The pious and chaste 6th c. BCE Roman noblewoman Lucretia had been such a model of feminine virtue that she enflamed the lust of Sextus Tarquinius, son of the king, to the point that he arranged to accost her in private. When she resisted his pleas, he threatened to place her naked, dead body beside that of a male slave so that it would look like adultery. The threat worked and Lucretia permitted the violation. Following the rape, Lucretia told her male relatives and elicited a promise for revenge. As early Romans considered the rape of a woman a property crime against the husband, Lucretia chose suicide - via knife or dagger - rather than dishonor her family and taint her posterity. Thus she stabbed herself in the heart and died. First Livy, then Shakespeare, penned the tale of the tragic heroine.
Richard Hooker, “Rome: the Rape of Lucretia, Livy, Book 1.57-60”:http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/ROME/RAPE.HTM © 1996
Carlos Parada, Greek Mythology Link, “Lucretia 2”: http://www.maicar.com/GML/Lucretia2.html © 1993
Unknown name, "Etruscan Sexuality: Livy on Lucretia": http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/theopompus/, unknown date
Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucrezia 1623-25, National Gallery, Washington, DC
© Courtesy of Dorotheum
In this painting, Gentileschi presents Lucretia, a figure from classical mythology who was raped and, after confessing what had happened, killed herself. In doing so Lucretia became a popular symbol of female defiance against male tyranny. Here, Gentileschi depicts the moment in which Lucretia makes the decision to stab herself. The image is pared down in terms of detail - Lucretia is without jewelry or the trappings of wealth seen in other images and she wears only a disheveled slip, perhaps indicating the rape has only just occurred. This simplicity along with the close crop and dramatic lighting, which highlights her face and breast, places the focus firmly on Lucretia, presenting her as a solitary figure and emphasizing her personal agency in her decision to commit suicide after being mistreated by men. Whereas other (male) artists had often depicted Lucretia's rape or the pathos of her death, she instead focuses on the psychological consequences of the rape. By grasping both her breast and the dagger, Gentileschi draws attention to the character's femininity and the nurturing potential of the woman, as well as indicating her bold intention. The act that is about to occur is anticipated in the blood red of the fabric which spills across her lap and out of the pictorial frame. Gentileschi's portrayal of Lucretia is an important example of what the art historian Mary Garrard has termed the artist's creation and promotion of the 'female hero' in her art - "a three-dimensional female character who is heroic in the classical sense" - something which is otherwise missing from 17th century painting. Garrard argues that Gentileschi repeatedly presents women in this way by focusing on the psychology of her subjects and moving the viewer to feelings of pity and awe.