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In early May 1998, the film Artemisia opened in theaters across America. Created by the French filmmaker Agnes Merlet and distributed by Miramax Zoë, the picture was based on the life of the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, specifically the period of the infamous rape trial of 1612. The relationship of the film to historical reality was problematized at the outset by a claim that originally appeared in the opening frames and in accompanying advertisements: “The true story of the first female painter in art history.” Given the vast discrepancy between the facts of the trial and their interpretative rearrangement by Merlet, this assertion provoked a strong reaction from the feminist and art communities.[1] The immediate result was that Miramax removed the offending claim from the film and subsequent publicity. The film was sharply criticized on both historical and aesthetic grounds at a symposium on May 14 sponsored by the Richard L. Feigen Gallery in New York, in conjunction with the exhibition of works by Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi and Agostino Tassi.[2] At the end of May, however, Miramax was still insisting that “a lot of research went into this film…. We stand by it 100 percent.”[3]

There can be no doubt that the basic facts of the story are inverted in the film. In Merlet's narrative, Artemisia begs to study under, and

then falls in love with, the artist Agostino Tassi, is deflowered by him—an act accomplished with tender solicitude on his part and minimal resistance on hers—and is initiated by the older painter into the mysteries of love and art. When her father, Orazio Gentileschi, brings suit against Tassi for rape, Artemisia testifies repeatedly, even when tortured by sibille (strings tightened around the fingers), that Tassi did not rape her but gave her pleasure and that she loves him. Pained to see Artemisia suffer physical torment, Tassi magnanimously accepts the charge of rape and his own conviction, thus ending the trial as something of a hero. A vague nod to Tassi's unsavory past is given when Artemisia learns that he already has a wife, the discovery briefly complicating the course of a love affair clouded otherwise only by Orazio's paternal (and, it is hinted, jealous) intervention.

A very different account is given in the extensive testimony of the rape trial—documents that were fully published in Italian in 1981 and in English in 1989.[4] When Artemisia was tortured by the sibille, she insisted repeatedly that she had been sexually pressured and then raped by Agostino, an event she described in graphic detail. Judicial torture to establish veracity was a standard procedure in Rome at the time, and in this instance Artemisia voluntarily submitted to the sibille to prove she was telling the truth. Even so, a test designed to select between conflicting accounts by torturing the blameless party rather than the accused was a gratuitous physical insult to a girl who had already experienced rape.

Tassi himself testified that he had never even had sex with Artemisia—a claim so preposterous that the judge admonished him about bearing false witness—and he never confessed to the crime, instead accusing virtually every male in sight, including her father, of having slept with her. Tassi did not come to court as an innocent. He had previously been sued for raping and impregnating his sister-in-law (an act equated at that time with incest), and there was substantive testimony in the trial that he had arranged and paid for the murder of his own wife, whom he had also acquired by rape. This multiple sex offender couldn't even manage his own defense credibly: one of his six witnesses testified that the others had lied (prompting Orazio to file another suit). Tassi was convicted but got off lightly: he was given a choice of five years' service on galleys or a five-year exile from Rome.[5]

Why did Merlet change the story? Describing herself as a feminist who has made a feminist film, she justifies her version as an effort to

reflect Artemisia's inner struggles rather than what she seems to consider the ambiguous facts of the trial.[6] In interviews, Merlet has argued that the reality of the love affair is proved by the fact that Artemisia continued to have sex with Tassi after her violation. Yet Artemisia herself explained this: “What I was doing with him, I did only so that, as he had dishonored me, he would marry me.”[7]

