Artemisia Gentileschi was born Artemisia Gentileschi Lomi in Rome on July 8, 1593, although her birth certificate from the Archivio di Stato indicated she was born in 1590, the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi and Prudenzia di Ottaviano Montoni. Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father's workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked alongside her. She learned drawing, how to mix color, and how to paint. "By 1612, when she was not yet nineteen years old, her father could boast of her extraordinary talents, claiming that in the profession of painting, which she had practiced for three years, she had no peer".
Since her father's style took inspiration from Caravaggio during that period, her style was just as heavily influenced in turn. Her approach to subject matter was different from her father's, however, as her paintings are highly naturalistic, where Orazio's are idealized. At the same time, Artemisia had to resist the "traditional attitude and psychological submission to this brainwashing and jealousy of her obvious talent". By doing so, she gained great respect and recognition for her work.
The first surviving work of the seventeen-year-old Artemisia was the Susanna and the Elders (1610, Schönborn collection in Pommersfelden). At the time some, influenced by the prevailing misconceptions, suspected that she was helped by her father. The painting shows how Artemisia assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the language of Annibale Carracci and the Bologna school. It is one of the few paintings on the theme of Susannashowing the sexual accosting by the two Elders as a traumatic event.
In 1611, her father was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino delle Muse inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome, so Orazio hired the painter to tutor his daughter privately. During this tutelage, Tassi raped Artemisia. Another man, Cosimo Quorli, was also involved.
After the rape, Artemisia continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, with the expectation that they were going to be married and with the hope to restore her dignity and her future. Tassi reneged on his promise to marry Artemisia. Nine months after the rape, when he learnt that Artemisia and Tassi were not going to be married, Orazio pressed charges against Tassi. Orazio also claimed that Tassi stole a painting of Judith from the Gentileschi household. The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Artemisia's virginity. If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, the Gentileschis would not have been able to press charges. During the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law, and planned to steal some of Orazio's paintings. At the end of the trial Tassi was exiled from Rome, although they never carried out the sentence. Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews at the trial, with the intention of verifying her testimony.
Artemisia was surrounded mainly by males since the loss of her mother at age 12. When Artemisia was 17, Orazio rented the upstairs apartment of their home to a female tenant, Tuzia. Artemisia befriended Tuzia; however, Tuzia allowed Agostino Tassi and Cosimo Quorlis to accompany Artemisia in Artemisia's home on multiple occasions. The day the rape occurred, Artemisia cried for the help of Tuzia, but Tuzia simply ignored Artemisia and pretended she knew nothing of what happened. Artemisia felt betrayed by Tuzia, and Tuzia's role in facilitating the rape has been compared to the role of a procuress who is complicit in the sexual exploitation of a prostitute.
The painting called Mother and Child is attributed to those early years. The baby has been interpreted as an indirect reference to Agostino Tassi, her rapist, as it dates to 1612, just 2 years after the rape. The painting appeared in a Swedish private collection during the 1960s. It depicts a strong and suffering woman and casts light on her anguish and expressive artistic capability.
A month after the trial, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. Shortly afterward the couple moved to Florence, where Artemisia received a commission for a painting at Casa Buonarroti. She became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the House of Medici and Charles I of England. It has been proposed that during this period Artemisia also painted the Virgin and Child, now in the Palazzo Spada, Rome.