Saturday, April 22, 2017

Artemisia Gentileschi's Strong Women in a World of Men

Artemisia Gentileschi is an intriguing figure and I believe an unusual artist for the time she lived in. Gentileschi, a well-known female artist, was a 17th century Baroque painter who lived in a time where women were viewed as the weaker sex and who only existed for men and for their consumption. 17th century Europe was dominated by male artists and their portrayal of women usually reflected the view of the time. What was distinct and unusual about Artemisia Gentileschi was that not only she was one of the few female artists during that time period, she also portrayed women in very different way than the male artists around her. In my curatorial exhibit you we be able to clearly see this contrast between the way men portray women and how Artemisia portrays women. While Artemisia portrays women as strong and clever people who can achieve their own ends, the male artists in this exhibit over-sexualize women and portray them as weak. The uniqueness of Artemisia Gentileschi’s portrayal of women can be seen in the exhibit’s center-piece: Esther Before Ahasuerus. At first glance this seems to contradict the fact that Gentileschi stands out from the male artists of the that because Esther seems weak, but as you read through my analysis of this piece you will see that this is quite the opposite She is in fact being portrayed as someone who is strong. The sharp contrast between theme of strong women in Gentileschi’s paintings and theme of passive and oversexualized women in the male artists’ paintings can be clearly seen as you look through the exhibit.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Esther Before Ahasuerus,date unknown, oil on canvas, Accession Number: 69.281
Gentileschi’s Esther Before Ahasuerus, is the centerpiece of this exhibit and is a fine example of the strength Gentileschi portrayed in women. Unlike Gentileschi’s male peers, who would choose to depict women as fainting to portray female “weakness” ,Gentileschi chooses to depict Esther as fainting or swooning in order to show Esther’s cleverness not weakness. Esther, the woman in the mustard-colored dress, is fainting to achieve the goal of having King Ahasuerus, the young man, do want what she wants him to do, not because she is scared or weak. Though this piece is a more subtle portrayal of strength because it displays Esther’s strength in her cleverness not in her physical strength, it is still unique because it contrasts heavily from the portrayal of weakness and passivity that can be in the women depicted by male artist during that time.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599-1602, Nazionale d' Arte Antica 

Though Caravaggio’s painting is a depiction of a violent narrative, he chooses to portray Judith, the young woman who is beheading Holofernes, as weak, though you would expect her to be strong. One way that Caravaggio displays this weakness is through Judith’s facial expression which communicates that is unsure about what she is doing. The way she has distance herself from Holofernes as much as she can, also communicates that she does not have conviction. Caravaggio, through Judith’s lack of conviction, is communicating that Judith is weak. Why would a narrative of a strong woman would be portrayed as weak? Why would not look more like Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes which depicts Judith as strong? The reason is that Caravaggio was depicting women the way the culture at the time and probably him believed what women by nature were like: weak.  

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1614-20, oil on canvas, National Museum of Capodimonte
Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes is a much more aggressive and violent portrayal of the same narrative Caravaggio’s was depicting in his Judith Beheading Holofernes. The reason for this is because Caravaggio is communicating that Judith, a woman, is weak while Gentileschi is communicating that Judith is a violently strong woman. One way Gentileschi communicates this strength is by having Judith forcefully holding the head of Holofernes so he cannot escape from her beheading him, unlike Caravaggio’s Judith who just grasps at Holofernes’ hair. Unlike Caravaggio’s Judith who is does not have much conviction when beheading Holofernes, Gentileschi’s Judith is using more of her body because she has more conviction. All these differences demonstrate Gentileschi’s uniqueness in her portrayal of women. The same narrative was portrayed in very different ways, while Caravaggio was following in the steps of other male artists when portraying women, Gentileschi stirred away from that and portrayed women as strong.

Peter Paul Rubens, Leda and the Swan, 1598-1602, Oil on wood, Fogg Art Museum

Unlike Gentileschi, Peter Paul Rubens portrays the female body as something that is solely sexual. Rubens portrays this woman in the painting as naked,not nude, by drawing attention to her sexuality, and not dignifying and glorifying this woman’s body.  Rubens uses the swan that is lying on top of her to draw attention to her sexual organs. Another way Ruben communicates that this woman is only sexual is by having her passively lying down. By displaying the woman’s sexuality this way he is communicating that this woman is only there for men’s sexual consumption. This heavily contrast from Gentileschi’s paintings which communicates that women are strong and clever and are much more than sexual beings.

Artemisia Gentileschi ,Jael and Sisera, 1620, oil on canvas,  Museum of Fine Arts of Budapest
Like Judith Slaying Holofernes, Jael and Sisera Gentileschi uses a violent narrative to portray women as strong. Though no actually evidence of violence is seen in this piece we know as viewers that something violent is about to happen. Gentileschi displays strength in Jael the women about to kill Sisera (the man lying down), by having her firmly grip the nail and the hammer. By having her do this Gentileschi is communicating Jael having conviction in what she is doing. In this conviction we can see Jael’s strength. Another way Gentileschi displays strength is by having Jael using her whole body to kill Sisera. Again this communicates strength and conviction. Unlike many male artists at this time who portrayed women as passive, Gentileschi is portraying women as people who have the full capacity to do something that requires much strength and conviction.

Nicolas Poussin, The Abduction of the Sabine Women, most likely 1633–34, oil on canvas, Accession Number: 46.160

In Poussin’s The Abduction of Sabine Women, the Sabine women are being forcibly being taken by Roman soldiers. Poussin portrays weakness in the Sabine women by having them not fighting back, unlike in the Sabine men who are fighting back. One example of not fighting back is seen in the woman in the blue dress on the left side of the painting. Though a Roman soldier is holding on to her, she has her hands up instead using them to try to escape from the Roman’s arms. Unlike Gentileschi’s women who use strength physical or mental to achieve their ends, the women in Poussin’s painting are barely do anything to escape the Romans who are trying to kidnap them. Like many of the male artist at that time, Poussin depict women as weak and passive people. 

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