Orazio Gentileschi’s life and career spanned a period marked by significant artistic movements and innovations: from the late Mannerism of his early paintings to the revolutionary style of Caravaggio, which he adopted for a short time in Rome, and a courtly ‘international’ style, whose elegance and refinement characterise his mature works.
Despite having a ‘difficult, arrogant, and vindictive’ character, Orazio enjoyed an international career working across Italy – in Rome, Ancona, Fabriano, Genoa, and Turin – as well as in Paris and London. He counted noblemen and monarchs among his patrons and spent the last twelve years of his life in England at the court of King Charles I, joining the ranks of other celebrated artist-diplomats who travelled to London, Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens.
Orazio was born in Pisa, into a family of artists – his father Giovanni Battista Lomi was a Florentine goldsmith and his older brother Aurelio was a painter. In 1576/8 Orazio moved to Rome, where he assumed the name ‘Gentileschi’ (from a maternal uncle). Not much is known about Orazio’s early works, though he seems to have been involved in a number of collaborative fresco projects. Orazio’s wife Prudentia di Montone died in 1605, leaving him with four children – three sons and a daughter, Artemisia – whom he trained in the art of painting. Though Artemisia pursued an independent career in Florence and became an artist of considerable success, Orazio’s sons stayed with him and later accompanied him to London.
From around 1600 Orazio is known to have associated with Caravaggio, then emerging as Rome’s most innovative painter. Under Caravaggio’s influence, Orazio’s paintings began to assume greater naturalism, but his Caravaggesque phase was short-lived and he soon reverted to a more elegant style and varied colour range.
In the first decade of the seventeenth century Orazio’s career began to take off, as he became a member of the Congregazione dei Virtuosi al Pantheon (1605) and produced mosaics for the basilica of Saint Peter’s. In 1611–12 he painted frescoes alongside Agostino Tassi in the Palazzo del Quirinale and Scipione Borghese’s Casino delle Muse. In March 1612 Orazio pressed charges against Tassi for ‘deflowering’ his daughter, Artemisia – the lengthy trial resulted in Tassi’s conviction and Artemisia’s departure for Florence.
Although Orazio continued to gain commissions and broaden his private clientele (including the powerful Savelli family), it seems that the trial may have compromised his career prospects in Rome. He sought to move out of the city, producing works for churches and monasteries in the Marches, but his attempts to win commissions in Venice and Pesaro were unsuccessful. A pivotal moment in Orazio’s career came in 1621 when he was invited to Genoa by Giovan Antonio Sauli and worked for the Duke of Savoy in Turin.
A few years later he was in Paris, working for the Queen of France, Maria (Marie) de’ Medici. Here Orazio met George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, who was quick to invite him to London. The painter left Paris in 1626 to assume a position at the court of the newly crowned Charles I. In London Orazio seems to have painted almost exclusively for Buckingham and, after his assassination in August 1628, for Queen Henrietta Maria.
One of only a handful of paintings Orazio produced in London, The Finding of Moses once hung in the Great Hall of the Queen’s House at Greenwich, beneath a ceiling depicting an allegory of Peace reigning over the Arts (now at Marlborough House, London). The ceiling canvases, on which Artemisia is thought to have collaborated during her trip to London in the late 1630s, were the last great achievement of Orazio’s career. He died following an illness in 1639, aged seventy-six, and was granted the honour of burial in the Queen’s Chapel at Somerset House.