Artemisia's "Judith Slaying Holofernes"

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Artemisia Gentileschi's "Judith Slaying Holofernes" (1593-1654). Oil on Canvas; Uffizi, Florence. Picture courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

I had the pleasure of attending the members lecture of Artemisia Gentileschi's " Judith Slaying Holofernes ," with Martha Wolff as lecturer, last month at the Art Institute of Chicago. Having had some time to mole over the lecture of this painting, which is on loan to The Art Institute of Chicago from the Uffizi in Florence and will be on display until January 9, 2014. I can now say my favorite part of the lecture was when Artemisia's painting was compared to Caravaggio's painting " Judith Beheading Holofernes " depicting the same scene from the book of Judith. This is a good time to mention a fact the lecturer brought up. Artemisia would defiantly have heard of Caravaggio's painting but, would not have seen his painting at the time she was working on hers, "Judith Slaying Holofernes". When I look at these two paintings, side by side, with the perspective of violence in mind, truth to the story, and subject matter, I cannot help but be drawn more to Artemisia's painting, with the jarring graphic spray of blood flying about and depiction of the realistic struggle of these two women holding down a much bigger man while trying to cut his head off.

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Caravaggio "Judith Beheading Holofernes" (1571-1610), Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica Palazzon Barberini, Rome.

Caravaggio's depiction on the other hand, made me laugh out loud. He depicts these two women as delicate little flowers, having no trouble, or struggle cutting this mans head off without getting a speck of blood on their hands or shirt. Judith even seemed slightly aroused by the act of beheading this man, witch can be seen by Caravaggio painting Judith's nipples erect. Caravaggio was a great painter, and "Judith Beheading Holofernes" is a great technical painting, but as far as depicting the story and the truth of that story, instead, he did a good job of depicting the idea of what women were supposed to be like in society at the time. I found no truth in Caravaggio's story. One cannot help but see the difference in the point of view of a woman versus a man. The lecturer talked about Artemisia being raped at the age of seventeen and how this probably translated into her depiction of the painting. I would feel insensitive, and most likely wrong to say that this was not a factor in her head when she painted, but truly only Artemisia knows. I would also, like to think that as a woman who painted at the same time Caravaggio, Ruben, Rembrandt, and Van Dyke did, and with the success that she had, when picking up her brush to paint might be thinking of and wanting to represent the women around her. Ultimately, depicting the inner power they all had but were not able to display in that day and age. As I said before only Artemisia would know, but it is fun to try to get into an artist's head.

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My mom came with me the day of the lecture, and I find my moms reaction to this painting sums up the painting very well. When turning the corner into the small room with held this painting, you are immediately confronted by the painting. And when my mom turned the corner behind me, she jumped back a bit. I asked my mom why she reacted this way, she said, " I was l startled by the power of the painting ".  It was nice to see the power a truthful painting of story can hold.

Enjoy!