The 'excellent and learned' Artemisia

Artemisia Gentileschi's life among the great patrons, artists and intellectuals of her day

The National Gallery, London

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

Artemisia led an isolated life in her early years. Her mother had died when she was twelve and she was effectively confined to home. There was no question of her frequenting artists' studios, except for her father's. And like most girls of her class, she was not taught to read and write.

But all that changed once she was married and had left her father's house. She and her husband moved to Florence and there she flourished.

She not only learnt to read and write (and also ride a horse), she became an important figure in the city's artistic and cultural life.

By all accounts Artemisia had tremendous presence and a forceful personality. Establishing the independence she maintained for the rest of her life, she was not only hugely admired for her artistic talents but also for her wit and beauty. 

Cosimo II de' Medici, 1590-1621, 4th Grand Duke of Tuscany 1609 [obverse], Gaspare Mola, 1618, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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Maria Maddalena of Austria, 1589-1631, Wife of Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici 1608 [reverse], Gaspare Mola, 1618, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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The most important patrons for art in Florence during Artemisia's time there – 1613–20 – were members of the ruling Medici family. This medal shows Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici and his wife Maria Maddalena d'Austria. Ahead of Artemisia's arrival in Florence, her father, Orazio, had written to Cosimo's mother praising his daughter's talents. It was not long before various members of the Medici family, including the grand duke and duchess, took an interest in Artemisia's work.

Sixth interlude: garden of Calypso (Intermedio sesto: giardino di Calipso), from the series 'Seven Interludes' for the wedding celebration of Cosimo de' Medici in Florence, 1608 (1608) by Remigio Cantagallina|Giulio ParigiThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Medici court had a reputation for lavish entertainments and exceptional patronage of the arts.

This print is one of a number showing the elaborate scenery and costumes of a masque staged to celebrate Grand Duke Cosimo II and Maria Maddalena's wedding in 1608.  

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

This self portrait, in which Artemisia appears as a lute player, may relate to an entertainment at court in 1615 when a 'Sig.ra Artimisia' was recorded among the performers. On that occasion the music was composed by Francesca Caccini – a fellow successful woman at court.

Numerous works by Artemisia entered the Medici collection. Her Self Portrait as a Lute Player hung in the Apartment of the Courtly Ladies at the Medici villa at Artimino, about 25km west of Florence.

Cosimo II de' Medici (1590–1621), Grand Duke of Tuscany, Justus Sustermans, 1597–1681, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Judith and Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, ca. 1612-13, From the collection of: Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
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A version the picture shown here, Artemisia's Judith beheading Holofernes, may have been made to catch the eye of Cosimo II. That picture (now in the Uffizi, Florence) shows Judith in a golden dress rather than a blue one and depicts her wearing a costly bracelet on one arm. 

Artemisia also became close friends with numerous figures surrounding the court, including the poet Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger – whose great-uncle was the artist Michelangelo.

At the Casa Buonarroti, the poet commissioned Artemisia to contribute to a ceiling decoration.

It was almost certainly through Buonarroti that Artemisia met her lover, the wealthy nobleman, Francesco Maria Maringhi. Although Artemisia remained married and had become a mother, the two began a passionate affair. 

Galileo Galilei (1624) by Ottavio LeoniNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

It may well have been through Michelangelo Buonarroti that Artemisia also met the astronomer, physicist and engineer Galileo Galilei. Like Buonarroti, Galileo became a life-long friend and correspondent.

Long after Artemisia left Florence she would continue writing to Galileo, hoping that he might help smooth her path with his Medici patrons.

Galileo showing the Medicean planets (Jupiter’s satellites) to the allegories of Optics, Astronomy and Mathematics (in: Galileo Galilei “Opere”. Bologna, 1656) (1656/1656) by Galileo GalileiMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

This print commemorates one of Galileo's most celebrated discoveries. 

Galileo's development of the telescope allowed him to make the first observations of the moons of Jupiter in 1610. 

Galileo named Jupiter's moon's the Medicean Stars in honour of Cosimo de' Medici and his brothers.

It was through this and other discoveries that Galileo came to the revolutionary proposition that not all heavenly bodies circled Earth as previously believed.  

Galileo's objective lens, 1609/1610, From the collection of: Museo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza
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Today a lens from one of Galileo's telescopes is kept at the Museo Galileo in Florence – the city's Institute and Museum of the History of Science.

In 1616 Artemisia won a unique honour. She became the very first woman to be invited to join the city's Academy of the Arts of Drawing. This academy, part artists' guild and part organisation to honour the city's leading cultural figures (Galileo joined in 1613) had been established in 1563. In its early years the Academy met in the cloisters of the Basilica delle Santissima Annunziata.

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

Due to the ease with which Artemisia moved in these highly cultured circles in Florence, she was later praised as the 'excellent and learned Artemisia'. 

