have been modelled on a real young woman. 

Orazio dresses her in fine robes and places a gold-edged veil over her auburn hair, while emphasising details such as the light on her ginger eyelashes. He also doesn't give her a halo.

Danaë (c.1612) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

One of the many skills Orazio taught his daughter was the art of painting from live models, something he had learned from Caravaggio.

Artemisia's 1612 depiction of the nymph Danaë, who was impregnated by the god Jupiter in the form of a shower of gold coins, is based on her observation of a real naked woman.

Artemisia notes her model's rounded belly and the weight and fall of her breasts.

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (about 1620 - 25) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

Artemisia continued to paint from live models throughout her life, although she later complained of the cost and bother of hiring them.

'These are paintings with nude figures requiring very expensive female models, which is a big headache and when I find good ones they fleece me.'

Letter to her friend and patron, Antonio Ruffo, 13 November 1649

One feature that differentiates Artemisia's work from Orazio's is her ability to convey a sense of her subjects' lived experience.

Unique among her male peers, Artemisia understood – and could communicate – what it meant to occupy a woman's body. 

She also had the power of imagination to physically and psychologically inhabit her protagonists' worlds.

In this case it's a moment of religious ecstasy experienced by the solitary Mary Magdalene.

Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (Ca. 1608) by Orazio GentileschiThe National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

One of Orazio's renowned skills as a painter lay in his highly convincing depiction of surface textures – particularly cloth.

In this scene of the Old Testament heroine Judith with her maidservant he creates a visual feast of different fabrics. 

Judith's red silk damask robe, pinned and embellished with jewels, and the crisp folds of her fine linen chemise, are all rendered with tremendous care. 

While the coarser and more rumpled cotton cloth of the maidservant's robes and headscarf is a sign of her lowlier status.

Artemisia also became adept at painting fabrics and she even borrowed compositions, like this one, from her father in her early years. 

But her interest was more in the psychological dimension of the subjects she depicted.

Joseph and Potiphars wife (c.1630-2) by Orazio GentileschiRoyal Collection Trust, UK

This is one of Orazio Gentileschi's great works from his later years, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, about 1630–2. Painted on a grand scale, the scene is very theatrical, both in its lighting and stage-like setting. 

The picture is also a tour de force in Orazio's illusionistic depictions of fabrics.

But in terms of storytelling, there's something rather cool – even stilted – about the exchange between the two protagonists.

Zuleika, the wife of Potiphar, Joseph's employer, has just tried to seduce the young man. He has no wish to stay and makes a hasty exit.

As Joseph leaves, she holds onto his coat. She will use this as evidence when she falsely accuses him of rape.

For a moment of high passion and vengeful accusation, Orazio's figures are remarkably calm. Zuleika's outstretched arm and pale skin make her appear almost statuesque.

Esther before Ahasuerus by Artemisia GentileschiThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artemisia's Esther before Ahasuerus, painted around the same time (in 1628–30), is equally theatrical in composition and lighting. But she gives her figures a psychological and emotional depth her father rarely found.

Artemisia shows the figures reacting to the young queen's collapse with a range of emotions, from love and fear to compassion and bemusement.

The Finding of Moses (early 1630s) by Orazio GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

Orazio's work boasted grandeur, statuesque poise, saturated colours and a dazzling technique.

Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1612-13) by Artemisia GentileschiMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

Artemisia conveyed her subjects with passion, tension and brilliant storytelling – told, for once, from a female perspective.

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