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PUTTING LIGHT INTO THE DARK SPACES


Women painters were not always granted friendly acceptance by the male artistic community. In fact their efforts were often viewed as a curiosity. Artemisia Gemtileschi was a 15th century woman painter best known for her specialty of painting strong and suffering women. As it turned out, she had a good reason for doing so.

Born in Rome in 1593, she learned to paint alongside her father Orazio Gentileschi who tutored her and recognized her genius. When she showed promise at the age of 17, he engaged another painter, Agostino Tassi, to tutor her privately. Handsome and charismatic, Tassi was interested in more than teaching Artimesia to better her painting skills, and after much harassment by him and by other artists in his studio, Tassi raped her. As she was a virginal teenager, this enraged her father on many levels, as her reputation was ruined and she was no longer considered marriageable.

Artimesia’s mother had died when she was 12 and she had no female influence in her life. Her father rented an upstairs apartment to a woman tenant, Tuzia. Though Artimesia befriended Tuzia, on the day of the rape when she screamed for help, Tuzia ignored her cries. Later Artimesia’s work contained a strong sense of solidarity and unity between women, something that Artimesia had not found in real life, but showed a great longing for this kind of relationship.

Suzanna & the Elders, Artemisia Gentileschi
“Judith and The Elders” This painting may have been done before the rape during the period she was being sexually harrassed by Tassi and his friends.

After the rape, Tassi promised to marry her, but reneged on his promise, and was brought to trial by Artimesia’s angry father. During the ensuing seven month trial, it was discovered that Tassi was planning to murder his wife, whom he had acquired by rape, and had an adulterous relationship with his sister-in-law. He also had plans to steal some paintings from Orazio’s home.

A transcript of the infamous seven month court trial still exists, showing that Tassi was found guilty and was given the choice of five years hard labor or exile from Rome. He chose the latter, but he was back in Rome within four months, probably due to influence in high places. The trial influenced the feminist view of Artemisia Gentileschi during the late twentieth century, and she was rediscovered by modern feminists. She painted many pictures of strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible, and made it her speciality to paint the Judith story. Judith Beheading Holofernes showing the decapitation of Holofernes, shows very well her feeling toward her rapist.
She was criticized for painting bloody and sadistic paintings, notwithstanding her opportunity to show the unfairness of men toward her victimization. Her rebellion was duly noted and condemned.

That she was a woman painting in the fifteenth century and that she was raped and then participated in prosecuting the rapist, long overshadowed her achievements as an artist. Notwithstanding, today she is regarded as one of the most progressive artists of her generation.

Judith slaying---ArtemesisG.
“Judith Beheadidng Holofernes” The painting displays a strong sense of solidarity between women.

A month after he trial, Orazio arranged for a marriage for his daughter to Pierantonio Stiattesi, an uninspired artist from Florence, who it turned out was more interested in gambling than in painting. They returned to Rome ten years after the court case had mostly been forgotten by the general public. It was never forgotten by Artimesia.

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PART TWO

There are many great women artists I grant you, but why are there not more of them represented on the walls of our museums? Being an artist and having had a lifetime of being female, I have given this a lot of thought.

Being an artist is a career choice which takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. This is after a woman overcomes the male perception of the traditional role of women, which is as the guardian of hearth and home. At first women artists kept busy making needlepoint flowers, weaving, china painting, etc. These things made the house look better, so they were OK occupations.

The fact is also that the raising of children takes a tremendous amount of time and energy and doesn’t leave a ton of free time during which the brain is bursting with creativity. Women are also good at nurturing their husbands, making it possible for him to concentrate on art or whatever his profession may be.

Michelangelo had somebody to cook his meals, Rubens”wives darned his stockings so that he looked good while getting all those commissions. Gauguin had females taking care of his every need. And we know all about that. He left his wife and family and lounged around in the South Sea sunshine. Even Van Gogh was jealous of that.

It’s a matter of choices. A female artist can take care of other people or concentrate on art. It’s impossible to do both and reach the comparative level of famous male artists.

Rosa Bonheur had no children, no husband. Mary Cassatt, no children, no husband and an independent income. Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t have children, and her husband actively promoted her career. Grandma Moses was a Johnny-Come-Lately.

As far as “serious” art was concerned, it involved perhaps painting nudity, which of course was totally unsuitable. An artist, male or female, was considered a bit eccentric, and some people are uncomfortable with that.

