Artemisia: The Movie

artfilm19.jpg (17646 bytes)

Released May 8, 1998. Directed by Agnes Merlet.
Starring: Valentina Cervi, Miki Manojlovic Michael Serrault
Written by Agnes Merlet and Patrick Amos.
Produced by Patrice Haddad. Distributed by Miramax.

If you did not know the true story of Artemisia, you might be impressed by this well-acted, well-directed portrayal of an independent, erotic and determined female Renaissance painter who falls in love with her art teacher, and ardently defends him when he is accused of rape. But once you learn about the real Artemisia, you may begin to question the ethics of Merlet, the director- screenwriter. Understandably, both movie reviewers and feminists have been critical of the film's distortion of historical truth.

Many historical films are not true to history, and viewers accept the fictionalizations. But because here the fictionalizing is a whitewashing of rape, it is more difficult to accept.  Despite its success and tasteful eroticism, Artemisia the movie proves to be still another the violation of the feminine. Artemisia was raped originally by her male art teacher, Tassi. Unfortunately, now she has been raped again in this film - by its twentieth century female director.

What are the historical inaccuracies?
(WARNING: Spoilers ahead)
Artemisia did not paint nude men, nor show off her drawings of nude males in order to entice Tassi to teach her. Nor is it likely that she was obsessed with male genitals, as the movie appears to indicate. Although we admittedly do not know the whole truth of the matter, historical documents and the rape trial transcripts do not lead us to believe that she was as seductive with Tassi as the film portrayed, or inclined to continually return for "more."

The real Tassi was not handsome, nor was he a devoted lover; he was a philanderer who had been jailed  for sexual crimes, and was known to have committed incest and raped his sister-in-law; many also believed at the time (although it was not proven) that he had murdered his wife.

During the trial, Artemisia did not repeatedly declare her love for Tassi or deny that she had been raped; she quite vigorously described the rape. When she was tortured, she did not insistently defend his innocence; rather she asserted his guilt. The real Tassi did not defend Artemisia; instead he portrayed her, her mother and sisters as whores. He did not admit his guilt in order to stop her from being tortured; he continued to defend his own innocence and condemn her.

In reality, Tassi was a minor painter who briefly taught Artemisia perspective, and not her equal or long-term mentor. The real Artemisia was the most talented and successful woman artist of the Renaissance and baroque era, known especially for her famous Judith Slaying Holofernes paintings. In the film, this painting and alleged drawings by her of male nudes are presented at the trial as evidence of her degenerate nature, but no explanation is given of how or why she chose such a violent subject. In reality, however, Artemisia completed her first Judith painting the year after the trial - most likely choosing such a violent theme in order to express her own anger at the series of injustices that she had experienced.

Excerpts from the Reviews:

Why do movies always make artists out to be overwrought, oversexed creatures who fling themselves about in a constant state of exaggerated creativity? And why, in this one, are the few documented facts ignored and the artist's life boiled down to a syrupy, sensational fantasy? Truth is a hundred times more interesting than the fiction that French director Agnes Merlet concocts from the life of 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Basically all Artemisia provides the film is a blank canvas on which to paint a melodramatic romance, with plenty of sex, nude models, and exotic costumes.....

from Lusty for Life by Sheila Farr

Artemisia is as much about art as about sex, and it contains a lot of information about techniques, including the revolutionary idea of moving the easel outside and painting from nature. It lacks, however, detailed scenes showing drawings in the act of being created .... And it doesn't show a lot of Artemisia's work. What it does show is the gift of Valentina Cervi, who is another of those modern European actresses... whose intelligence, despite everything else, is the most attractive thing about her.

Roger Ebert, Chicago-Sun-Times


artfilm7.jpg (6369 bytes) For all its beauty, "Artemisia" doesn't capture the poignant narrative of its heroine's paintings.  The artist's biggest achievements - being the first woman in Drawing Academy in Florence, painting for royalty - are brief epilogues.
Melanie MacFarland, Seattle Times


Every detail of the historical story has been inverted to produce a romanticized narrative of "true love" between Artemisia and Agostino Tassi, her rapist.... Those who study women's history, who know how fragile the truth about women in history always is, and how vulnerable it is to conflation with female stereotypes, have been and will be outraged by the latest injustice to Artemisia Gentileschi, who has repeatedly been subjected to sexualized explanations of her life and career success.
Contributed by Helen Langato to Art Historian's Guide to Movies

So why change the plot? To get a love story into the movie. A film such as "Artemisia" uses a nearly 400-year-old feminist archetype as a de facto cover-up of male villainy.

from Colorful Unhistory by John Anderson, Newsday

movie.jpg (28898 bytes)

Above images captured from video trailer
by Tika Yupanqui

In the film, Artemisia Gentileschi and Agostino Tassi are presented as voluntary and passionate lovers.... Artemisia testifies even when tortured that Tassi did not rape her. Tassi is presented first as a reluctant lover, then as a flawed but noble character who protects Artemisia by accepting the false charge of rape.

THE MYTHS: The idea that a woman artist is the creation of a male mentor has been a persistent myth in the history of art... So has the romanticization of violent rape, as in the rape scenes in this film, and the idea that women wish to be raped or fall in love with their rapists. .... The film Artemisia taps into pervasive stereotypes about women artists in general, and it perpetuates the stigma of a primarily sexualized identity that has followed Artemisia Gentileschi from her own lifetime down to the present.

At its most worthwhile, Artemisia examines the tools and techniques of 17th-century art.... Unfortunately, the subtle power of Gentileschi's painting is missing. Although the film opens with an image of secrecy--Artemisia taking a candle into her bed to view the hidden contours of her own body--it ...makes the heroine a slave to the heart.... Merlet's Artemisia is a subject fit for a Harlequin romance. 
by Mary Garrard and Gloria Steinem

from the web site Artemisia Gentileschi in the Movies by Adrienne DeAngelis

With some high-profile help from Gloria Steinem, art historian Mary Garrard has organized a campaign to inform audiences for "Artemisia" that what they're seeing is not, as was promised in early advertisements, "The Untold True Story of an Extraordinary Woman."

In the transcript (of Gentileschi's testimony at the trial, based on records preserved in an archive in Rome),  Gentileschi describes the rape in graphic detail and states that Tassi continued to have sex with her... with the understanding that he would protect her honor by eventually wedding her..... In the movie, by contrast, she's a willing partner in lust. During the trial, she says only that "I love him"; "he loves me"; "he gives me pleasure."

In the movie, Gentileschi refuses to testify that she was raped, even under torture, a sacrifice that prompts a devastated Tassi to make a sham confession..... Just as problematic, says Garrard, is the way the movie ascribes Gentileschi's creative maturation to the influence of, of all people, the man whom history records as her assailant.... At the same time, many inconvenient details -- most glaringly, Tassi's relentless campaign during the trial to smear Gentileschi as a slut -- didn't make it into the movie....
from Alyssa Katz,  SALON, May 15, 1998

artemisiavideo.gif (7049 bytes) Artemisia
The Movie
Links to Reviews
Official Site:

The content of this web site is copyright 1999 by Tracy Marks (alias Tika Yupanqui). Most photos on this site were scanned and optimized by Tracy Marks and may not be used without permission. The two single-image pictures from the movie however are from Miramax, and copyrighted by Miramax.