Here it helps to have some of that historical knowledge that Merlet considers to be constrictive to artistic freedom.[8] Artemisia's conduct was consistent with Mediterranean mores, then and later. In the seventeenth century, sexual intercourse with a virgin was considered dishonorable unless a prelude to marriage. If the man promised to marry the woman, as Tassi allegedly did, she was expected to allow further sexual favors.[9] Artemisia evidently believed Tassi's promise at first but came to doubt his intentions. Tassi's evasion of marriage defined the act retroactively as rape (that is probably why Orazio waited a year to file the suit). Had he been willing to commit himself, it might have been called a love affair. Yet Tassi neither confessed to the rape nor honorably offered marriage. Even during the trial, he was still dangling matrimony as Artemisia's sole honorable solution to the problem he had imposed upon her, on the ignoble condition that she blame someone else for her defloration. We know she resisted this pressure, for she never changed her testimony and went on to salvage her honor through an arranged marriage.[10]

As some journalists have pointed out, the real story is much more interesting than the film version. It is also more genuinely feminist. Merlet's heroine is a young girl whose courage consists of acting on her sexual impulses, whose challenge to society lies in her “giving in to love in an era of arranged marriages.” The historical Artemisia broke larger rules. She was one of the first women artists to make a living from her art, producing work for some of the major patrons and collectors of the period: the scholar-antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo, Cardinals Antonio and Francesco Barberini, King Charles I of England, Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily.

In a period when women were typically consigned to paint diminutive still lifes and portraits and were rarely given grand public commissions, Artemisia broke the mold, turning out large narrative compositions that feature biblical heroines but also figures of both sexes. What is more important, she challenged the gender norms of her day through her art, presenting traditional themes with altered emphases that bring

out the perspective of the female characters. It is an art that deals expressively with female experience in a masculinist world, exposing—perhaps for the first time—the realities of rape and sexual harassment that underlay romanticized themes of love, seduction, and suicide.

One might expect Merlet to have picked up on Artemisia's theme of unwanted sex, for a recurrent motif in the film is the inappropriate sexualizing of what are really artistic interests. Tassi mistakenly assumes that Artemisia's drawings of male nudes are signs of her sexual experience. Artemisia's young boyfriend's eagerness to strip for sex turns to embarrassment when he realizes she wants to draw his body. Yet the discomfort that the boy shows at being objectified is, tellingly, not allowed a group of female models who are stripped for inspection. The particular dangers of the volatile mix of art and sex for female models and artists are a worthy topic for filmmakers or scholars, but despite Merlet's flirtation with its manifestations, she doesn't really give us a feminist perspective on it. Indeed, her viewpoint is so relentlessly masculinist that many viewers have expressed surprise that a woman made the film.

For some odd reason, Merlet chose to portray Gentileschi's defiance and strength at the climactic moment by having her say nothing. As the filmmaker explains, Artemisia's silent gaze at Tassi during her torture forced him to break down and confess. She “stared adversity in the face and saved herself.”[11] This does not work, even cinematically. His action speaks much louder than her silence, and one's net impression is that he confessed voluntarily. The device is particularly horrifying because through the ages women's silence has been a tool of their oppressors; it is what wife beaters count on. Furthermore, Artemisia was not silent in the trial; she was eloquent. When the sibille were administered, she cried out to Tassi: “This is the ring that you give me, and these are your promises!” And “It is truth that has induced me to testify against you.”[12]

Perhaps worse than the film's insensitivity to feminist issues is its trivializing of Artemisia's art and falsifying of her artistic development. We have no idea from this film why her work is important. Her paintings figure only incidentally in the film, always anachronistically and always reduced in some way. Her Portrait of a Gonfaloniere (1622) is presented as an example of Orazio's art to which she contributed finishing details, and you would have to be a Gentileschi scholar to catch the possibly intended irony that she did not get credit even for

her own work. Her mature Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630), arguably her greatest picture, figures briefly and wrongly as an example of a youthful self-portrait, in a stand-in replica that is about half the size of the original (imagine that being done to the Mona Lisa). Real paintings of the rape trial period, such as the Susanna and the Elders (1610) and the Pitti Judith (ca. 1613–14) or the slightly later majestic Esther before Ahasuerus (ca. 1622–23), could have been used much more effectively to represent Artemisia's creation of strong and adult female characters. But of course they would have belied and upstaged Merlet's romantic invention.

