Artemisia Gentileschi – Jael and Sisera (c. 1620)

The sight of a female painter in 17th century Italy must have been an absolute rarity, but Artemisia Gentileschi was lucky enough to be taught to paint in her father’s workshop. It was there where she also met Agostino Tassi, another artist that her father, Orazio Gentileschi, had hired to tutor her.

One day Tassi raped his pupil, who was only seventeen at the time, and afterwards, pressured by Orazio, he promised he’d marry her. When he didn’t make good on his promise, Orazio pressed charges against Tassi and the trial became a very public, sordid affair. Artemisia was subjected to a gynecological exam and torture, in order to have her claim verified that Tassi had taken away her virginity. In the end, she and her father won the trial, but the sentence was never carried out.

The rape, however, had a long lasting effect on Artemisia. Her art – influenced by Caravaggio – often depicted violent imagery against men, even if the context and narrative were taken directly from the Bible. There is a distinctive feeling of “us” vs. “them” in her art, women working together to defeat men. In this sense, Artemisia’s art is considered cathartic, a way for her to get the justice she never received.

Artemisia Gentileschi - Jael and Sisera
Artemisia Gentileschi – Jael and Sisera (c. 1620), oil on canvas

Jael and Sisera is also based on a Biblical story. After being defeated in battle, Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army, hides away in Jael’s tent, being received with hospitality. But as soon as he falls asleep, Jael drives a tent peg through his temple, pinning his head to the ground. In Gentileschi’s painting, Sisera is sleeping peacefully while Jael is just about to kill him, hovering over his head and holding a hammer in the air. She looks focused and rather content, as if she was simply doing a regular chore. It’s an eerie painting, with no apparent emotional tension coming from the characters themselves.

The dark background brings more attention to the scene and enhances the light. But there, on a pilaster, the artist inscribed ARTEMITA LOMI / FACIEBAT / MDCXX. Lomi was the Florentine name of one of her uncles, which she used while living and working in Florence. Faciebat, Latin, translates as “was making”, and MDCXX is 1620 in Roman numerals.

Because Gentileschi used the imperfect past tense “faciebat” just like Michelangelo did on his sculptures and because she painted Sisera resembling Caravaggio, it’s been suggested that the she was paying homage to her favorite artists. In fact, Jael looks more like a sculptress chiseling away at her masterpiece (“capolavoro” in Italian, literally translates as “head-work”) than a murderess. Whether it  represents a cold-blooded revenge on Tassi, her tutor, or an artistic statement, this painting continues to intrigue and fascinate.

22 thoughts on “Artemisia Gentileschi – Jael and Sisera (c. 1620)

  1. Fascinating account of Artemisia’ trauma – the painting makes a lot of sense. Victims of trauma often suffer from dissociation, a disconect from their emotions, I don’t know if this is what she is attempting to achieve in this painting.

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    1. It’s heartbreaking what happened to Gentileschi. But there is always the risk that we’re focusing too much on her life story and projecting it onto her canvases. I have looked at other artists’ versions of “Jael and Sisera” and they were just as cold and ruthless. The question remains whether she chose these subjects for a reason or if that’s what she was commissioned to do.

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    1. Thanks, M.B. It’s amazing that Gentileschi was able to be an artist at all, given how uncommon that was centuries ago. I hope she got some justice by still being remembered and appreciated today.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m more of an optimist, I think things are starting to change… Although when I first heard Gentileschi’s story I thought she represented what so many victims of rape still go through today. Kudos to her for even going to trial at all, that must have taken so much courage.

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  2. I had just a few days back heard of this artist in a random article Headline ( about a painter who made made violent paintings with vengeance against men as a theme ) but I had not known the details or the background story until now. So, thank you for that.
    As far the painting itself is concerned, yes, so eerie yet there is no sense of shock in the expression of Jael ans Sisera, which makes it all the more haunting. As if a cruel and subdued acceptance of what is coming to us from the hands of fate ( or maybe death )
    I will have to look up this Biblical Story.

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    1. Wait, wait, wait… I thought you were getting all your art from here! I can’t believe you’re cheating on artschaft. I’m surprised they didn’t mention her trial, since her life story and art are often considered interwoven.

      I agree with you, there is a resignation to the scene, like Greek heroes who are unable to change their fate: Sisera must die, Jael must kill, each following their own path into this clash. Sisera even reminds me of a child sleeping peacefully in his mother’s lap.

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  3. What’s this? *rubs eyes* A 17th c. painting!? And a biblical subject! I will go ahead and take all the credit for inspiring this one. 😛

    But seriously, another pleasure to read. I’ve never heard of Gentileschi. I can definitely see the influence of Caravaggio in her paintings. The Slaying of Holofernes is pretty crazy. It makes this one look so tame and, like you said, chore-ish. Love it.

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    1. Oh no, are you going to take credit for all posts about pre-19th century paintings? 😀 Actually this one was planned long ago. The fact that the biblical story was so minor comforted me.

      But you know what happened? You did challenge me to look at other biblical paintings with fresh eyes, so I found a few ones that I really like … and I’ll be writing about them. So yes, I am indebted to you.

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  4. The details of the story are what fascinate. There was a trial and a physical exam. There are parts of the world where a woman wouldn’t get that much recourse today. But the thing is, we imagine life was simpler in the past, but this story is a reminder that that might not be the case at all, even the opposite might be true. What separates use from people in the past is mostly technology, which we passively imbibe, and which makes life easier. Is an easier life more sophisticated?

    Here “Judith Slaying Holofernes” paintings are even more violent. We assume that the violence may be revenge against men, and that may be the most likely interpretation, but being a victim of violence I’m not sure she doesn’t associate or empathize with the victim of violence in the paintings, even if it is justified (or both at the same time).

    She may also have been following a bit in her father’s footsteps. He painted graphically violent images, including David with the severed head of Goliath and Judith and her Maid. I do rather think she infused the suffering of her rape into her art one way or another. As far as I know she’s got the most shocking version of “Judith Slaying Holofernes” in Art History. A somewhat dubious accomplishment, but one needs to give credit where it is due.

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    1. I, too, believe that Gentileschi was influenced by her father. Having lost her mother when she was only 12 years old and being the only female in her father’s workshop, you’d think that the male dominated environment influenced her greatly in her depictions of violence. And having gained no justice through trial, I can see why she would have used violence against men to get her revenge. I’m just weary of focusing too much on her personal story and forgetting about her art.

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      1. I agree. She’s an amazing painter, and as I like to say (I thought I coined this phrase, but someone beat me to it) “the proof is in the painting”. And I like to say, “judge the artist by the art, and not the other way around”.

        What is particularly fascinating about her work and violence, however, is that her depictions of these classic scenes are more violent and explicit than her father’s or her male contemporaries that I’ve seen.

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