Professor Lori Levan
May 5, 2014
Artemisia Gentileschi: A Woman Leading in a Man’s World
“Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes” by Atermisia Gentileschi is a painting that measures 72 3/8” by 55 3/4” and was created with oil on canvas (DIA). Artemesia created this painting around 1625 during her second period of painting in Rome. This painting, a representation of two dimensional arts, can be found in A World of Art by Henry M. Sayre and is notated as Figure 124 on page 98.
Artemisia was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, an already famous painter in Rome. Artemisia studied under her father and painted in his workshop along with other artists. At age seventeen, she was raped by one of her father’s trusted friends (Moore). The rape and subsequent trial did much to shape Artemisia’s attitudes and arts. Many of her artworks became symbols of feminism which is evident by some of the subject matter she chose to paint including the work I have selected for this paper. Artemisia was active during the early to mid 1500s in Rome and Florence, Italy
I chose this particular work of art because of the emotions it evokes from the viewer. It is quite a dramatic piece depicting a scene immediately after Judith had gruesomely beheaded Holofernes. Judith is standing with a sword in one hand while she shades her eyes from the candlelight with her other hand. The maidservant is knelt down beneath Judith and is covering the severed head of Holofernes. The room they are in is very dark, almost black, with the only light being shed by a single candle. The candlelight vividly illuminates both figures against that dark background of the painting.
This is a biblical story of a woman rising up to protect her people. It is a tale of heroism that is strikingly represented by Artemisia’s painting. I think this painting is profound in the sense that it portrays a woman in a dominant role while throughout much of history the women of the art world have been somewhat shunned and largely discounted. In fact, many of Artemisia’s works were attributed to the work of her father until recent years (biography.com).
This painting uses contrast between light and dark to create a very dramatic scene. Judith and her maidservant have just slain Holofernes and are in great danger. The painting illustrates great bravery on behalf of Judith as well as creating a sense of imminent peril. The maidservant holds the decapitated head of Holofernes while Judith peers through the darkness looking for any guards that may have been alarmed.
As mentioned previously, Artemisia had been raped at the age of 17. This event and the subsequent criticism she endured during the trial of her accused rapist obviously had tremendous influence over the subject matter of Artemisia’s works. This particular painting, like several of her others, can be interpreted as Artemisia conquering, or quite possibly castrating, the rapist that caused her such emotional trauma early in her life.
Artemisia very well may have envisioned herself as a crusader for the empowerment of women everywhere. In the painting, Judith stands firm while clutching a sword in her hand. She is also quite finely dressed with ornamentation in her hair and earrings clearly visible in her ears. I believe that Artemisia was painting herself as Judith. At this point in her life, she had become quite a phenomenon in the art world and she would have been in a position to assert herself as a woman in an environment dominated by men (Keith and Mann).
Artemesia chose a story that illustrated the strength, courage, and determination of a woman. As a result of her rape at a young age and her subsequent struggles, she had become quite a feminist in thought and attitude. This painting is just one selection of her works that speaks to the fact that women can be just as powerful and heroic as men.
She chose to paint a picture that is a visual representation of a biblical tale that would have been well known to her audience in Italy, especially in Rome which is home to the Catholic Church. I think that in doing so, she was purposely insinuating to society as a whole that women can and should play an important role in everyday life. She lived in a time where the women were mostly subservient to the men but she herself had escaped such a fate. She believed that biblical women like Judith and women like herself should pave the way for all women to take on positions more prominent than housewives.
. In this painting, Artemesia utilizes atmospheric perspective in this painting to give the impression of a three dimensional space that is occupied by the two women in scene. Value and color are used both as elements of atmospheric perspective and as tools for creating dramatic effect in this painting. Bright highlights are used on the women who are contrasted by deep shadows and background colors.
This painting is composed primarily of warmer tones such as yellows, reds, and oranges which are balanced by cooler blues and purples. The artists uses a single candle flame to create the chiaroscuro effects in the scene where the bright light from the candle illuminates the two women in the foreground against a dark, almost black, background.
This is a two dimensional piece of art rendered in oil painting on canvas. Artemesia no doubt used oil painting as a preferred medium due to its ability to create a virtually endless palette of colors with which she utilized with a chiaroscuro technique for extreme dramatic effect.
Gentileschi would have created this painting by layering the oil paint in order to get the most out of the translucent nature of oil paints. This both helped to create the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional canvas as well as to render the colors more lifelike and believable.
I learned a great deal about Artemisia’s life and how it influenced her art through my research for this assignment. Gaining an understanding of her background as well as the places and people she was exposed to during her life allowed me insight into her motivations and goals as an artist. Artemisia was not only painting to express her own emotions, she was painting to send a message to society at large.
The message Artemisia was sending was one of female empowerment. She had experienced terrible tragedy in her life and had also risen to a position of great prominence. Artemisia believed that every woman should be afforded such opportunities and many artworks she created were visual representations of that view. She was in many ways one of art histories great feminists.
"Artemisia Gentileschi." The Biography.com. 2014. Web. 4 May 2014.
Christensen, Keith and Judith W. Mann. “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2002. Web. 17 April 2014.
Houston, Beth. “Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes.” The Literary Review. n.d. Web. 17 April 2014.
“Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes.” Detroit Institure of Arts.2014. Web 4 May 2014.
Moore, Susan. “Artistic bloodline of a Daddy's girl: EXHIBITION: Susan Moore hopes that this small show will bring the father of a female Old Master to greater prominence.” Financial Times. 16 March 1999. Web. 17 April 2014.
Sayre, Henry M. A World of Art. New Jersey: Pearson, (2010): 98.Print.