She was one of the first female artists to paint historical and religious paintings, at a time when such heroic themes were considered beyond a woman's reach.
The first work of the young 17-year-old Artemisia (even if many at the time suspected that she was helped by her father) was the Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susanna and the Elders) (1610, Schönborn collection in Pommersfelden). The picture shows how Artemisia assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the language of the Bologna school (which had Annibale Carracci among its major artists).
In 1612, despite her early talent, Artemisia was denied access to the all-male professional academies for art. At the time, her father was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino della Rose inside the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace in Rome, so Orazio hired the Tuscan painter to tutor his daughter privately. During this tutelage, Tassi raped Artemisia. Even though Tassi initially promised to marry Artemisia in order to restore her reputation, he later reneged on his promise and Orazio reported Tassi to the authorities.
In the ensuing 7-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had enjoined in adultery with his sister-in-law and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. During the trial Artemisia was given a gynecological examination and was tortured using a device made of thongs wrapped around the fingers and tightened by degrees — a particularly cruel torture to a painter. Both procedures were used to corroborate the truth of her allegation, the torture device used due to the belief that if a person can tell the same story under torture as without it, the story must be true. At the end of the trial Tassi was imprisoned for one year. The trial has subsequently influenced the feminist view of Artemisia Gentileschi during the late 20th century.
The painting Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith beheading Holofernes) (1612 - 1613), displayed in the Capodimonte Museum of Naples, is impressive for the violence portrayed, and has been interpreted as a wish for psychological revenge for the violence Artemisia had suffered.
One month after the trial, in order to restore her honor, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. Shortly afterwards the couple moved to Florence, where Artemisia received a commission for a painting at Casa Buonarroti and became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the Medici family and Charles I. It has been proposed that during this period Artemisia also painted the Madonna col Bambino (The Virgin and Child), currently in the Spada Gallery, Rome.
While in Florence, Artemisia and Pierantonio had four sons and one daughter. But only the daughter, Prudenzia, survived to adulthood — following her mother's return to Rome in 1621 and later move to Naples. After her mother's death, Prudenzia slipped into obscurity and little is known of her subsequent life.
In Florence, Artemisia enjoyed huge success. She was the first woman accepted into the Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Drawing). She maintained good relations with the most respected artists of her time, such as Cristofano Allori, and to be able to conquer the favours and the protection of influential people, starting with Granduke Cosimo II de' Medici and especially of the Granduchess Cristina. She had a good relationship with Galileo Galilei with whom she remained in epistolary contact for a long time. She was esteemed by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger (nephew of the great Michelangelo): busy with construction of Casa Buonarroti to celebrate his notable relative, he asked Artemisia to produce a painting to decorate the ceiling of the gallery of paintings.
The painting represents an allegory of Allegoria dell'Inclinazione (Allegory of the Inclination (natural talent)), presented under the form of a young nude woman who holds a compass. It is believed that the subject bears a resemblance to Artemisia. Indeed, in several of her paintings, Artemisia's energetic heroines have a similar appearance to her self-portraits. Her success and gender fueled many rumours about her private life.
Notable works from this period include La Conversione della Maddalena (The Conversion of the Magdalene), and Giuditta con la sua ancella (Judith and her Maidservant), now in the Pitti Palace. Artemisia painted a second version of Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith beheading Holofernes), this one larger than the Naples version and now housed in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence.
Despite her success, due to an excess of expenses by her and her husband, the Florentine period was full of problems with creditors and with her husband. These problems led to her return to Rome in 1621.
Caravaggio's style, though the master had been dead over a decade, was still highly influential and converted many painters to his style (the so-called Caravaggisti) such as Artemisia's father, Carlo Saraceni (who returned to Venice 1620), Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Simon Vouet. However, painting styles in Rome during the early 17th century were diverse, a more classic manner of the Bolognese disciples of the Carracci and the baroque style of Pietro da Cortona.
