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  • Guest Writer

Thursdays in Black: Artemisia Gentileschi

Words by Dinah Symons (she/her)


CW: discussion of sexual abuse.

Artemisia Gentileschi burrowed into my heart when I discovered her two years ago, in ARTH 101. A trailblazing feminist icon, her successful career as a painter in 17th century Rome—unprecedented for women at this time—is characterised by revolutionary subject matter. In her dramatic reimaginings of traditional historical and mythological narratives, Gentileschi tears down the male gaze that dominated her visual world, inserting female voice and agency.  

 

Two paintings, both titled Susanna and the Elders, voice Gentileschi’s strong campaign for women’s sexual rights. They respond to the Old Testament story of a woman (Susanna) who is spied on and approached by two men (the Elders) whilst bathing in her garden. After she refuses their sexual advances, the Elders accuse her of adultery. Previously objectifying and villainizing portrayals of Susanna by male artists, such as Cesari Giuseppe or Otavio Leonni, arrange Susanna’s nude body for the pleasure of the viewers. She nonchalantly brushes her hair or washes herself in a nearby pond whilst staring seductively from the canvas at the target—male—audience. Her unaffected behaviour in the Elders presence insinuates that she is the villain in this story, responsible for leading the Elders on, which leads to her trial. 

 

Gentileschi refuses this portrayal. She paints from Susanna’s perspective, rather than the lusting Elders, and shifts the focus of the story to her plight. In her first work, from 1610, Susanna grimaces, contorting her body away from the men and shielding herself with her hands. Gentileschi properly conveys Susanna’s discomfort at the Elders violating presence. The third painting, from 1652, shifts focus completely from Susanna’s now covered body to her rejection of the objectifying gazes of the men on the canvas, and those viewing it. Looking the Elders in the eye and holding a hand out to stop their advances, she forces them to acknowledge her as a human being.


These paintings speak to all audiences, and they are as relevant and powerful now as they were 400 years ago. With her first Susanna she asks her viewers to rethink what sexual violence looks like. With her second Susanna she turns her female subject, and viewers, into people with sexual rights, agency and responsibility. Both artworks disrupt patriarchal narratives and constructions of women by asserting female voice and power. 


Both are (in my humble opinion) artistically beautiful, just like the rest. The strength of the visual language Gentileschi speaks lies in the way she speaks it. Her female characters inhabit the canvas with force, emotion and energy; they are animated by a dynamic use of light, colour and form. I encourage anyone who is interested to go explore and admire what Gentileschi has to say.  

 



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