Hand of Baroque female painter grabs students’ attention

Art history professor Katherine Poole-Jones lectured about the willful hand of painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-portrait image above of the Baroque artist provided by Poole-Jones.

Seventeenth-century Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi once wrote to her patron and supporter Don Antonio Ruffo, “And I will show your Most Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do… you will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman.”

Art history professor Katherine Poole-Jones said she considers Gentileschi to be an early feminist, presenting her female subjects with dignity and power, in direct contrast to her male contemporaries.

Poole-Jones presented about Gentileschi’s unique portrayal of heroines in a discussion at Founder’s Hall that she led last week for a Women’s Studies event.

“She (Gentileschi) tends to show women that are more psychologically complex; women that are active; women who are realistic in terms of the way their body is portrayed and not idealized,” Poole-Jones said.

In general, for women of the time even to become an artist was very hard to do, Poole-Jones said. They weren’t allowed to be trained in workshops or enrolled at the academies.

“You would need to have a strong male figure in your life. It was almost always their father that trained them, as was the case with Artemisia who was taught by her father Orazio. Sometimes if they got married, a husband could also help,” Poole-Jones said. “Women faced a lot of cultural and institutional barriers that their male contemporaries didn’t.”

Poole-Jones added that it also would be considered unseemly for a woman to compete in the marketplace, which made selling their work and finding patronage quite difficult.

Gentileschi, rather, was quite revolutionary and broke bounds in deciding that she was not going to be limited.

For instance, Poole-Jones said there were ideas about what was appropriate for women to paint. Portraits and still life paintings were types of images that women were supposedly skilled at and were considered appropriate subject matter, but they were not allowed to paint nudes.

“Artemisia is interesting because she basically didn’t stand for that and made a career of painting the nude and painting strong Baroque women,” Poole-Jones said.

According to Poole-Jones, rather than painting wilting, weak and gingerly women, this Baroque feminist painted females who were purposeful and took control of situations.

For instance, women with strong and active hands – often with clenched fists – are characteristic of Artemisia’s heroines.

Such was the case in one of her most famous paintings, titled “Judith and Holofernes,” created shortly after she was the plaintiff in a public rape trial. Gentileschi had been raped by her painting teacher, Agostino Tassi, who refused to marry her. Gentileschi’s father took Tassi to court and the Gentileschis won the case. In the end however, Tassi was released from prison without serving his punishment of exile.

“Judith and Holofernes” is often seen as very biographical, but Poole-Jones believes it doesn’t need to be seen as so directly personal, it also can be understood as a more general, and perhaps even subconscious, reaction to her overall status as a woman and as a woman artist at this time.

“She lived as a woman in this world that undervalued women overall, and she couldn’t help but be touched by that or affected by that,” Poole-Jones said.

“Something about her story and her artwork really grabs people,” Poole-Jones said.  “And I’m really excited about her. I don’t think it hurts when you teach passionately (about a subject), it helps the students get really jazzed about it too. “


Be Sociable, Share!

Filed Under: Art and DesignWomen's Studies

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

Switch to our mobile site