‘Artemisia’: Artistic License With an Artist


The controversy over the storyline in the biographical film “Artemisia,” an independent movie currently in release and directed by French filmmaker Agnes Merlet, is probably lost on most people. Beyond the community of art historians and connoisseurs, few people have even heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, the first major female painter in the history of Western art, much less learned the particulars of her life. So here they are.

Generally known simply as Artemisia, she was born in Rome in 1593. The daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a minor Baroque painter who once borrowed a pair of swan’s wings from Caravaggio, Artemisia showed a talent for painting at a young age, so when she reached the age of 17 her father hired his friend, Agostina Tassi--also a minor Baroque painter--to train her.

Tassi promptly raped her, Orazio pressed charges, and Tassi--who’d previously been sued for raping and impregnating his sister-in-law, and is said to have paid for the murder of his own wife--was tried and convicted of the crime in 1612. He served eight months in prison.


A month after the conclusion of the trial, Artemisia married a wealthy Florentine named Pietro Stiattesi and gave birth to a daughter, but the marriage soon ended. She subsequently studied in Rome--possibly disguised as a man--and lived out her life as an independent woman who ran her own workshop in Naples, where she died in 1652.


Approximately 40 of Artemisia’s paintings have survived, the best known of which is “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” which was completed in 1613 and hangs in the Uffizi in Florence. Depicting two middle-aged women sawing a man’s head off with a calm serenity better suited to the rolling of pastry dough, the painting was completed shortly after the rape trial and has been interpreted as an expression of Artemisia’s rage at the crime.

The transcript of the trial has been published, and in it Artemisia testified repeatedly--under oath and while being tortured--that she had been raped. She described the event in graphic detail and recounted that she’d wounded Tassi with a knife in resisting him. Merlet nonetheless said in a recent interview that “no one speaks the truth before the law” and has chosen in her film to reinterpret the episode as a torrid love story between Tassi and Artemisia.

A coalition of feminists led by Gloria Steinem and art historian Mary Garrard have circulated a letter of protest against the film. First on their list of grievances is the fact that the film focuses on Artemisia’s sex life rather than on her considerable achievements as an artist.

“Merlet has turned Artemisia’s life into just another hot pillow story,” says L.A. artist June Wayne, who is among those circulating the protest letter. “We never learn what her talents were because the film is a bodice-ripper that misses everything important about this woman--and aesthetically she did break ground.”

Says Garrard, whose 1989 book “Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art,” is the most in-depth study of the artist to date: “I was disgusted when I saw the film, and was upset by the fact that because so few people know anything about Artemisia, the film will be taken as a factual record of her life.

“Artemisia was the first female artist to paint large historical and religious pictures, subjects considered off-limits then to women, who were expected to confine themselves to the painting of small devotional pictures,” Garrard adds. “She favored narratives with female protagonists who were often depicted nude. The first time I saw one of her works--it was a piece called ‘Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting’--I immediately recognized that she’d done something quite complex: She’d interwoven the traditions of allegorical painting and portraiture. That strategy allowed her to subvert that up to that point, women had functioned as allegories rather than characters in painting.”

Steinem points out that while she’s no art historian, “it’s obvious what happened to Artemisia when you read the transcript of her rape trial, and the film distorts all the basic known facts of her life. It depicts Artemisia as being obsessed with painting male nudes, when she never painted a male nude in her life. It turns Tassi, who was a third-rate artist at best, into someone talented enough to elicit the envy of Artemisia’s father.

“It transforms a woman who underwent torture in an effort to be believed about a rape into someone who fell in love with her rapist,” Steinem continues. “It turns a rapist who allowed her to undergo torture into someone who can’t bear to see her tortured. In court, Tassi accused Artemisia of having had sex with her father and, in an effort to malign her character, produced letters she’d supposedly written to other men. She was unable to write.”

Counters Merlet: “The trial was complex and open to interpretation. It’s known that the initial sex between Artemisia and Tassi was violent, but after that there was a love affair that lasted a year. There is a record that she visited Tassi in prison, and there are many points in the trial that suggest there was feeling between them. Of course, we can only speculate on what actually took place four centuries ago.”

Garrard disputes Merlet’s claims, and says that there is no evidence of a love affair between the two. Moreover, if Merlet’s film is based on speculation, why didn’t she simply create a fictional story?

“Because I wanted to express my point of view on Artemisia’s story,” Merlet says. “I consider myself a feminist and think this is a feminist film that portrays Artemisia as someone who fought to be accorded the same rights as an artist that male artists had then. The film is also about Artemisia’s initiation into the world of sexuality, and that knowledge was central to her art. Everything mixed together in her life, and that’s what interested me.”

Says Steinem: “If directors want to do ‘interpretive’ film biographies, they shouldn’t present them as true stories. Obviously, directors must be allowed to take poetic license with the details of events that occurred centuries ago, but with the core of the story, they have a responsibility to be faithful to what actually happened.”