It appears that Artemisia was also associated the Academy of the Desiosi. She was celebrated with a portrait carrying the incision "Pincturare miraculum invidendum facilius quam imitandum". In the same period she became friends with Cassiano dal Pozzo, a humanist, collector and lover of arts. However, despite her artistic reputation, her strong personality and her numerous good relationships, Rome was not as lucrative as she hoped. The appreciation of her art was narrowed down to portraits and to her ability with biblical heroines: she received none of the lucrative commissions for altarpieces. The absence of sufficient documentation makes it difficult to follow Artemisia's movements in this period. It is certain that between 1627 and as late as 1630 she moved to Venice, perhaps in search of richer commissions, as verses and letters were composed in appreciation of her and her works in Venice.
Although it is sometimes difficult to date her paintings, it is possible to assign to her these years the Ritratto di gonfaloniere (Portrait of Gonfaloniere), today in Bologna (a rare example of her capacity as portrait painter); the Giuditta con la sua ancella, (Judith and her Maidservant) today housed at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Detroit painting is notable for her mastery of chiaroscuro and tenebrism (the effect of extreme lights and darks), techniques for which Gerrit van Honthorst, Trophime Bigot, and many others in Rome were famous. Her Venere Dormiente (The Sleeping Venus), today at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, and her Ester ed Assuero (Esther and Ahasuerus) located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, are testimony of her assimilation of the lessons of Venetian luminism.
In Naples for the first time Artemisia started working on paintings in a cathedral, dedicated to San Gennaro nell'anfiteatro di Pozzuoli (Saint Januarius in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli) in Pozzuoli. During her first Neapolitan period she painted Nascita di San Giovanni Battista (Birth of Saint John the Baptist) located in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and Corisca e il satiro (Corisca and the satyr), in a private collection. In these paintings Artemisia again demonstrates her ability to renew herself with the novelties of the period and handle different subjects, instead of the usual Judith, Susanna, Bathsheba, and Penitent Magdalenes, for which she was already known.
In 1638 Artemisia joined her father in London at the court of Charles I of England, where Orazio became court painter and received the important job of decorating a ceiling (allegory of Trionfo della pace e delle Arti (Triumph of the peace and the Arts) in the Casa delle Delizie of Queen Henrietta Maria of France in Greenwich. Father and daughter were once again working together, although helping her father was probably not her only reason for travelling to London: Charles I had convoked her in his court, and it was not possible to refuse. Charles I was a fanatical collector, willing to ruin public finances to follow his artistic wishes. The fame of Artemisia probably intrigued him, and it is not a coincidence that his collection included a painting of great suggestion, the Autoritratto in veste di Pittura ("Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting.").
Orazio suddenly died in 1639. Artemisia had her own commissions to fulfill after her father's death, although there are no known works assignable with certainty to this period. It is known that Artemisia had already left England by 1642, when the civil war was just starting. Nothing much is known about her subsequent movements. Historians know that in 1649 she was in Naples again, corresponding with Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily who became her mentor and good commitment during this second Neapolitan period. The last known letter to her mentor is dated 1650 and makes clear that she was still fully active. Artemisia was once thought to have died in 1653. Recent evidence, however, has shown that she was still accepting commissions in 1654--though increasingly dependent on her assistant, Onofrio Palumbo. Thus it might be speculated that she died in the devastating plague that swept Naples in 1656 and virtually wiped out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists.
A research paper of Roberto Longhi, an important Italian critic, dated 1916, named Gentileschi padre e figlia (Gentileschi father and daughter) described Artemisia as "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing and other fundamentals". Longhi also wrote of Judith Slaying Holofernes:
Who could think in fact that over a sheet so candid, a so brutal and terrible massacre could happen [...] but - it's natural to say - this is a terrible woman! A woman painted all this?... there's nothing sadistic here, instead what strikes the most is the impassibility of the painter, who was even able to notice how the blood, spurting with violence, can decorate with two drops the central spurt! Incredible I tell you! And also please give Mrs. Schiattesi - the conjugal name of Artemisia - the chance to choose the hilt of the sword! At last don't you think that the only aim of Giuditta is to move away to avoid the blood which could stain her dress? We think anyway that that is a dress of Casa Gentileschi, the finest wardrobe in the Europe during 600, after Van Dyck.
