How a female artist broke with convention in this vivid and gruesome painting
Take some time to look at this painting. It is dramatic and gruesome. It is also complicated.
It was painted by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Not only was she a supremely talented painter, she was also unusual for being a woman in a predominantly male profession. In 17th-century European art, Artemisia was an exception. Her willingness to challenge convention meant she become the first woman to gain membership to the Florence Academy of the Arts of Drawing in 1616. This self-confidence is also evident in her art, not least in this painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, made sometime between 1614 and 1620 when Gentileschi was in her twenties.
The event depicted is the climatic moment of the story of Judith and Holofernes, as told in the Old Testament and later elaborated in apocryphal texts.
Judith was a beautiful and wealthy widow from the Jewish city of Bethulia. The city was at war with the Assyrian army. Desperately under siege, Bethulia was on the point of surrender. The Assyrians were led by a general called Holofernes. In order to save her city, Judith devised a scheme to kill Holofernes; she pretended to desert her people and cross over into enemy territory. Captivated by her beauty, Holofernes put on a banquet for Judith, and then later took her back to his private quarters. Intent on seducing her, he was instead sedated by too much wine, at which Judith seized his sword and with two swift blows, severed his head. She and her maidservant took the severed head in a sack and returned to Bethulia. After the fate of Holofernes had been discovered, the Assyrian army quickly fell into disarray and consequently retreated.
In this painting, Gentileschi chose to show the actual moment of the assassination. The challenge that she poses to the viewer is to look upon the scene without recoiling. She gives us the most direct view possible, with fierce attention paid to the bloody realism of the slaying.
Gentileschi’s style was strongly influenced by the preeminent artist of Rome at the time, Caravaggio. As artists looked to each other for ideas and inspiration, Gentileschi and her father (Orazio Gentileschi, who was also an artist) incorporated elements of Caravaggio’s painting style into their work.
Caravaggio was admired — and sometimes reviled — for the intense and unsettling realism of his work. His extreme form of chiaroscuro, using contrasts of light and dark, meant his scenes became events of heightened drama, where the details of gesture or facial expression were pronounced in the vivid language of highlights and shadow.
Caravaggio painted his own version of Judith and Holofernes in 1599, some two decades before Gentileschi. It was, up until Gentileschi’s version, perhaps the most macabre version of the scene ever painted.
Prior to Caravaggio, artists tended to show Judith holding or carrying the head of Holofernes after the slaying. Judith is seen holding the severed head in her hands or in a basket, or else displaying it on a plate. These works tended to emphasise Judith’s wealth, making her fine clothes and jewellery a central emblem of the image and thereby underlining her noble status — and by implication, the nobleness of the deed.
Gentileschi’s painting, under the influence of Caravaggio, focuses on the more graphic moment of the murder. Judith has taken hold of Holofernes’ head by grasping a clutch of hair and turning his head away from her, drawing the sword across his neck. It is a gruesome and vivid portrayal that has no intention of softening the brutal nature of the act.
Spiralling around Holofernes’ contorted head is a complex arrangement of overlapping arms, which array outwards like the spokes of a wheel. This patterning of flesh tones acts as a kind of semi-circle around Holofernes’ head, against which his dark beard, the shape of the sword and the spray of blood stand out vividly. The triumph of Gentileschi’s composition is in how we look directly into Holofernes’ eyes, which are wide open as if he is watching his own death unfold.
To foreground Holofernes’ head in this way helps to anchor the composition on a single point. All of the elements of the work are built up around this atomic core. The arms of all three protagonists, as they flare outwards, form a sort of spiral around Holofernes’ twisted face.
Beyond this, there is another semicircle made up of the red, blue and gold fabrics of the protagonists’ clothing. The red cloak that covers Holofernes begins the shape; it passes through the blue of the maid’s clothing and culminates in Judith’s golden dress.
The two women who undertake the deed, Judith and her maid, are painted with intense concentration on their faces. It is neither disgust nor vitriol they express, but instead a type of practical determination. In this way, the psychological tension of the work is somehow balanced out: Judith undertakes her deed with a steadfastness that regulates some of the horror of the scene. Still, the macabre touches persist: in the spray of blood from Holofernes’ severed arteries, Gentileschi has substituted Judith’s jewellery with a ruby necklace of blood.
Judith Slaying Holofernes was in fact Gentileschi’s second attempt at the subject. An earlier version, painted sometime before 1612, operates as a kind of forerunner to the later version.
The similarities between the two paintings are quite clear. In the first, the overall composition is fully laid out and changes little into the second. Where the differences show are in the intensity of the scene. For in the more recent work, the chiaroscuro is stronger. There is almost no suggestion of depth in either painting; yet in the second, the highlights are painted with greater conviction. Judith’s dress has switched to yellow. The tonal contrasts in Holofernes’ face are more noticeable. Both the nocturnal setting and also the main event in the foreground are emphasised. Everything is more intense.
Much of Gentileschi’s reputation, particularly in recent years, has been shaped by the rape she endured as a teenager in 1611, at the hands of another artist, Agostino Tassi. The case went to trial and remarkably detailed court records exist. They capture Gentileschi’s entire testimony, from which her voice rings out clearly: “He then threw me on to the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them. Lifting my clothes, he placed a hand with a handkerchief on my mouth to keep me from screaming.”
Despite the clarity of Gentileschi’s court testimony, the outcome of the trial was complicated, owing to the fact that Gentileschi and Tassi continued to have relations after the event, and also because of the contemporary expectation of Gentileschi having been a virgin prior to the rape, without which the charges could not have been pressed. At the end of the trial, a disgraced Tassi was exiled from Rome, although no sentence was ever enforced.
Readings of Gentileschi’s art have been strongly influenced by these events, with many historians choosing to interpret her paintings as a proto-feminist response to her experiences. The idea is that Gentileschi took revenge on Tassi — and on men in general — through her gruesome depictions.
It is true that many of Gentileschi’s paintings focus on strong female heroines from myth, allegory and the Bible. Two of her most well-known works are Susanna and the Elders and Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, both of which show strong female protagonists in opposition to men.
Yet it would be a mistake to ascribe the content of Gentileschi’s art to the events in her personal life. It is perhaps more appropriate to read her paintings within a wider historical context. For instance, as a woman it is likely that she was limited only to female models, including her daughters and sometimes herself, which explains her apparent preference for female subjects. She also worked under the patronage of grand-dukes and kings; in short, she worked within a marketplace and served tastes for dramatic narratives from the Bible or classical sources.
Gentileschi was an artist who, against the prevailing conditions of the time, developed a successful career as a painter in a male-dominated field. More than this, she made work that continue to astonish viewers even four centuries after they were made. Paintings like Judith Slaying Holofernes are evidence enough of a remarkable talent and a self-confident individual.