The art of the Renaissance is often considered to have the most recognizable pieces and artists. However, the list of Renaissance painters, sculptors, and architects is dominated by men and their creations. Only a handful of women of the Renaissance period gained some recognition. One of these women is Artemisia Gentileschi, a Renaissance painter from Italy, whose portraits and paintings allowed her to become the first female member of the Italian Academia of Art and Design. Some modern scholars describe the works of Artemisia Gentileschi as examples of early feminism, noting that the themes and visuals in her paintings are different from those of male artists.
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One study, written, by Conn (2015), focuses on self-portraits of this artist in order to show that themes in the works of Gentileschi were not accidental. In fact, the researcher describes that this painter intended to show the position of a female artist in a community ruled by men. While other historians usually focus on other works of Gentileschi, exploring the feminist notions in paintings that depict various scenes and persons, Conn (2015) devoted her attention to studying self-portraits of Gentileschi. Self-portraits of Artemisia Gentileschi represent the position of female painters in the Renaissance period and show that early feminism focused not only on domestic themes but also on women’s place in the professional world.
Conn (2015) writes that the popularity of female painters during the Renaissance period was tarnished by contemporary critics, who viewed art by female creators as a non-serious endeavor. In fact, many individuals paid more attention to the physical features of female artists, undermining their works. According to Conn (2015), many female painters of that period felt the need to create self-portraits where they would show themselves during work.
Such actions show that women wanted to be recognized as professionals and not models for somebody else’s work. Feminist scholars often concentrate on one of the most famous paintings of Gentileschi, called Judith Slaying Holofernes. Truly, this work depicts a scene that many researchers may consider to be a part of a powerful feminist narrative. However, this painting focuses on personal relationships between women and men, while Gentileschi’s portraits and self-portraits show women in a different light. The significance of self-portrayal is often overlooked for artists that are famous for paintings filled with action. However, the way artists view themselves can reveal a lot about them.
Themes, prevalent in early feminism, often revolved around domestic or recreational topics, as women were not expected to participate in such areas of life as politics, art, or physical labor. Therefore, most scenes with women showed them as beautiful maidens. Moreover, painters often used a female figure as a symbol or an abstract idea. Conn (2015) notes that while portraying female artists, some of the authors painted “the tools — a brush and palette … near the figure, but not in use” (p. 25). Thus, a woman was not seen in action, which allowed the critics to interpret such paintings as visual representations of female artists being focused on their own beauty. Gentileschi, on the other hand, portrayed herself during work, with a brush in hand, which showed her professional side. Her way of depiction allowed other women to see that they can also participate in such activities. Moreover, with these self-portraits, Gentileschi placed herself alongside other painters, establishing her place in the art world. While Gentileschi earned recognition through various paintings, her self-portraits should also be considered a part of early feminist history as they show how a female artist of the Renaissance established her place in the world of male painters.
Conn, V. L. (2015). The personal is the political: Artemisia Gentileschi’s revolutionary self-portrait as the allegory of painting. Kaleidoscope, 8(1), 23-29.