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Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), Artemisia Gentileschi | Arts & Activities
Aug 2015

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), Artemisia Gentileschi

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), Artemisia Gentileschi

DETAIL: Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian; 1593–1653). Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), 1638. Oil on canvas; 38″ × 29″.The Royal Collection, Cumberland Art Gallery, Presence Chamber, Hampton Court Palace. Public Domain.

Women Artists


Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653) was the most celebrated female painter of her time. Born in Rome to Orazio, a painter, and Prudentia Montone, the young Artemisia learned her trade at her father’s side. Growing up in the household of Orazio offered Gentileschi the chance to hone her skills and to mingle with the likes of Caravaggio, who was a friend of her father’s.

In 1610, the young painter completed her first signed work, Susanna and the Elders. Gentileschi’s interpretation of the biblical story of Susanna’s sexual coercion is haunting and brutally honest. Depicting the teenage Susanna naked, she recoils from the advances of the two leering, much older men.

Her interest in female heroines from history and religion would become the through-line of her career. “The younger Gentileschi’s work … is distinctive in its focus on powerful heroines, capturing both their vulnerability and strength, a feature many attribute to events in Gentileschi’s own life.” (Source: artic.edu)

Two years later, Gentileschi accused her father’s friend, painter and tutor Agostino Tassi of rape. (He was ultimately found guilty, but suffered no punishment.) That same year, she married Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi and relocated to Florence. She gave birth to a daughter, and also came under the patronage of Duke Cosimo de’Medici II, working on many commissions before returning to Rome after the duke’s death.

As her marriage began to crumble, Gentileschi became a single mother and went about the tasks of raising her daughter and furthering her career. In 1620 she painted her masterpiece, Judith Slaying Holofernes (page 22). This gruesome, frighteningly realistic work depicts the Jewish heroine in the act of decapitating her enemy. Her Judith is strong, decisive and steely as she dispatches Holofernes. The use of chiaroscuro, certainly influenced by Caravaggio and well as her father, heightens the drama of the scene.

In 1626, she relocated to Naples, and then in 1631 joined her father to paint in the court of King Charles I of England. She returned to Naples in 1641, where she lived until her death in 1652.

The professional success that she experienced was a rarity, and came with a price. “She was both praised and disdained by contemporary critical opinion, recognized as having genius, yet seen as monstrous because she was a woman exercising a creative talent thought to be exclusively male.” (Source: arthistoryarchive.com) Whether disdained of praised, there was no doubt of her fame. She was the first woman ever admitted into the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno in Florence, and a commemorative portrait medal made between 1625 and 1630 acknowledges her acclaim with the simple phrase, “Pictrix Celebris” (celebrated woman painter).


By the time that Artemisia Gentileschi moved to England to work alongside her father in the court of King Charles I, she was something of an art star. While in the court, she most probably painted this month’s Art Print, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura).

Executed in oil and measuring approximately 40″ x 29.5″, this self-portrait operates on two levels. The first is as a straightforward allegory: the woman in the picture is not Gentileschi, but the representation of the act of painting. The second is all about her: strong, confident, skilled and not afraid to show it.

“She holds a brush in one hand and a palette in the other, cleverly identifying herself as the female personification of painting—something her male contemporaries could never do.” (Source: www.royalcollection.org.uk) It matters not what she is painting, but that she is painting.

From The September 2015 Issue Of Arts & Activities

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