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Arts of Europe

The MFAH collections of art created on the European continent encompass artistic styles across the time line of history, from the ancient world to the Middle Ages, and the Early Modern era to the 21st century.

Italian, 1563 - 1639
Portrait of a Young Woman as a Sibyl
c. 1620
Oil on canvas

32 1/8 x 28 3/4 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Samuel H. Kress Collection

Arts of Europe

The young woman in this painting by Orazio Gentileschi has been identified by scholars as the artist's daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi. A renowned painter herself, she trained in her father's workshop and established a European reputation that allowed her a life of independence rare for a woman of her day.

One of the most important followers of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571/72–1610), Orazio Gentileschi combined a refined and elegant personal manner with Caravaggio's powerful sense of realism. In this painting, the identification of Artemisia as a Sibyl—defined in ancient Greek literature and legend as a woman with the gift of prophecy—may be based on what happened during the trial of Roman artist Agostino Tassi, whom she accused of rape. She voluntarily submitted to a torture called the sibyls, which involved a device consisting of metal rings that were tightened about the fingers by a set of cords to determine the truth.

The view of the sibyl and her upturned head are typical features of Orazio Gentileschi's heroines, and the rendering of her sumptuous orange brocade drapery anticipates the increased elegance of his later painting. His precociously gifted daughter possessed a formidable personality, and she became not only one of the greatest of Caravaggesque painters but also a heroine to feminist art historians.