Thursday, May 20, 2010

I don't think it's always wise to look for the personal details of someone's life to show up in an artist's work, but it's kind of tempting with Artemisia Gentileschi. (No, she was not a butcher or anything. . .who's that contemporary chef/author, Julie of Julie and Julia fame, the one who wrote a book about butchery?)

Here's Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-21). Apparently this portraitist and painter of religious scenes depticted this as many as six times. According to Dr. Robert Belton (Art, p. 248), Gentileschi was trained by her father and heavily influenced by Caravaggio. She follows his lead with strong lighting and a deep, black background.

Here's Caravaggio's from 1598, and what some critics have called a rather hesitant, squeamish Judith shrinking a bit from the task. Her maid looks rather up in years, especially compared to the stronger, younger maid in Gentileschi's version. In Art, Belton mentions an additional reason for the artist to focus on such a gory scene; as a 19 year-old Gentileschi claimed she was raped by one of the artist's in her father's workshop.

If you don't recall the Biblical story, here's a summary. In the Old Testament, the Jewish widow, Judith, saved the city of Bethulia from siege by the Assyrians by adorning herself and venturing into the enemy camp to gain access to the Assyrian general, Holofernes. He invited her to a banquet intending to seduce her, and while they were alone at the feast, Judith took advantage of Holofernes' drunkenness to decapitate him, and returned to Bethulia with his head in a sack. The Jews saw Judith as a virtuous heroine, but Klimt portrays her as a Viennese femme fatale. (from Wet Canvas)

It does seem as though you're yanked into the present day with Klimt's version. It's just arresting in its power, don't you think? You are drawn instantly to that face, but when you take a second to see those fingers, the picture has even more impact. Honestly, though, I don't think I would have looked at Klimt's as carefully if I hadn't seen Gentileschi's and Caravaggio's first. What is your reaction?


  1. Once you get past the magnificent violence of the Gentilleschi and Carravaggio, the Klimt is the most shocking of the three. Your eyes are drawn to the beautiful, amoral face, and then there's the footnote, barely visible: and she beheaded Holofernes. Whoa.

  2. I think you hit it on the head with "whoa" -- I'd seen the Klimt in books before, but it never got to me so completely until I saw it compared to the others. That face is incredible, and I agree with you, shocking. She looks powerful enough to have killed him without the knife.

  3. This is great. I was just reading a blatantly misogynist case for my international law class. I couldn't take it anymore, so I came here for some distraction. How satisfying to find images of women beheading lecherous men! Not that I condone beheading ... but ... I have to agree the Klimt is pretty amazing. Actually, I like the Gentileshci, too: those Judiths seem to know what they are doing.

  4. There isn't always an optimal time for beheading, so I'm glad the timing was right today. I didn't even notice at first that that's his head the Klimt Judith is clutching.