Nevertheless, we are grateful for the women who persevered and have given us the privilege of sharing in their dreams

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17 comments on “PUTTING LIGHT INTO THE DARK SPACES

  1. Absolutely fascinating story, Kayti. How gruesome and powerful the beheading painting is. Take that! – anybody who thinks women can’t convey brutality and strength in art. Reading this reminded me of the movie “Mozart’s Sister.” A different form of art but the same squelching of her talent. She was not allowed to fulfill her lifelong dream of composing. And today’s movie “Big Eyes” with the husband taking credit for the artist’s work.

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    • I didn’t see the Mozart’s Sister movie or Big Eyes (yet) but it’s too comon a story both in the arts and in business. I remember taking a small grandson with me when I went to my female doctor. He told me that “girls can’t be doctors”! Another time he told me that girls can’t drive tractors when we saw someone working in a field. Now where did he get that?

      They may crow about equality in pay and praise our female CEO’s, but the majority of men look at them as an anomaly. We had a woman City Manager a few years ago, and while giving her opinion at a Council meeting, a man got up , shook his finger in her face and shouted “You’re nothing but a little woman!”

      I am fortunate in having a husband who is proud of the women today and realizes that we were given brains too!

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  2. Yes, darning socks and needle work. At time it seems a cruel fate to be born a woman. I did get a sense of due justice being served looking at the painting of the beheading and the look on the faces of the beheaders confirmed this. Brilliant work of art.
    It gives little joy for knowing that mainly men also become fodder during warrings.
    In Australia there are many great women artists including painters and writers and there is a shift in a recognition of both sexes being equally capable of creativity.
    ( I have darned my own socks, hope this helps) 😉

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    • Unfortunately it is true that mainly men are sent off to war, but at least today things are changing somewhat. I longed to join the Navy against my father’s wishes, though he relented when I joined the R.O.T.C. during the War.

      Now about those sox. I am so happy that you are darning your own. When I married my mother in law told me I should not darn my husband’s socks, which is what her own mother-in-law had told her on her wedding day. I took it to heart, and though I have knitted many pairs of socks I have yet to darn one.

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    • Yes gerard, but you forgot to mention than in Australia the minister for women is Tony Abbott, a hopeless man.

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  3. A great story, passionately told. I haven’t seen the Judith painting before. It’s even more powerful than the beheading. xx

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  4. Given the nature of the story of Judith and Holophernes, I’m not surprised Artimesia chose that as one of her subjects. It’s remarkably appropriate. It’s also worth remembering that Judith’s cleverness was as responsible for the dénoument as her courage. It’s no wonder she’s been celebrated as she has.

    I agree completely with your point about the need to make choices. As I like to say from time to time, it may be true that we can “have it all.” but we surely can’t have it all at the same time. When I hear someone say there are no limits in life, I just laugh. Time and energy are the least of it. There are limits all around.

    I’ve been remembering one of the women I knew in South Texas. She married a direct descendent of the fellow who built the first house at Indianola, even before the immigrants showed up. She was well into her nineties when I met her, and all the single guys in their 70s and 80s were after her. She’d sit out on her porch, with her books and her journals, and laugh about it. “No, ma’am,” she’d say. “I had forty years picking up after a man, and I’ll not be doing any more of that. I got things to do.” Being comfortable enough to make that kind of choice is wonderful.

    Of course, the other side of the acceptance coin is tokenism. I’ve had experience with being put forward for this or that only because I was a woman, and I’ll have no more of that, thank you very much.

    Joan Didion, Georgia O’Keeffe, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor: all women with a very clear sense of where they were going, and what would be required of them to get there. All of them have been described as “hard” women. It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but it was.

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  5. One of my favorite sayings is “having done it once, why would anyone want to do it again?” In my case, I have worked hard making a great husband, I haven’t the time or inclination to do it again. My Dad used to say “Having driven a Cadillac, why would I want to drive a Ford?”

    I laughed thinking of the old lady in South Texas, sitting on her porch fending off her suitors.

    As a sculptor, often working in a foundry with men who sometimes weren’t too friendly, I have had experience sticking up for my rights. When buying or using a piece of equipment, I’ve had men ask if it were for “my husband”. It tends to make you a bit testy on occasion.

    It’s important to keep a sense of humor. After all, they’re only men.

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  6. Sent from my iPad

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  7. Very interesting. Frida Kahlo was also childless. I guess though it is not just in art that women have been absent but in all walks of life. I believe that over the coming years that is going to change or at least be where it should , equalised.

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    • I agree. Look at how many women CEO’s there are today of large companies. There were more women phd’s graduated from University of California last year than men. It’s a step in the right direction. Women’s Lib was never about being better, just equal. Women just need to lose that Barbie Doll persona the movies try to perpetuate.

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