How Artemisia Gentileschi, the Pioneering 17th-Century Female Painter, Outdid Caravaggio with the Striking, Violent Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1620)

Today, the name Judith hard­ly calls to mind a woman capa­ble of great vio­lence. Things seem to have been dif­fer­ent in antiq­ui­ty: “The Bib­li­cal sto­ry from the Book of Judith tells how the beau­ti­ful Israelite wid­ow Judith brave­ly seduces and then kills the sex­u­al­ly aggres­sive Assyr­i­an gen­er­al Holofernes in order to save her peo­ple,” says gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne in the Great Art Explained video above. “It was seen as a sym­bol of tri­umph over tyran­ny, a sort of female David and Goliath.” It thus made the ide­al sub­ject mat­ter for the painter Artemisia Gen­tileschi, who fol­lowed in the foot­steps of her father Orazio Gen­tileschi, and who gained noto­ri­ety at a young age for her involve­ment in a major sex-crime tri­al.

As Rebec­ca Mead writes in the New York­er, “Artemisia was raped by a friend of Orazio’s: the artist Agosti­no Tas­si,” who had been hired to tutor her. Though Tas­si promised to mar­ry her after that and sub­se­quent encoun­ters, he nev­er made good — and indeed mar­ried anoth­er woman — which prompt­ed Orazio Gen­tileschi to seek rec­om­pense for the fam­i­ly’s lost hon­or in court. In our time, “the assault has inevitably, and often reduc­tive­ly, been the lens through which her artis­tic accom­plish­ments have been viewed. The some­times sav­age themes of her paint­ings have been inter­pret­ed as expres­sions of wrath­ful cathar­sis.” This is truer of none of her works than Judith Behead­ing Holofernes, the sub­ject of Payne’s video.

“Even for sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Flo­rence, this paint­ing was unusu­al­ly grue­some,” he says, “and even more unusu­al was that it was paint­ed by a woman.” What’s more, it came a cou­ple of decades after a ren­di­tion of the same Bib­li­cal event by no less a mas­ter than Michelan­ge­lo Merisi da Car­avag­gio. “Car­avag­gio dom­i­nat­ed the art scene in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, and he was also a good friend of Gen­tileschi’s father,” which means that Artemisia could have received his influ­ence direct­ly. Both of their images of Holofernes’ death at Judith’s hands are “pure Baroque paint­ings: exag­ger­at­ed move­ment, high con­trast light set off by deep dark shad­ows, con­tort­ed fea­tures and vio­lent ges­tures, a focus on the the­atri­cal.”

Yet with its intense phys­i­cal­i­ty — as well as its frank­ness about Judith and her maid­ser­van­t’s con­cen­tra­tion on their mur­der­ous task — Artemisi­a’s paint­ing makes a greater impact on view­ers. Mead notes that it “was for decades hid­den from pub­lic view, pre­sum­ably on the ground that it was dis­taste­ful” and that it moved nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry art his­to­ri­an Anna Brownell Jame­son to wish for “the priv­i­lege of burn­ing it to ash­es.” Though the artist fell into obscu­ri­ty after her death, the cul­ture of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry has ele­vat­ed her out of it: “on art-adja­cent blogs, Artemisia’s strength and occa­sion­al­ly obnox­ious self-assur­ance are held forth as her most essen­tial qual­i­ties. She has become, as the Inter­net term of approval has it, a badass bitch.” Nor has her name hurt her brand. Artemisia: now there’s a for­mi­da­ble-sound­ing woman.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to the Paint­ing of Artemisia Gen­tileschi, the First Woman Admit­ted to Florence’s Accad­e­mia di Arte del Dis­eg­no (1593–1653)

A Short Intro­duc­tion to Car­avag­gio, the Mas­ter Of Light

A Space of Their Own, a New Online Data­base, Will Fea­ture Works by 600+ Over­looked Female Artists from the 15th-19th Cen­turies

What Makes Caravaggio’s The Tak­ing of Christ a Time­less, Great Paint­ing?

The Female Pio­neers of the Bauhaus Art Move­ment: Dis­cov­er Gertrud Arndt, Mar­i­anne Brandt, Anni Albers & Oth­er For­got­ten Inno­va­tors

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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