Gentileschi: In the Shadow of Caravaggio

BY BEN REISS

Judith beheading Holofernes, c.1598, attributed to Caravaggio
Judith Beheading Holofernes, painting found in a French attic

Last month, newspapers around the world reported that a ‘lost’ painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio had been found in a French attic. The painting depicts the biblical story of the beautiful Jewish widow Judith beheading Holofernes – an Assyrian general seeking to destroy her home city – having first seduced him.

There is reasonable doubt over whether the painting is a genuine Caravaggio. When compared to a painting of the same subject known to be by the artist, dated 1598-99, it does feel a little staged, a little clumsy and lacks the dramatic lines and feel of the known one. If it is confirmed that this ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ is indeed by Caravaggio, then it could be worth as much as £96 million.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, c.1598
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, c.1598

The subject crops up repeatedly in painting and sculpture of the 15th-17th centuries. Many works based on the story focus on the moment after the actual beheading, with Judith shown as either a warrior-princess or arch-seductress carrying, displaying or even standing on Holofernes’ severed head, or sometimes stuffing it into a sack or basket.

Unsurprisingly, Caravaggio’s shocking, blood-spurting depiction of the moment of execution itself had a considerable influence on the painters who followed him. The French artists Valentin de Boulogne and Trophime Bigot also chose to show the moment that Judith sawed through the neck of Holofernes in 1626 and 1640, respectively.

However, the painter who truly embraced Caravaggio’s violent and dramatic treatment of Judith beheading Holofernes was Artemisia Gentileschi, who lived between 1593 and 1656. Gentileschi was born in Rome and worked as a painter there, across Italy and in England. She started painting alongside her father and brothers and at just seventeen was already producing highly accomplished works.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentilieschi, c.1614-1620
Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentilieschi, c.1612-1620

Gentileschi dealt with the subject of Judith and Holofernes three times between 1612 and 1620. She painted the beheading twice. Another painting dealing with the same subject shows Judith and her maidservant carrying away Holofernes’ head in a basket.

There are definite similarities between Caravaggio’s work and Gentileschi’s interpretations of the beheading itself from this period. A pale, almost glowing Judith stands out against shadowy backgrounds in both while the grimacing head and blood-spurting neck of Holofernes are presented boldly to the viewer, thrust out of the painting at us. Shadowy, sculptural drapery adds to the weight and drama of both paintings.

Gentileschi did not, however, slavishly follow Caravaggio’s lead. Her work is grittier and grimmer than that of Caravaggio. His Judith stands at a distance from Holofernes, and the look on her face is one of intense but calm concentration. The right-hand half of his painting is still, and serene, leaving the thrashing agony to the dying man on the left.

By contrast, Gentileschi balances her composition much more centrally, with Judith’s maidservant forming the tip of a pyramid falling away to Judith’s head on the right and Holofernes’ knee on the left. Her Holofernes grapples desperately with his killers while his head is bodily forced down by Judith, rather than held to one side. Gentileschi’s Judith is a determined butcher, fully engaged with her grisly task.

Gentileschi also depicted the moment after the beheading of Holofernes – ‘Judith and her Maidservant’. It shows the two women holding Holofernes’ head in a basket and a sword. They are turned away from the viewer, looking warily at something beyond our vision. Judith’s left hand grasps are servant’s arm while her right holds the sword slung over her shoulder. Blood drips from the basket bearing its gruesome burden. This painting has definite parallels with a work by Caravaggio painted ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ which shows a similar scene, as the young David shows off the head of the mighty warrior that he has slain.

Judith and her Maid, by Artemesia Gentileschi, c.1619
Judith and her Maid, by Artemesia Gentileschi, c.1619

In both works there is the same sense of the figures being sharply highlighted and looming out of the darkness; the luminous flesh and white and yellow cloth contrasts sharply with the dull backgrounds and heightens both the sense of depth and drama. Caravaggio and Gentileschi were both key proponents of chiaroscuro – the technique of using sharp contrasts of light and dark to heighten drama.

The severed heads are presented to the viewer in each, and the dripping blood helps to impart the sense of naturalism which both artists are known for. The composition of both works also adds to the drama in each. The principle figures are carrying their swords over their shoulders, although this gives a sense of weary weight to Caravaggio’s David and poised tension in Gentileschi’s Judith.

There are further differences. Much like the works depicting the actual moment of execution, Caravaggio’s figure is more posed than those of Gentileschi. It is easy to picture Judith and her servant fleeing the Assyrian camp, despite the lack of background, while David just stands and presents us with Goliath’s head.

David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, c.1607
David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, c.1607

The choice of subject matter is also interesting. Caravaggio was also much more inclined to paint naked or half-naked beautiful young men than nude women (art historians have noted in the past that he did not paint any female nudes) and his David definitely falls into this category. The choice of Judith and her maidservant, their closeness and Judith’s hand on the other’s arm all support the theory that Gentileschi not only enjoyed painting strong women, but symbols of female solidarity and collective strength as well.

Art historians have in the past have made much of personal circumstance to explain how both of these painters worked, particularly Gentileschi. Speculation about the impact of Gentileschi’s rape by her teacher Agostino Tassi has, in the past, been rife.

While this experience very likely did have some impact on her work, it is too simplistic to reduce her gruesome depictions of Judith to some sort of revenge fantasy. Rather, we should focus on Gentileschi as a product of her time, a painter of rare ability who was able to take on the lessons of the great Caravaggio and mould them into something unique.

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