#MeToo: Survival and Female Empowerment in the Art of Artemisia Gentileschi
From Hollywood predators to Silicon Valley sexism, aren't we all just disgusted by the tidal wave of stories of harassment and prejudice against women? Or, are we finally at a point where the levies of gender inequality and abuse are finally at a healthy breaking point; where women are ready to talk and not stay silent. Are we embarking on a new era of real female empowerment? I hope so for myself and my teen daughter, and I love how actress Alyssa Milano got this dialogue really going with her hashtag #MeToo.
Of course the abuse and repression of women has happened throughout history. I'm reminded of a rare female artist of the 17th century who was the victim of sexual violence and yet rose above it to find success as a painter with clients that included the famous Medici Family as well as King Charles I of England.
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque period painter. Since her father was an artist, she had access to a talented teacher, a privilege since most women aspiring to be artists in that era had no avenues to follow to grow their talent. However at the age of 17, Gentileschi was raped by another painter hired to tutor her. In a rare instance of justice, her father pressed charges leading to a court case that would end up with the attacker fleeing town.
Her most iconic work is Judith Slaying Holofernes (above). It's interesting that Gentileschi gravitated toward this biblical subject more than once, focusing on a strong story of female heroism. Without holding back one bit with the grisly details, Gentileschi chooses to concentrate her painting on the moment when Judith, an Israelite whose people were being persecuted by the Assyrians led by a general named Holofernes, exacts revenge by decapitating her abuser after her attempted seduction. Notice how in control Judith is as she and her maidservant hold down Holofernes, positions of power reversed, his head in the center of the composition so we can all find satisfaction in watching his demise, eyes having a glazed expression as blood exits the arteries in a violent burst. Needless to say, this painting and its artist have been a favorite subject of feminist scholars. Some say Judith herself may be a self-portrait of Gentileschi. Fascinating.
That's the power of art. Most of us have stories; let's keep talking. I welcome your comments below.
Image (top of post): Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610-11 (Schloss Weissenstein, Germany) (Yep, another biblical subject of sexual harassment!)