Art / essay

Judith and Her Maidservant: a Brief Examination

        Artemisa Gentileschi was born into an artistic family in 1593. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi (1563 – 1639), was an accomplished painter who worked to decorate many major churches in Italy. His influence and training of Artemisia greatly determined her artistic direction. Yet Orazio, a follower of Caravaggio, spread his influence to Artemisia, and although not strictly adhering to the philosophy of the caravaggisti, both Orazio and Artemisia painted with the heavy use of chiaroscuro. Artemisia particularly accepted the philosophy of capturing a particularly dramatic moment as in the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. Of the many paintings on the subject, Artemisia produced a version, Judith and Her Maidservant, which distinguishes itself from others (see Fig. 1).

Unsatisfied with passive or static figurative display, Artemisia sought to convey the poignancy of a moment. Ingrid D. Rowland states “. . . Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings throb with drama: the young matron Susanna cringes naked under the leering scrutiny of two scheming elders; an elaborately bejeweled and buxom Judith saws a broadsword through the neck of the Assyrian general Holofernes, heedless of his spattering blood; the dying Cleopatra writhes under the deadly effects of snakebite. Artemisia’s art, like her life, was seldom for the faint of heart”. This is very much the case with Judith and Her Maidservant.

Fig. 1. Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith and Her Maidservant. c. 1613-1614. Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

Fig. 1. Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith and Her Maidservant. c. 1613-1614. Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

The biblical story of Judith and Holofernes involves the saving of a city and a people when Judith flirtatiously gets a hostile Assyrian general drunk, and with the help of her maidservant, lops off his head after he passes out. In many depictions by various artists, the subject focuses on the act of decapitation. However, Artemisia has chosen just as dramatic a moment when, having gathered Holofernes’ head into a basket, Judith and her maidservant anxiously seek to escape from the enemy’s camp. Both figures look off stage, as it were. Perhaps they hear a noise or perceive a movement. The strong diagonals emphasize the danger as the two figures stand out against a murky, ominous background. Yet a sense of determination—not fear–is seen from the sword effectively gripped by Judith as if held in readiness. If one looks at a close detail of the sword, the hilt appropriately displays a gorgon, the bane of many men and of Perseus fame.

Comparing this rendering with her Judith Beheading Holofernes, the drama is not as obvious, but just as palpable (see Fig. 2). Judith Beheading Holofernes is much more caravaggist with its stark tenebrosity and strong highlights as is seen in Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (see Fig. 3). Although not entirely dissimilar, we see a softness and unity of color in Artemisia’s Judith and Her Maidservant not seen in the others. Most importantly, we are not held at a distance but brought close, as if we, too, are looking for the best way out and grateful for the sword wielding Judith.

Fig. 2. Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Beheading Holofernes (Naples Version). c.1612-1613. Museo di Capolodimonte, Naples.

Fig. 2. Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Beheading Holofernes (Naples Version). c.1612-1613. Museo di Capolodimonte, Naples.

 

Fig. 3. Caravaggio. Judith Beheading Holofernes. c.1598-1599. Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome.

Fig. 3. Caravaggio. Judith Beheading Holofernes. c.1598-1599. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome.

When compared to Mantegna’s Judith and Holofernes, Giorgione’s Judith, Michelangelo’s Judith and Holofernes, and Botticelli’s Judith’s Return to Bethulia, we can understand the significant difference between Renaissance and Baroque depictions (see Fig. 4, Fig. 5, and Fig. 6). Artemisia gives us real women in a gritty, dangerous drama, not idealizations or florid expressions. We are made spectators to the action.

Fig. 4. Andrea Mantegna. Judith and Holofernes. c. 1495. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Fig. 4. Andrea Mantegna. Judith and Holofernes. c. 1495. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

 

Fig. 5. Giorgione. Judith. c.1504. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Fig. 5. Giorgione. Judith. c.1504. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

 

Fig. 6. Alessandro Botticelli. Judith's Return to Bethulia. c.1469-1470. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Fig. 6. Alessandro Botticelli. Judith’s Return to Bethulia. c.1469-1470. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

     Judith and Her Maidservant belies a refined artist who seems to be pushed by exactitude to a much greater extent than by frustration and anger brought about by abuse that life had doled out to her—from rape by Tassi and abandonment by her husband (Loughery). In most cases, her skill equals or surpasses that of her father’s. Possibly she had a much greater drive in order to succeed as an artist due to the inhibiting factor of the status of women at the time. Nevertheless, the profundity of her visions as in Judith and Her Maidservant evinces more than just an angry woman, but rather an artist in control and successful in individual interpretation.

Bibliography

 Bal, Meike, ed. The Artemisia files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Bissell, R. Ward. Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art : Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonné. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

DeTurk, Sabrina. “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi.” Sixteenth Century Journal 34.1  (Spring2003 2003): 292. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Arizona State University Library, Tempe, AZ. 4 Mar. 2009     <http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9738390&site=ehost-live&gt;.

Ells-Buehman, Bethel Elizabeth “Artemisia Gentileschi and the theme of Judith and  Holofernes”. Thesis (M.A.)–Arizona State University, 1978.

Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian  Baroque Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

– – – ed. Artemisia Gentileschi around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Pollock, G. “Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque  Art,” The Art Bulletin 72 (September 1990): 499-505.

Hayum, Andree. “Orazio & Artemisia.” Art in America 90.9 (Sep. 2002): 104. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Arizona State University Library, Tempe, AZ. 4 Mar. 2009         <http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7341717&site=ehost-live&gt;.

Helen Christopoulou-Aletra, Niki Papavramidou, and Paulo Pozzilli. “Goitrous Beauty in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and her Maidservant.” Thyroid 17.1 (Jan. 2007): 37-38. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Arizona State University Library,       Tempe, AZ. 4 Mar. 2009        <http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=23930168&site=ehost-live&gt;.

King, Catherine. “Great masters and exceptional women.” Art History 25.5 (Nov. 2002): 684. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Arizona State University Library, Tempe, AZ. 4 Mar. 2009  <http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=8906994&site=ehost-live&gt;.

Lent, Tina Olsin. “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”: The Fictionalization of Baroque Artist Artemisia Gentileschi in Contemporary Film and Novels. Literature Film Quarterly 34.3 (July 2006): 212-218. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Arizona State University Library, Tempe, AZ. 4 Mar. 2009       <http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=22275239&site=ehost-live&gt;.

Loughery, John. “Sexual Violence: Baroque to Surrealist.” Hudson Review 55.2 (Summer2002 2002): 293. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Arizona State University Library, Tempe, AZ. 4 Mar. 2009        <http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6931965&site=ehost-live&gt;.

Mann, Judith Walker, ed. Artemisia Gentileschi: Taking Stock. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2005.

O’Neill, Mary. “Artemisia’s Moment.” Smithsonian 33.2 (May 2002): 52. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Arizona State University Library, Tempe, AZ. 4 Mar. 2009       <http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6566302&site=ehost-live&gt;.

Rowland, Ingrid D. “Going for Baroque.” The New Republic 227.14 (30 Sep. 2002): 37-41. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Arizona State University Library, Tempe, AZ. 4 Mar. 2009     <http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login? url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7373211&site=ehost-live>.

 

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https://howardbosler.wordpress.com/

 

self-portrait-in-red260.jpg

Self-Portrait

 

 


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