Many art historians “build a sort of feminist box around her,” Lev said.
“And the feminist box has no time for anything Christian, overlooking the fact that this is a young woman who is working in the heart of Counter-Reformation art. Art patrons in that period are all on board with the Counter-Reformation.”
The Counter-Reformation, also called the Catholic Reformation, was the Catholic Church’s effort to revive and truly reform Catholicism in Europe following the Protestant Reformation.
One of the Church’s many reforms during this period was a renewed effort toward funding the creation of sacred art, especially in the face of Protestants' iconoclasm, the destruction of religious images.
Artemisia’s career first took off in the Medici court in Florence, “where you have a circle of people who are deeply involved in the Church’s Catholic response to the Reformation,” Lev said.
Reforming the Church through art and beauty “is a very, very important thing to the Church” at this time. Patrons continue to commission art “in the face of the Protestant iconoclasm,” but the art they commission “can’t be part of the problem, it has to be part of the solution,” she explained.
“You need to find artists who make works of art that are inspiring, that are exciting, that are stimulating, that are new, but that are also directing the correct message in an extremely difficult time” for the Church.
One of the reasons Artemisia was so successful is because this is, in fact, what she did, Lev explained: “She’s not going to be successful in Italy if she’s producing art about how much she hates the Catholic Church.”
“And I think it’s very foolish, arrogant, and generally, not very critical, to assume that Artemisia Gentileschi is succeeding in producing all these works that are anti-Church and selling them to Church patrons.”
Despite her success, Artemisia was only “in the second generation of women breaking into art,” Lev noted, “so it's a struggle no matter how you look at it.”
(Story cotinues below)
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This is why Caravaggio’s “innovative view, his light/dark contrast, his sense of struggle, his intense graphic passion, would appeal to her, and be kind of attractive as an art form.”
Artemisia’s paintings are also compared to Caravaggio’s in their treatment of the human form, chiefly the female: Artemisia’s women are portrayed less idealistically than many of Caravaggio’s. (Though Caravaggio himself was innovative in this respect.)
“But when you put one of her works next to Caravaggio’s works, you’ll see, that particularly in draftsmanship of hands and of anatomy, she’s superior,” Lev said, noting Artemisia’s considerable skill.
Because Artemisia was a follower of Caravaggio, it is interesting to note both their similarities and their differences. For example, it is common to compare the artists’ depictions of the Old Testament story of Judith beheading Holofernes.
In Caravaggio’s, Judith is “beautiful, she’s drop-dead gorgeous,” Lev said. The Judith by Artemisia, on the other hand, “is far puffier,” which is a more realistic representation of how women looked in the 16th century, since their diets were mainly composed of starch and sugar.
Additionally, the posture of the two Judiths differs. In Artemisia’s, the nurse is helping to hold down Holofernes, and Judith has her knee up on the bed, one arm visibly restraining him, the other struggling to cut his neck with the sword. Artemisia’s is also far messier, with blood spraying everywhere.