In this self portrait she takes on the guise of a saint famed for her intellect, Catherine of Alexandria.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Signed and dated 1613) by Cristofano AlloriRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Artemisia also established friendships among her fellow artists in Florence. The painter of this Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Cristofano Allori, seems to have been particularly close. He acted as godfather to Artemisia's third child, named Cristofano in his honour in 1615.

Simon Vouet, Ottavio Leoni, 1625, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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Saint Sebastian, Simon Vouet, c. 1625, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Portret van Cassiano del Pozzo, Pieter de Brune, 1650/1667, From the collection of: Rijksmuseum
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Artemisia's circle of artist friends expanded further on her return to Rome in 1620. The French painter, Simon Vouet, became a particular ally. In about 1623–6 Vouet painted a portrait of Artemisia for the major art patron Cassiano dal Pozzo. As these networks of friendship and patronage often worked, Artemisia provided the collector with one of her own self portraits. In later years Dal Pozzo became one of her most important contacts, helping her negotiate commissions with other patrons.

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, Between 1623 and 1625, From the collection of: Detroit Institute of Arts
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Christ before the High Priest, Gerrit van Honthorst, about 1617, From the collection of: The National Gallery, London
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Self-Portrait with an Easel, Nicolas Régnier, c. 1620-c. 1625, From the collection of: Harvard Art Museums
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Interestingly, in Rome, Artemisia seems to have mixed with foreign painters rather than Italians resident in the city. These artists included the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst and the Frenchman Nicolas Régnier, both of whose work took inspiration from Caravaggio. Although Caravaggio had died in 1610 his nocturnal scenes, dramatic use of lighting and intense naturalism were still very much in vogue in Rome during the 1620s. 

Portret van Maximiliaan I van Beieren, Michel Natalis, Caspar van Baerle, Joachim von Sandrart, 1643/1643, From the collection of: Rijksmuseum
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Philip IV, King of Spain, Velázquez, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y, 1644-60, From the collection of: Dulwich Picture Gallery
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As Artemisia's career progressed she created works for illustrious patrons across Europe, although many were sovereigns she never met. The Duke of Bavaria, Maximilian I Wittelsbach, ordered two works for a handsome sum in 1620. A decade later, when Artemisia was newly settled in Naples she wrote of making works 'for the Empress', the Infanta María of Spain at the Imperial court in Vienna. She also produced works for Prince Eusebius von Liechtenstein and Philip IV of Spain.   

Charles I (1600-49) (1635 - Before June 1636) by Sir Anthony Van DyckRoyal Collection Trust, UK

One reigning monarch Artemisia certainly met was Charles I of England – here depicted in a triple portrait by his court painter, Anthony van Dyck.

Charles and his queen, Henrietta Maria, were both enthusiastic and discerning patrons of the arts. 

Charles had tried enticing Artemisia to the royal court in London numerous times.

In 1635 he twice sent her brother, Francesco, to accompany her from Naples to England. On both occasions he was disappointed. 

Artemisia's father, Orazio, had been working at the English court since 1626. They hadn't seen each other since 1621 when Orazio left Rome for Genoa.

Portret van Henrietta Maria van Bourbon, koningin van Engeland, Joannes Meyssens, 1640/1670, From the collection of: Rijksmuseum
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Anthony van Dyck, Orazio Gentileschi, a portrait drawing, 1627/1635, From the collection of: British Museum
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Orazio was a particular favourite of the queen, Henrietta Maria, and it was for her that he painted the last great undertaking of his career.

The ceiling of the Blenheim Saloon of Marlborough House, Pall Mall, London painted by Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi (1638) by Orazio and Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

The subject of this ceiling is an allegory of Peace reigning over the Arts – a composition entirely made up of female figures. 

It is hard to know the extent of Artemisia's involvement in the project, although the ceiling's completion in 1638 may coincide with her long-awaited arrival in London. 

Artemisia certainly seems to have begun working for the royal court on her arrival, and in a letter refers to Henrietta Maria as 'My Lady' suggesting she was employed directly by the queen. 

London from Arundel House (1643) by Wenceslaus HollarThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artemisia remained in London after her father's death in February 1639, but despite 'the great honours and favours' she received at the English court she felt dissatisfied. We do not know why this was, but by 1640 she had left to return to Naples.

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, Leiden 1606–1669 Amsterdam), 1653, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Artemisia remained in Naples for the rest of her life. She continued to run a successful studio and collaborated with numerous artists in the city to provide work for an international clientele. Among her most enduring friendships, documented in a series of letters, was with the young Sicilian nobleman Don Antonio Ruffo. He became one of Artemisia's chief patrons in her later years, at a time when he began amassing an exceptional collection that included masterpieces by Rembrandt.

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

It is in Artemisia's letters to Ruffo that we gain a clear sense of the determined and independent woman who spent her life overcoming the obstacles placed in her path as a female artist.

In one letter to Ruffo, where she defends the price she is asking for two works he has commissioned, she demands to be judged on a par with a man and writes:

'With me Your Illustrious Lordship will not lose and you will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.'

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