Esther before Ahasuerus by Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi

Esther before Ahasuerus, c.1626–30, Oil on canvas, 208.3 x 273.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Elinor Dorrance Ingersoll, 1969, 69.281,

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Feigned Feminine Fragility

Commentary by

Artemisia Gentileschi was the first woman ever accepted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing in Florence—at great personal cost. Like Esther, she succeeded in a man’s world.

Her representation of Esther before Ahasuerus includes a detail found in the Greek text but not the Hebrew: Esther fainting into her maidservants’ arms (Additions to Esther 15:7). Generally, the greatly expanded Greek version of Esther (drawn upon heavily by the Latin Vulgate) gives more psychological insight into its heroine. But at this pivotal moment when Esther seeks to win the king’s sympathy and save her fellow Jews, the narrator heightens the drama by not divulging Esther’s mental state as she faints not once, but twice.

While the text at first seems to paint Esther as a helpless damsel, Artemisia seems to suggest that Esther’s faint was the feint of an actress staging helplessness for royal sympathy. Her body remains vertical from the waist down; this supposed collapse is more of a torso twist than a real fall. Only her left leg bends; her right remains firm. The maidens stand conveniently close to her, as if choreographed, yet they do not block the king’s view of her wilting figure.

Gentileschi’s portrayal of the king also diminishes the king’s physical presence. Here he is ‘hardly more than an overly luxurious, effete adolescent’ (Soltes 2018: 75); she appears more mature (Treves 2020). His royal rod is absent. He seems to stare at her pale cleavage rather than jumping to help her. Though he is seated on a raised throne, their heads are almost level, suggesting an equality in their relationship. By depicting the king as youthful, perhaps inexperienced, Artemisia alludes to the book of Esther’s broader portrayal of Ahasuerus as weak-minded and fickle.

In suggesting that Esther merely feigned feminine weakness to win over the king, Artemisia foreshadows recent feminist readings of Esther by centuries. Her depiction of Esther as the true master of this scene, and the master of the king, suggests that behind the textual narrative’s apparently helpless heroine is a consummate actress and rhetor.



Soltes, Ori Z. 2018. ‘Beauty and Its Beholders: Envisioning Sarah and Esther’, in Biblical Women and the Arts, ed. by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Biblical Reception 5 (London: T&T Clark), pp. 57–82

Treves Letizia. 2020. Artemisia (London: National Gallery)

Read next commentary