Artemisia Gentileschi and Judith Leyster are two of the most important and accomplished feminine personalities in the artistic panorama of the 17th century. This article will consider the similarities and the differences of the works and careers of these two women, after a brief introduction of biographical hints. The choice to talk about this quite unconventional subject matter is intended to show an unknown feminine world hidden behind the masculine predominance in the field of arts, as well as in many other circumstances.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) was an Italian baroque painter born in Rome, known especially for her most famous painting called Susanna and the elders (1610), painted at the age of sixteen, which depicts a fair lady bathing in her garden while two lustful old men secretly observe her. She painted many pictures of strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible. Judith Leyster (1609-1660) was a Dutch Golden Age painter born in Haarlem and she used to paint genre works, portraits, and still life. Her most remarkable work is an oil on panel painting called The Proposition (1631), depicting a woman sewing and a man behind her, touching her right shoulder.
These two well-known artists have many things in common, as for example their pictorial styles and some experiences connected with the fact that the artistic community or patrons did not easily accept women painters in their era. Artemisia’s works show how she assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the language of the Bologna school, led by Annibale Carracci. Similarly, Judith’s family decided to move from Haarlem to the province of Utrecht, where she may have come in contact with the Dutch Caravaggisti, who were stylistic followers of the 16th century Italian baroque painter. During their lives, they both had to fight against a sexist society, which did not believe women could become great artists. While female artists have been involved in making art throughout history, their work often has not been as well acknowledged as that of men. Judith’s entire oeuvre was attributed to Frans Hals until 1893, when a critic first recognised seven paintings to her, six of which are signed with her distinctive monogram “JL”. Likewise, many people, influenced by the prevailing prejudices, suspected that Artemisia was helped by her father. Moreover, they both painted very well-known self-portraits. Artemisia’s one is called Self-portrait as the allegory of painting which exposes feminine themes considered very controversial in her time. Judith’s one is just called Self-portrait, a painting taken while she was making a study of her later painting The Merry Trio.
These artists also present some differences. The first aspect is represented by their families’ background and their artistic studies. Artemisia’s father was a famous Tuscan painter, Orazio Gentileschi, who introduced her young daughter in his workshop and taught her how to draw, to mix colours and to paint, even if she developed her own different style later on. On the contrary, Judith Leyster had to learn all by herself because his father was a brewer and cloth-maker. She might have learned painting in order to bring in funds for the family after her father’s bankruptcy. Another important differing aspect can be observed in the themes of their paintings. Artemisia’s works reflect her suffering of rape and subsequent mistreatment. She expressed strength and independence through her paintings of biblical heroines, in which women are represented as willing to manifest their rebellion against their condition. In contrast, Judith’s works depict people with happy faces and she was particularly innovative in the domestic genre scenes, creating quiet sceneries of women working at home.
Being a female painter at the beginning of the 17th century represented an uncommon and very difficult choice. Women artists faced challenges due to gender biases in the mainstream fine art world. They have often encountered difficulties in training, travelling and trading their work, and gaining recognition. Nevertheless, these two artists proved that if one has tenaciousness, perseverance and above all talent, all the prejudices mean nothing.