Artemisia's master composition, the Judith Slaying Holofernes known in two versions (Naples, ca. 1612–13; Uffizi, ca. 1620) (Figure 1), plays a more central role in the film (the Uffizi Judith was also central to the PBS movie Painted Lady, which aired on TV around the time the film opened). In Merlet's film, the execution of this picture of two capable women slaughtering a helpless man—one of the most chilling demonstrations of female power ever created—is obscenely converted into a sexual pantomime, in which Artemisia/Judith surmounts Tassi/Holofernes and slithers into coition with him. That Artemisia the rape victim must on some level have identified with Judith the tyrannicide has escaped no commentator, and though some have sought to minimize the Judith' s symbolic violence by calling the work a mere revenge picture, it is generally understood that the painting's expressive force was likely to have been fueled by sublimated personal emotion. Merlet has hit upon a far more effective way to deflect the picture's subversive meaning—by absorbing it into the genre of erotica.

By Merlet's own account, the key theme of the film is that Artemisia's sexual initiation by Tassi launched her artistic creativity, awakening her aesthetic and sensory perceptions through his teaching and lovemaking. It is Tassi's creative powers that are the film's focus: he shows her how to see colors, how to frame nature. In the final scene, Artemisia draws strength from the memory of his landscape lessons. This is not only nonsense but dangerous nonsense. Tassi was never her teacher at all in any significant sense; he was known for technical skill in perspective and for conventional marine landscapes.[13] Artemisia's art had nothing to do with landscape, and when she later included landscape backgrounds in her figure painting, she hired other artists to paint them.

Merlet here plays into one of the stereotypes most damaging to women. The idea that a female artist is the product of a male mentor


1. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, ca. 1620, oil on canvas

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has been an insistent theme since the Renaissance. In a letter to the former teacher of Sofonisba Anguissola, the sixteenth-century artist Francesco Salviati described her as “the beautiful Cremonese painter, your creation.” Camille Claudel was similarly characterized as the product of Rodin, Cassatt as Degas's protégée, and Morisot as Manet's, even after these women had emerged as independent artistic personalities. The literature of art is replete with birth metaphors to describe the
masculine parturition of artistic offspring: male artists' creative energy overflows like seminal fluid into their female students; women artists, lacking the vital essence of creativity, can only receive it passively from men. Male artists generally benefit from the linkage of their sexuality and creativity. Vasari's report that Raphael died young as a result of sexual overactivity has not harmed his reputation; who even remembers it? Picasso's fabled virility only enhances his artistic identity, sustaining as it does the mythic belief that a man paints with his penis. But the stamp of sexuality is dangerous for female artists because it tends to replace rather than enhance their creative achievement.

The “Artemisia” that Merlet's film presents is merely an echo of the cultural construction that began when Tassi called her a whore in court. Our only surviving notice of Artemisia's death is a pair of mock epitaphs that lampoon her as a cuckolding shrew. In the eighteenth century, she was said to be as “famous all over Europe for her amours as for her painting.”[14] The continuing preoccupation with Artemisia's sexuality, now sustained in Merlet's presentation of her as a liberated lover, has served a specific cultural function—dangerous or valuable, depending on your point of view—for if we are talking about Artemisia's sex life we are not talking about her art.

Merlet fitted her project to a time-tested formula for commercial success; sex sells, as we all know. Yet the juxtaposition of the fiction of this film with the reality of history fortuitously exposes what our culture wants to believe and what it needs to resist. We want to believe in the fantasy of woman's eternal submission to the power of love, particularly when it distracts us from the specter of a woman who was unusually free of masculine control. The Artemisia to be resisted is the artist who painted pictures that violated the social order, presenting women as powerful avengers or unwilling sexual victims. The eroticizing of Artemisia Gentileschi thus serves to contain the social threat she posed in life and art.

