March is International Women’s Month, International Woman’s Day, March 8th, known as Festa della Donna in Italy, is when women of all ages celebrate each other with flowers, wine and torta mimosa. This is a special tribute to three trailblazing Italian women painters of the 16th and 17th century whose determination and prodigious talents were irrepressible. Their masterful works and legacies have only just began to be recognized.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 -1656) is the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century. She was born in Rome, the eldest of five children and only daughter of artist Orazio Gentileschi, under whom she trained. Artemisia’s earliest signed and dated painting, ‘Susanna and the Elders,’ what completed when she was 17. A year later Artemisia was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi, an acquaintance and collaborator of her father’s. An infamous public trial ensued in 1612. Tassi was found guilty and banished from Rome, though his punishment was never enforced. With her reputations in tatters, she moved to Florence to start anew. She would go on to work in Venice, Naples and London, for the highest echelons of European society, and enjoyed considerable success in her own lifetime. Without the support of a wealthy husband she would nonetheless became a painter to dukes, princes, cardinals and kings, she was the first woman admitted to Florence’s prestigious Accademia del Disegno. Finally, after years of obscurity during Artemisia is now “hot”. Now finally, she is receiving the recognition she always felt she deserved. “The works,” she once declared, “will speak for themselves.”
Daughter from a minor noble family from Cremona, at age 14 Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) convinced her father to place her in the studio of the most renowned local artist not as an apprentice. unthinkable for an aristocratic girl, but as a paying guest where she studied for three years. She focused on portraiture, an acceptable activity for a respectable aristocratic woman; initially portraying her siblings, her parents and herself. Her proud father actively promoted Sofonisba’s work by giving away her drawings and paintings as if they were calling cards. He boldly sent Sofonisba’s sketch of her little brother bitten by a crab to 82-year-old Michelangelo who was so impressed with her talent that he began sending her his own drawings to copy or rework as exercises. Her work was eventually brought to the attention of King Philip II of Spain who was in search of both a court artist and lady-in-waiting for his new child bride of 14. In Sofonisba he found both. She moved to Madrid spending nearly 20 years at Court and later moved to Genoa where she married a younger Nobleman and lived out her life continuing her painting.
Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) of Bolgona was 20 years younger than Sofonisba and also blessed with a supportive father. Known for her portraits as well as mythological works, Lavinia is regarded as the first female career artist in Western Europe; her family relied on her to” bring home the bacon.” Her husband was her agent and a stay-at-home dad raising their eleven (!!) children.
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