Portrait of a Young Woman as a Sibyl, c. 1620
Orazio Gentileschi, Italian (Florentine), 1563–1639
Oil on canvas
32 1/8 × 28 3/4 in. (81.6 × 73 cm) Frame: 40 1/2 × 37 × 3 1/8 in. (102.9 × 94 × 8 cm)
The Samuel H. Kress Collection

Habits of Mind

  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Portraits Taking Shape

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.




Social Studies


Understand Bias


Connecting to the Work of Art

Born in Pisa, Gentileschi moved to Rome and, by the age of 20, began to study painting. He was one of the few artists to work with the tempestuous master painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573–1610). Gentileschi developed his own style and a reputation that earned him the opportunity to paint for Marie de Médicis in Paris. In 1626 Gentileschi moved to England where he became court painter to Charles I. Gentileschi lived in England for the remainder of his life.

This young woman holding a scroll and leaning against a slab bearing hieroglyphics is a sibyl. In ancient Greek literature and legend a sibyl is a woman with the gift of prophecy. The young woman here wears a turban, which identifies her as a sibyl, and holds a scroll on which her prophecies are recorded. The name sibyl, taken from a specific woman hailing from Asia Minor, was first mentioned in the writings of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. By the end of the 1st century B.C. there are ten different sibyls on record, each linked to a famous oracular shrine of the ancient world. By the end of the Middle Ages, the Church had accepted twelve different sibyls, all associated with the coming of Christ.

This solid young woman, a physical type often painted by Gentileschi, is thought to be the artist’s daughter, the talented and successful artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Her calm, direct gaze speaks of a tender familiarity between the artist and sitter. If the model truly is Artemisia, this adds another layer of meaning to the painting. At the age of 19 Artemisia was allegedly raped, and during the trial she voluntarily submitted to a torturous test in which metal rings were tightened around her fingers in order to prove the truth of her accusation. This particular device for establishing the truth was called “the sibyls.”

Gentileschi’s paintings typically include few figures placed prominently in the composition. He was known for his use of sumptuous materials, as seen in the orange brocade cloth that drapes across the woman’s body. Other signatures of Gentileschi’s style include his meticulous attention to hands and face and the sibyl’s pose, with her upturned gaze and twisting body.

Gentileschi was a member of a group of 17th-century artists called “Caravaggisti,” painters who imitated the style and methods of the influential 17th-century Italian painter Caravaggio. Gentileschi incorporated Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro (Italian meaning bright-dark) into his painting, creating intense effects of light and shade. In Portrait of a Young Woman as a Sibyl the figure, placed against a dark background, is lit from the right side, highlighting her hands and face and the folds of elaborate drapery.

Conversation Starters

• Look carefully at the pose, expression, and direct gaze of this young woman. Describe the relationship between Gentileschi and his sitter. Why do you think historians believe this young woman could be the artist’s daughter? Do you think she feels comfortable with Gentileschi? Why or why not?

• Gentileschi was known for his use of light and dark, or chiaroscuro. Examine the lights and darks of this painting. How does Gentileschi guide your eye through this painting using light? Where does he want you to look first? Where does he want your eye to travel? Consider the folds of cloth, dark background, and twisted pose.


• Research the history of the sibyl, beginning with the writings of Heraclitus. What other cultures and/or religious groups adopted the myths of sibyls? Why do you think it was important for a culture to have women who could tell the future?

• Examine images by Caravaggio, such as The Calling of St. Matthew. Compare and contrast Caravaggio’s style to that of Gentileschi. What about this work do you think appealed to 17th-century Italians?

Subject Matter Connection

  • The subject of this painting, Artemisia Gentileschi, was an Italian Baroque painter in an era when women had few opportunities to pursue artistic training or work as professional artists. She achieved prominence unparalleled for women of her time; she was the first woman to become a member of Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.  How might she have been a role model for the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th and 20th centuries? Describe the equal rights movement in Texas, comparing  Gentileschi to key women leaders of that movement (such as Lulu Belle Madison White and Oveta Culp Hobby).

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.