Who wore it best? Artemisia uses the same gowns over and over.

You may have noticed that sometimes a prop, or an object, appears more than once in an artist’s work.

In movies, video games, and computer programming, the well-known image inserted in the content is called an “Easter egg.”

For example, in films, Easter eggs are sometimes added as an homage to an early influencer in the field, or as a private nod to the aficionados of the genre.

A similar occurrence happens historically in art, typically for different reasons.


Examples from Two Artists: Artists Artemisia Gentileschi and John Singer Sargent.

In this issue, we are discussing the repetition of gowns in Artemisia's work. In our next issue we will discuss John Singer Sargent's repetition of his cashmere shawl.


Artemisia Gentileschi’s Gowns

Artemisia was an acclaimed Italian artist of the 17th Century. In her oil paintings, she frequently focused on power dynamics: women demonstrating powerful victories or women being deceived by powerful men.

Unless she was doing a commissioned portrait of a man, her paintings generally included at least one woman. Women were usually the protagonists.

In many of her paintings, one of these three things was included:

  • An ornate gold-satin gown
  • A simpler golden or brown-ish pinafore-style dress (one that you would wear a blouse underneath)
  • Herself as a model. She painted many self-portraits, often as allegories of a theme in art. Frequently she used herself as a supporting character. An example of this is the woman washing the feet of Bathsheba in the collection of the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art.


The repetition did not inherently have any double-meaning as todays’ Easter eggs do.


Why did Artemisia repeat these three elements?

It was probably due to convenience and to her thriftiness.

Unless it was a commissioned portrait, artists supplied the clothing and props for their models. Artemisia had in her “costume closet” a couple of beautiful, expensive gowns. It was easier to continue to repeat them in paintings, then to buy and store new ones.


Additionally, I imagine she was satisfied with her mastery of the folds and the garment construction of these gowns. Her familiarity allowed her to expeditiously paint the garments and move on to other challenging aspects of her paintings.


Why did she paint herself in so many of her own paintings?


It was difficult for women artists of this era to hire models. The community morals frowned on it and I presume some models were reluctant to sit for her. Their time could be better invested working with a male artist. There were additional perks a figure model could anticipate from a male artist, such as potentially housing, a sexual relationship, gifts, etc.

Also many male artists from the Impressionists community and others, referred specific adept models to other artists. With these referrals, working for one male artist might develop into a whole “black book” of potential work. Not so with the female artists. There weren’t enough of them.



There was a similar situation when I was living in Italy. At Santa Reparata, I spent hours and hours each week drawing from live, nude models. We are always excited to get one of the preferred models. 

Our model was typically a young woman (or less frequently, a young man) who had a knack for understanding how to pose: how to arrange their body to create evocative silhouettes—not provocative silhouettes, but poses that emphasized the natural beauty of the surfaces of the body. These experienced models were more difficult to book because they were popular with all the art schools, and with professional artists. Good models who can hold a pose, and remember the pose after a break, are hard to find. 

And in Artemisia's day, (as today) the model’s career lifespan was finite; which option, a male artist or a female artist, provided the best return?

Artemisia’s financial arrangements also entered her decisions.

Men handled the money. Women artists couldn’t engage in respectable discussions about the exchange of money: on their own they couldn’t hire anyone, buy paint or canvases, or even negotiating the commissions or sales of their paintings. Artemisia had to entrust male family members to handle all her financial negotiations. Then she had to give them a commission on each transaction. Using herself as a model was one negotiation she didn’t have to haggle over. And, she was always available to herself.


Self-portraiture appealed to Artemisia.

Some artists simply like to do portraits of themselves. Rembrandt and Donatello did many self-portraits, as did Van Gogh, even in his limited career as an artist.

In addition, for Artemisia, using her own visage was a way to promote her work. People recognized her talent AND her face in her work.

Since there were many limits to where she could socialize to visit with potential patrons to promote her work. I believed that’s why she signed her work in addition to using herself as a model.

It was an effective “billboard” to advertise herself.


The Repeating Gold Dress

Some of her paintings with the luxurious gold-satin dress:


More of the Pinafore Dress

Artemisia is one of my favorite artists. I could write for days about my admiration for her painting skills, her point of view, and her courage to overcome the challenges of being a woman in the inhospitable days of the 16th and 17th C in Italy.

Keep in mind, her history includes being repeatedly raped by a friend of her father's. At a rape trial she was tortured by the court to force her withdrawal of the accusation, yet, the rapist was convicted. (The transcript of the trial is included in Roman court records and an English translation of the transcript is included in Mary D. Garrard’s Artemisia Gentileschi (Princeton University Press, 1991). 

Artemisia's rapist was then excused by the Pope, and excused by Artemisia's father after a financial transaction resolved the complaint. 

Artemsia supported herself and I presume her children, on her income as an artist. Other dangers included living through several reoccurrences of the black plague. She lived and worked mainly in Rome and Florence. 

From Wikipedia: "it affected northern and central Italy and resulted in at least 280,000 deaths, with some estimating fatalities as high as one million, or about 35% of the population."

Considering our personal experiences with Covid, it's difficult to imagine the terror of this deadly plague sweeping through your community over and over again.

Maybe you can see why Artemisia is a hero of mine. 





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