General ArtPainting

Women Painting Themselves: pt 3

Hello all, welcome to part three of the Women Painting Themselves series. Today we’re going to look at two artists instead of just one, Artemisia Gentileschi and Elizabetta Sirani.

Artemisia Gentileschi 1593-c.1653
Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi 1638-39

Out of all the artists I have or will mention, Artemisia is one of the most famous. And she certainly deserves it; she was really REALLY good. I mean look at this painting, does it look like the other self portraits? Nope. We don’t get to see what she’s painting, we don’t get much in the way of props beyond what she’s wearing (although more on that in a bit) and she’s not even facing the viewer*. Instead we get this lovely painting full of movement and energy, a dramatic sense of lighting off-screen, and a composition totally different from the previous few, and in all honesty most of the paintings in this series’ future**.

There’s some symbolism going on here with her accessories that modern viewers probably aren’t going to pick up on, or at least I didn’t. The gold necklace she’s wearing supposedly represents the interlocking nature of the apprentice painter learning from their master, and each generation building on the next. Also, it’s hard to see in the picture, but the pendent is a little mask which is supposed to be to the face as painting is to nature. Sure, sounds good, I’ll go with it. The full title of this painting is “Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting”–Artemisia is presenting herself as the embodiment of painting as Art, which I would say is a pretty bold move.

There was a source book for common symbols that artists would reference, Iconologia by Cesare Ripa. Going by this book, popular symbolism at the time was mostly fancy ladies (plus a few men and angels) with props.

Born in Rome, she first learned to paint from her father as was typical of the time. Artemisia’s father was a follower of Caravaggio who is credited with single-handedly bringing dramatic lighting to Italian painting (see **). In 1616 she moved to Florence, worked for Duke of Tuscany, and was one of the first women elected to the Florentine Academy of Design before eventually settling in Naples. Artemisia enjoyed a long career, was quite successful during her lifetime, and is still relatively well remembered today.

I think it’s especially important with Artemisia to look at how she presented herself in her work. There is a lot of writing about her, including some by people who really should’ve known better (I’m looking at you, 70s feminists), that spends a great deal of time being FASCINATED with the fact that she was a survivor of sexual assault, her sex life in general, and interpreting her work in relation to it. I find it really infuriating that this tends to overshadow her art and don’t want to fall into the same trap with this essay, but I thought it was important to warn people that this is something that comes up in the most cursory of Google searches of her name. I really like her work and I don’t want to discourage anyone from looking up the rest of her paintings, but seriously, researching Artemisia’s life is a bit like stepping into a snake pit. That said, see the “Sources and Additional Info” section for some of the better resources.


Alrighty, I’d like to talk about Elisabetta Sirani’s portrait in direct comparison to Artemisia’s.

Elisabetta Sirani 1638-1665

Compared to the avalanche of writing available on Artemisia, there’s very little know about Elisabetta. She died very young (around 27) and thus had a much shorter career than a lot of the other artists and besides that her biography is pretty spotty. But what we do know of her is impressive enough that I wanted to include her. Like Lavinia, she was also from Bologna, and by age 19 she ran her family’s workshop, supporting parents/siblings with her painting. Elisabetta was known for her speed and skill, to the point that people would apparently come hang out and watch her.

This is a much more typical painting as personal advertisement. She’s showing off her education (the books, probably that little statue) and her skills (ALL. THAT. CLOTH). Note that like Artemisia, she’s wearing a gold chain to signify the links to her teachers. Also, if you compare this portrait and Artemisia’s with the previous two, you can see that Elisabetta is also using that dramatic Baroque lighting instead of the softer shading that’s more characteristic of the Renaissance.


*A fun game to play is to try and figure out how she managed this, as if she’s not facing the viewer in the composition, she’s also not facing the canvas while she’s painting it. My best guess is an elaborate two mirror set-up, a body double, or some combination of the two.

**I should probably mention that we’ve wandered from the Late Renaissance art period into the Baroque. The cut-off is around 1600, maybe a little earlier, and the main difference is that in the Baroque period, everything got more dramatic and it’s probably Caravaggio’s fault. Well, and Bernini’s for sculpture. Art history time periods are mostly useful when you think of them as X group of people in N location responding to Y, not as a linear, all encompassing progression IMHO.



-Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Print.
-Tufts, Eleanor. Our Hidden Heritage: Five centuries of women artists. New York: Paddington Press LTD, 1974. Print. This is a book that I own, and can’t really recommend for anything other than a starting point for research. More information on artistic allegories. Requires you to sign up for a jstor account, but is free to read online, however there seems to be an error in the file towards the end. This is more info than you ever wanted about Artemisia’s sexual assault trial and the surrounding cultural morels. This author is very interested in rape as it related to culture of early 17th C Rome, and the tone is kind of weird, though I’m not sure if it’s because of the hilariously dense academic language, or the author trying to get inside the mindset of a 17th C Roman. However, it’s significantly less terrible than the sources that the author quoted to argue against and I trust the research.
The TL:DR version of the above, and one of the more sensitive takes on the topic. This is a nice write-up describing Artemisia’s portrait if you’d like a little more background on this particular painting. Elisabetta’s biography

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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