Art and design professor explores feminism in Baroque art

Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi bucked the trend set forth for traditional women artists in the 17th Century while at the same time creating marketable paintings.

Art and design professor Katherine Poole-Jones discusses the life and work of Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi.

Art and Design professor Katherine Poole-Jones lectured about Gentileschi’s work last week for Women’s Studies program chair Catherine Seltzer’s Studies in Women, Language and Literature class.

Poole-Jones told the class to be a woman in that time period was challenging, but to be a woman artist was “something that’s very, very unusual.”

Women trained in the arts were only allowed to create certain types of paintings, such as portraits and still life, because that was “appropriate for women.” Painting nudes and historical pieces was not acceptable. Yet, that is exactly what Gentileschi spent the majority of her career painting, according to Poole-Jones.

Gentileschi was one of many artists who depicted “Susanna and the Elders,” which tells the story of Susanna, who is bathing in a garden and is seen by two elders who threaten to tell people she was having relations with another man unless she let them sleep with her.

Gentileschi’s “Susanna and the Elders” piece showcases heroic females and nudity. Poole-Jones said there could be a connection with that painting to how Agostino Tassi, Gentileschi’s teacher, harassed her. Tassi, who was hired by Gentileschi’s father Orazio to teach her perspective, repeatedly raped Gentileschi all the while promising to marry her. Marrying the rapist, according to Poole-Jones, was the only conventional avenue to take after a rape because the woman was seen as ruined.

Tassi never married Gentileschi, prompting her father to sue. The trial occurred in 1612. Gentileschi was tortured on the witness stand with thumb screws, according to Poole-Jones. Tassi was imprisoned for eight months as a result of the trial, but ultimately acquitted of the rape charge.

Gentileschi’s reputation was ruined, and her father thought the “best bet” would be to get Gentileschi out of Rome, Poole-Jones said. He married her off to a man in Florence, where she worked for the Medici family and joined the Academy of Art in Florence.

She returned to Rome in the 1620s and was able to overcome the “stigma” of her rape trial, Poole-Jones said.

Gentileschi was seen as the first celebrity woman artist, according to Poole-Jones. However, Poole-Jones said it maybe be “anachronistic” to label Gentileschi a feminist because it would not have occurred to her to be feminist. Looking at her life struggles and artwork, “even if she doesn’t know that term exists, she is one,” according to Poole-Jones.

“I think she is so revolutionary in terms of at a time when women were so boxed in, she decides she’s not really going to put up with that and kind of goes her own way in the subject matter that she chooses and sort of the life she decides to lead,” Poole-Jones said.

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