Merlet's Artemisia raises troubling questions about the responsibility of art to truth, for in the age of the docudrama and biopic, when many Americans gain their historical knowledge from TV, films, or novels, the presentation of history in fictionalized accounts plays no small cultural role. Ultimately this misrepresentation, this dishonoring, of Artemisia Gentileschi matters very much because she has been an important cultural role model for women, especially artists. Men have many role models, women very few. If someone discredits Michelangelo,

Caravaggio, and van Gogh (and I leave aside the fact that films about these artists heroize them as artists), you still have Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Gauguin—and hundreds more. But there was only one Artemisia Gentileschi—no other woman artist before the twentieth century has come close to being considered one of the greats. That is a status apparently worth shooting down. It is also one worth defending.


1. Early reaction to the film came from Linda Nochlin, Judith Brodsky, and myself and from the circulation of eloquent protest letters written by Miriam Schapiro and June Wayne. A fact sheet outlining the film's outrageous liberties, written by Gloria Steinem and me, was distributed by Steinem and Brenda Feigen at the film's premiere and subsequently placed on the Internet by Sheila ffolliott and Helen Langa. This provoked widespread response, and the fact sheet was circulated at screenings in some major cities. [BACK]

2. Participants in the symposium included the art and cultural historians Leonard Barkan, myself, Rona Goffen, Simon Schama, and Bette Talvacchia, along with the filmmaker Grahame Weinbren and Feigen Gallery's curator, Ann Guité. The exhibition, “Paint and Passion,” was on view from April 28 to June 13. [BACK]

3. As quoted in “Movies: When Hate Turns to Love,” in the unsigned “Periscope” section of Newsweek, May 25, 1998, 8. [BACK]

4. Eva Menzio, ed., Artemisia Gentileschi/Agostino Tassi: Atti di un processo per stupro (Rome: Edizioni delle donne, 1981); Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), Appendix B. [BACK]

5. This new information comes from Alexandra Lapierre's recently published biography, Artemisia: Un duel pour l'immortalité (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1998), 214, 422–23. Tassi chose exile; he had previously been condemned to service on the Florentine grand duke's galleys, presumably for bad behavior. [BACK]

6. See Kristine McKenna, “‘Artemisia’: Artistic License with an Artist,” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1998, F1, F10. [BACK]

7. Artemisia's testimony of March 18, 1612; Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi, 418. [BACK]

8. “I decided that I did not have to necessarily provide the audience with a lot of historical background…. My analysis was more particular, more precise, similar to the one a person would have today concerning a news item. Sometimes, this approach provides more freedom.” (From an announcement and description of the film, dated August 22, 1997, circulated by Miramax Zoë. Unless otherwise indicated, other citations of Merlet come from this document.) [BACK]


9. See especially Sandra Cavallo and Simona Cerutti, “Female Honor and the Social Control of Reproduction in Piedmont between 1600 and 1800,” trans. Mary M. Gallucci, in Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 73–109. [BACK]

10. G.B. Stiattesi testified to overhearing Tassi's proposal when he brought Artemisia to visit Tassi in prison during the trial. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi, 467–68. Artemisia married the Florentine Pierantonio Stiattesi, whom we now know to be the brother of G.B. Stiattesi. See Lapierre, Artemisia, 481. [BACK]

11. From another press release issued by Miramax Zoë, “Director's Note.” [BACK]

12. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi, 462. In the Feigen Gallery symposium, Grahame Weinbren emphasized the cinematic potential of these lines: “What filmmaker would give them up?” [BACK]

13. The often repeated story that Orazio hired Tassi to teach Artemisia perspective comes only from Tassi's assertion in the trial testimony. Artemisia tells a different version of their meeting; Orazio doesn't mention this in his opening statement. [BACK]

14. From an anonymous note added to the English edition of Roger de Piles's The Art of Painting, 3rd ed. (London: T. Payne, 1754). On the epitaphs, see Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi, 137. [BACK]

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