Artemisia Gentileschi is one of my favorite artists, and I have been waiting for the Baroque section in this class so that I could examine her work. Gentileschi is widely known as one of the most progressive painters of her generation, although during her life she was viewed merely as a curiosity. Her work is heavily influenced by the work of Caravaggio, as her father Orazio Gentileschi was celebrated follower of Caravaggio himself (Gunnell, 1993). Much of her early work was attributed to her father, because it was assumed that a seventeen-year-old girl could not create such realistic images as seen in her work Susannah and the Elders.
Gentileschi’s life was beset by trauma at a young age and difficulty in the years that followed, and it is recognized that being raped in her young adulthood by a painter in her father’s studio shaped the subject matter of her most famous works. They are uncomfortable, brutal, violent, and often show powerful Biblical heroines. Gentileschi’s talents earned her the patronage of the Medici family in Florence, and admission into the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts (Brooklyn Museum). The retelling of Biblical scenes from a woman’s perspective gives a unique twist on the Counter-Reformation efforts from the Council of Trent, which decreed that religious stories must have clarity, be realistic and convey intense emotion to inspire believers.
While the obvious choice for an Artemisia Gentileschi analysis would be Judith Beheading Holofernes (which is an amazing work), I have chosen The Annunciation for the purpose of contrasting Baroque technique and composition to that of the Renaissance masters.
The Annunciation (1630), Artemisia Gentileschi
The Annunciation is an iconic scene from Biblical stories, in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, telling her that she will be the mother of Christ. This story was painted over and over again in antiquity, but the way that Baroque painters captured the story always captivates my interest in turn.
The hallmarks of Baroque-era paintings are tenebrism, which is the extreme contrast of light and dark values. This technique and composition choice forces the subjects foreground of the image for a direct focus, where the hyper-realistic rendering of the painting feels almost as if you can touch it. Note the extreme realism in the folds on Gabriel’s sleeve; I can almost feel the soft texture of the fabric. The intense dark values in the background of the image only serve to make the foreground scene even more dramatic. This treatment of light gives Baroque art the theatrical quality that we attribute to the era.
Another composition trait of Baroque art is diagonal lines. There are a few in Gentileschi’s The Annunciation, some actual and some inferred. Gabriel’s outstretched arms create a line from top to bottom of the space, leading the viewer’s eye from the heavenly part in the clouds down to the bottom part of the space, where his hand overlaps Mary’s space. Lines of sight are inferred: Gabriel and Mary are looking at each other, and the disembodied cherubs in the air are looking at Mary.
Cestello Anunciation (1489), Sandro Botticelli. The contrast of Renaissance master works, which we have so closely analyzed, is strong when put next to a Baroque painting! Botticelli sought realism with the humanist and classical ideas of the Renaissance, but note the overall harmony of this painting versus Gentileschi’s. The color palette is more muted, with little contrast in the values compared to Gentileschi. The expressions are calm, if even serene. While the foreground figures are rendered with particular care to make them look three-dimensional, but the transition of values is more subtle than a Baroque painting. The background is also fully rendered, giving us as much information as possible about the setting of the painting, not just the particular illuminated moment in time.
For those who are more interested in Gentileschi’s life and work and also interested in gender studies, Gentileschi was given a place setting at the installation The Dinner Party (1979) by Judy Chicago. Chicago arranged and decorated Gentileschi’s place setting drawing similarities between the artist’s subject matter.