Feminist studies increased the interest towards Artemisia's artistic work and life. Such studies underlined her suffering of rape and subsequent mistreatment, and the expressive strength of her paintings of biblical heroines, in which the women are interpreted as willing to manifest their rebellion against their condition. In a research paper from the catalogue of the exhibition "Orazio e Artemisia Gentileschi" which took place in Rome in 2001 (and after in New York), Judith W. Mann gives a feminist opinion of Artemisia:
An opinion like that presupposes that the full creative potential of Artemisia is only about strong capable women, at the point that seems impossible to imagine her busy doing conventional religious images, like a Virgin Mary with a Baby or a virgin submissively waiting for the Annunciation; and besides it is said that the artist refused to modify her personal interpretation of those subjects to conform to the preferences of a client base presumably composed by males. The stereotype caused a double restrictive effect: it both induced the critics to doubt about the attribution of the paintings not corresponding to described model, and to give an inferior value to the ones not found on the cliché.
Due to the fact that Artemisia returned again and again to violent subject matter such as Judith and Holofernes, a repressed-vengeance theory is tempting. However, some art historians suggest that she was shrewdly playing on her fame from the rape trial to cater to a niche market in sexually-charged, female-dominate art for male patrons.
The most recent critic, starting from the difficult reconstruction of the entire catalogue of the Gentileschi, tried to give a less reductive reading of the career of Artemisia, placing it more accurately on the context of the different artistic environments in which the painter actively participated. A reading like this restores Artemisia as an artist who fought with determination, using the weapon of personality and of the artistic qualities, against the prejudices expressed against women painters; being able to introduce herself productively in the circle of the most respected painters of her time, embracing a series of pictorial genres which were probably more ample and varied than her paintings suggest.
Other female painters began their career while Artemisia was alive. Judged on their artistic merits, Longhi's statement that Artemisia was "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting" may be questioned, but there is no doubt that Artemisia continues to be among the most highly regarded of female artists, and has finally taken her place among the great artists of the Baroque.
The first writer who produced a novel around the figure of Artemisia was Anna Banti, wife of Roberto Longhi. Her first draft of the manuscript, dated 1944, was lost during the war. Three years later she started again with the book, to be called Artemisia, writing in a much different form. Banti's book is written in an "open diary" form, in which she maintains a dialogue with Artemisia, trying to understand why she finds her so fascinating.
More than 50 years later, in 1999, the French writer Alexandra Lapierre became fascinated by Artemisia and wrote a novel about her, derived from scrupulous study of the painter and the historical context of her work. The novel seeks to understand the relation between Artemisia the woman and Artemisia the painter, and ends with describing as "leitmotiv" the relation between her and her father, composed of both love insufficiently expressed, and a latent professional rivalry.
Artemisia, and more specifically her painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, are referred to in Wendy Wasserstein's 1988 play The Heidi Chronicles, where the main character Heidi lectures about it as part of her art history course on female painters. At the end of the play, Heidi adopts a daughter she names Judy, which is at least a partial reference to the painting.
The 1997 film Artemisia, directed by Agnès Merlet and starring Valentina Cervi, was loosely based on this painter's life, but inaccurately portrayed the relationship between Tassi and Artemisia as a passionate affair rather than as rape.
The novel The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland, published in 2002, positions itself in the wave of the popularity of the feminist account of Artemisia Gentileschi.
Canadian playwright Sally Clark wrote several stage plays based on the events leading up to and following the rape of Artemisia. "Life Without Instruction" was commissioned by Nightwood Theatre in 1988, and was developed during an Ontario Arts Council Playwright's Residency in 1989. It was workshopped in 1990, under the direction of Kate Lushington and dramaturged by Jackie Maxwell. "Life Without Instruction" premiered at Theatre Plus Toronto on August 2, 1991.
The New Jersey based band Spiral Jetty's fourth record entitled 'Band of Gold' featured Gentileschi's painting Judith Beheading Holofernes on its cover. The album's subject matter, covering the destruction of a marriage through betrayal, was tangentially related to the painting's biblical subject.