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Defining 18th Century Gender Roles

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Introduction The Renaissance spirit of inquiry renewed the debate about the role of women in society, a theme, which resonated in the visual arts of the era. Traditionally, "chastity, compliance, delicacy and modesty" were the qualities ascribed to a truly virtuous female, whom was essentially excluded from a real participation in society. Scholars and painters alike glorified male power and achievement in the social sphere, while "the greatest female accomplishment lay in obedience, rather than intellectual pursuits". Artemisia Gentileschi, was one of the first female artists to challenge the traditional monopoly over the passive female ideal, as her life and art redefined feminine accomplishment in terms of the conventional masculine standards of achievement. Many have thus interpreted Artremesia as a pioneer of modern feminism; however, the legitimacy of this assertion is questionable. One of her most infamous paintings, Judith Beheading Holofernes, provides insight into the consequences of her bold confrontation with conventional female gender limitations. The piece explicitly depicts two heroic female subjects imbued with traditionally masculine characteristics. The women are thus afforded a position of power, which would have otherwise been inaccessible to them. While, Gentileschi thus succeeds in creating a feminine 'power outlet', in her depiction of Judith and her maidservant, she markedly fails to acknowledge a feminine virtue which is unique and distinct from the traditional masculine ideal. ...read more.


She must not attempt to divide his authority, or so much as dispute it, to struggle with her yoke will only make it gall more, but must believe him to be wise and just and in all respects best, at least he must be so to her. She who can't do this is in no way fit to be a wife. (20) The preceding passage illustrates the limitation of control, which women of this time period were expected to contend with (even within the private sphere of social influence). As, all of the decisions of the virtuous wife were expected to be in concurrence with her husband's asserted authority. Finally, the most important feminine asset was considered to be that of chastity. The particular significance of this virtue was grounded in the fact that men were considered naturally un- chaste, and unable to control their passions. Women were thus, responsible for the preservation of their innocence, and the up holding of sexual moral values. Additionally, as the following quote explicitly indicates, the social consequence incurred by a loss of honor was often drastic. A woman who has lost her honor imagines that she cannot fall lower, and as for recovering her former station, it is impossible; no exertion can wash the stain away. ...read more.


As the cords were tightened around her fingers, she was said to have cried out to Tassi, "this is the ring you give me, and these are your promises." She must have passed the test; Tassi was convicted and sentenced to five- year banishment from Rome (a punishment apparently never enforced). Soon afterwards Artemisia married a "well born but debt ridden" young Florentine painter named Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved to Florence with him. There in the company of luminaries such as Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarroti, she entered upon a career that would have been the envy of most male contemporaries. Gentileschi rebelled against the dominant model of passive womanhood by cultivating an image of herself as strong, active, intellegent and powerful. Traits, which would have been considered as masculine to the seventeenth century mind. The following striking statement, uttered by Artemisia herself provides revealing insight into her perception of self. "I will say no more, except what I have on my mind, that I think Your Most Illustrious Lordship will not surlier any loss with me, and that you will find the spirit of a Ceaser in the soul of a woman."(4) Gentileschi's appropriation of Ceaser's masculine spirit, distances herself from all other woman of her time. Artremesia, does not acknowledge any value within her perception of feminity, and thus choses to conform to traditionally masculine ideals. 1 ...read more.

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