Artemisia, re-re-discovered genius of the Baroque

Date of news: 13 September 2021

The exhibition Artemisia, woman and power opens on 26 September in the Rijksmuseum Twenthe. Brilliant artist of the Baroque and unsolicited icon for feminism: her name should ring a bell with everyone. But it does not. Anneke Smelik wrote an essay about her and hopes that Artemisia Gentileschi will not be forgotten again. ‘As a feminist, I find it painful that she has to be rediscovered every time.’

It's a bit of a side-track, because Anneke Smelik is not an art historian, but a professor of Visual Culture at the Radboud Institute for Culture and History (RICH). Yet she wrote an article for the catalogue of the new exhibition Artemisia, woman and power, which will be officially opened on 24 September in the Rijksmuseum Twenthe and will be accessible for the public from 26 September. ‘I was a bit hesitant about whether I should be the one to write something about her. But when I mentioned Artemisia's name in my department, only one colleague had heard of her. My family didn't know who she was either. I was shocked. The attention for Artemisia and her work seems to depend on feminist waves. In between, that attention – and her name – ebbs away. For me as an 'older feminist', it is painful that such a big name has to be rediscovered again and again.


Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome on July 8, 1593. Her father – Orazio Gentileschi – was an artist and she learned the tricks of the trade from him. She then studied with several other artists, such as Agostino Tassi – who raped her and then did not marry her, leading to a well-documented lawsuit (Smelik: 'And she was believed! That was exceptional back then!') – and Pierantonio Stiattesti, whom she married shortly after the trial. In 1616 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno in Florence. She found herself in high circles and got to know the Italian physicist Galileo Galilei, among others. She travelled back to Rome in 1620 without a husband and afterwards she visited Genoa, Venice and Naples. By this time, she had become famous and was recognised everywhere. After a short period in London – at the invitation of King Charles I – she returned to Italy, where she died around 1656. Smelik: ‘Artemisia is seen as a genius. She was exceptionally good and exceptionally professional. There were more women who painted, but she is one of the few who self-consciously presented herself as a painter and really saw it as her profession.'


In addition to her great technical skills, her style also stands out: her paintingsJudit_decapitando_a_Holofernes,_por_Artemisia_Gentileschi are known for the female perspective. ‘One of Artemisia’s most famous paintings is Judith beheading Holofernes,’ says Smelik. ‘It was a popular theme at the time. When I went to an exhibition about Baroque painters in Milan this summer, there were multiple versions of that painting, painted by other women. They are so unrealistic. Judith is presented as a beautiful, delicate woman. But in Artemisia’s work, Judith is incredibly powerful. All the women she painted are like that. She was consciously concerned with showing that women were not inferior to men and she opposed the traditional role of women.’ In 2017, her Judith Beheads Holofernes even went viral on social media in Italy, as part of the #metoo movement.


Artemisia’s work is once again getting a lot of attention at the moment. Where her paintings were previously sold under male names, because that led to higher prices, it is now her name that guarantees auction prices of millions of euros. In addition to a number of works by Artemisia, the exhibition in Rijksmuseum Twenthe also displays many works by people who influenced her. For Smelik, it is above all the message of the exhibition that touches her. ‘It shows that female artists have always been around. I find that moving. There have always been women who painted, and painted well. But due to historical circumstances, they have not been able to make the same name as their male colleagues. Artemisia's rediscovery is due in large part to the women’s movement. That was necessary then and it is still necessary now.’

Curious about Anneke Smelik's essay? An abbreviated version of the article can be read on the Culture Weekly site (in Dutch). The full essay appears in print only in the catalogue of the exhibition. More information about 'Artemisia, woman and power' can be found on the website of the Rijksmuseum Twenthe.