Friday, March 1, 2024

The magnificent Art by Artemisia Gentileschi: an exclusive interview with Dr. Snjezana Smodlaka

Artemisia Gentileschi, a female artist centuries ahead of her time, was one of the first women artist to achieve success in the 17th century. Her work was an eclectic sense of narrative drama and a unique perspective that both celebrated and humanized strong women characters.
On March 2, 2016, Dr. Snjezana Smodlaka  presented a program on Artemisis Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter, at the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum in Staten Island, New York. Her captive audience learned about the artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who is considered one of the most accomplished painters following Caravaggio. Artemisia Gentileschi became the first woman to become a member of the Academia di Arte del Disegno.

Dr. Snjezana Smodlaka
Dr. Snjezana Smodlaka

Dr. Snjezana Smodlaka has published  numerous articles on Italian language and literature, and has presented more than 30 papers in USA, Croatia, Italy, Austria, Spain and Germany.
In the last decade she broadened the field of her research on the study of connections between Italian literature, art and music.
Born in Croatia where she obtained her B.A. in Italian language and literature and M.A. in Romance Philology. She was Assistant Professor at the University of Zadar for many years. Thirty five years ago she came to USA with a Fulbright Scholarship to further her studies and continue her research. She obtained her Ph, D. in Italian Baroque literature at the Rutgers University.
She has worked for 24 years at St. Joseph Hill Academy on Staten Island as a Latin and Italian teacher as well as the adjunct professor at the College of Staten Island and  Rutgers University.Here follows the interview she gently conceded:

Please tell a little about your background and how you became interested in Artemisia Gentileschi.
I must admit I am not art historian, just art lover; all my degrees are in Italian language and literature, but that  study led me to research all aspects of Italian civilization  and art is its natural integral part.
My interest for researching women artists stems from the simple fact that art museums and art history books are full of paintings of women, but depicted mostly by men and it would be interesting to see the same topic from female point of view. Systematic scholarly research of female artists of the past eras started in the late ’60 and since then many, until then invisible, neglected and overlooked women painters emerged; among them stands out Roman girl Artemisia Gentileschi, She was the first female inducted into Florentine Art Academy, she was among the first female professional painters, among the first not to imitate masters, but challenge the existing rules of  traditional styles,  among the first to achieve recognition in the field and the –market- reserved  for men.

Susanna and the Elders, 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Susanna and the Elders, 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi.

Please educate our readers about this artist that was born in Rome in 1593. Discuss her early training and the unfortunate circumstances and consequences of her affiliation with her teacher, Agostino Tassi.  
Until recent history women were forbidden to attend artists’ workshops (bottega) and couldn’t study elements of drawing, painting, perspective, anatomy, mixing pigments etc. But Artemisia was lucky: her uncle and her father Orazio were well known painters, she lived in the artistic milieu, in Rome she could have visited churches that contained artwork and judging from her predilection for   Caravaggio’s tenebrism, she was very familiar with his style. She even gained the name “la Caravaggista”, the follower of Caravaggio.
Her farsighted father noticed her talent and started training her very early. This precocious girl was so advanced that at her age of 17 her father hired another artist -Agostino Tassi- to further instruct her in perspective.
Unfortunately Tassi raped Artemisia that same year, in 1611, and on false promise that he would marry her, the violation continued for some time. Her father sued him and a painful, humiliating, 7-month long trial followed. Under the judicial procedure of Roman court Artemisia had to describe in detail the assault, she underwent public vaginal examination and was tortured with thumbscrews in order to “tell the truth”. Tassi was sentenced, spent several months in jail but was NEVER himself tortured, even though he produced forged erotic letters, supposedly written by Artemisia, who at the time –it was found out during the trial- was unable to read and write, except to sign her name. Eighty five pages of the trial translated in English are published in the 1989 seminal monograph by Mary D. Garrard: Artemisia Gentileschi, The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art.

Please share with us how the impact and trauma of the rape affected Artemisia’s painting. Also, please discuss her influences.
It has been suggested that traumatic experiences of Artemisia’s life affected the choice of her topics: strong, powerful biblical, mythological and historical women like Judith, Lucretia, Cleopatra, Susanna. And in two paintings of Judith, while decapitating Holofernes, the gory, gruesome rendition might have reflected her rage and frustration for the violation and injustice she endured. It is hard to put a sign of equation between her life and her art, but at the same time it is impossible to exclude that such correlation existed. In the later paintings, during so called Neapolitan period, Artemisia abandoned those topics and depicted many religious scenes full of tenderness, piety and profound faith. She might have overcome her grief and/or sublimated it into art.

Even though during her lifetime she was enormously respected as the artist-protegee of the Medici family and of Michelangelo’s grandnephew- she lived in precarious conditions: single mother with two daughters, without the husband whom she left because of the debts he accumulated, volatile art market dominated by noble male patrons, unfulfilled promises of payments, unacknowledged receipts of the paintings were usual occurrences in her life.

Mary Magdalene by Artemisia Gentileschi
Mary Magdalene by Artemisia Gentileschi

In an era when female artists were limited to portrait painting and imitative poses; she was the first woman to paint major historical and religious scenarios, what impact do you believe this had on society then and now?
The first words connected with Artemisia are: different and courageous. Many painters, not only female, but male as well, safely emulated masters, stayed within the limits of traditional “rules” of style, technique, compositions, coloring, psychological expressions, and topics; they didn’t want to try something radically different that could impede or ruin their careers. Well, Artemisia did. She introduced stylistic innovations, remarkable interpretation from female perspective not seen in Italian and Western European art before her and Caravaggio.   

What happened to her art after her death?
After her death in 1652 or 1653, at the age of 60 three-century old silence reigned over Artemisia’s life and significance of her art; she was overlooked by art history, her paintings were attributed to her father or other male painters, as it often happened with the paintings by female painters, and not displayed on public view. In the late 60’s modern art historians started to re-examine and re-evaluate the contribution of female artists of the past. Artemisia’s female perspective, her bold, dramatic style, artistic innovations in the depiction of the heroines attracted a lot of attention. The first exhibition of her work was inaugurated in 1991in Florence in Casa Buonarroti, the same memorial Michelangelo museum that she helped to decorate -with Inclination- three hundred seventy six years before. Other exhibitions followed, one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2002 and the other in Milan 2012. Many books of scholarly research, TV documentaries, a novel, a play, inspired by her turbulent life and art increased her visibility.

Please share with us what your future plans are in regard to research and dissemination of Italian culture.
I have never abandoned my original study of Italian Baroque literature, just enriched it with the research. I gave presentations and delivered papers on international congresses here and in Europe on Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists: Caravaggio, Sofonisba Anguissola, Elisabetta Sirani and, of course, Artemisia Gentileschi. My background in music inspired me to present papers on non-stereotypical heroines in Verdi’s operas and write about the role of his choruses as artistic documents of his time.

Interesting Facts:

·         The color “Artemisia gold,” is a reference to the gold fabrics  in Gentileschi’s paintings.

·         Gentileschi is one of the women represented in The Dinner Party, an installation artwork by Judy Chicago that was first exhibited in 1979.


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