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She developed a very high level of skill amazingly early. Her first masterpiece, Susanna and the Elders, was signed and dated in 1610, and may have been completed when she was 16. It is remarkably technically accomplished. She probably used herself as a model for Susanna, whose nudity is painted accurately but not pruriently. Susanna’s nakedness was frequently an excuse for prurience — it is, for instance in Tintoretto’s rendition of the subject — but the youthful Artemisia’s Susanna is a study in vulnerability, not an exercise in parading female flesh to male viewers — although it is inevitably and unavoidably also that. Artemisia returned to the subject twice, once in 1622, and once again more than 40 years later, in 1652. In the 1652 version, which was done in partnership with her pupil Onofri Palombo, Susanna is not naked — but she is just as vulnerable.

Artemisia’s attitude to female nudity has caused problems for some feminist scholars. Naked, or at least bare-breasted, women are sprinkled more or less evenly throughout her paintings. What was this “proto-feminist” doing painting so many women in various states of undress?

The most likely answer is that she did it because that was what her patrons and clients wanted.  She  forged a reputation during her own lifetime for painting beautiful naked women, and one of the reasons why she did not get any big commissions from the Church when she lived in Rome was probably that reputation. (She did receive commissions from the Church once she moved to Naples.)

It is notable that there is not a single unclothed male in any of her pictures. The reason is almost certainly that she would not have been able to draw naked men from life: having them in her studio would have been too big a scandal even for her. On the other hand, male artists did not generally have naked women in their studios in the first half of the 17th century. Artemisia did. In one of her letters, she complains about “the intolerable expense of female models”, and how “out of the 50 women who undress themselves, there is scarcely one good one”. In another, she laments: “When I find good ones, they fleece me, and at other times, one must suffer their petty gossip with the patience of Job.”

Artemisia may have found employing female models costly and tedious, but it gave her a significant comparative advantage when it came to the depiction of naked women. There was always a significant demand for such images, which were given a veneer of respectability by being part of religious or mythological subjects. Artemisia met that demand, and it helped to keep her prosperous.

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