GENTILESCHI

JUDITH AND HOLOFERNES

 

The first woman artist to occupy an important position since ancient Greece was Artemisia Gentileschi. This does not mean that there had been a shortage of women artists, but rather highlights both the fact that art in the Middle Ages had largely gone unsigned and that specific works of women have proven impossible to identify.

Artemisia was born in Rome, lived an independent and eventful lifestyle (rare for the times) and was one of the leading painters of her day. Her characteristic subjects were Bathsheba (the unfortunate object of King David's passion) and Judith who saved the Jews by beheading the Assyrian King Holofernes (a subject she painted five times). Both subjects were popular during the Baroque era which delighted in erotic and violent scenes. At age 15 (or 19) she was raped be either her teacher (the artist Caravaggio) or a group of students. She was subjected to a humiliating trial during which she was tortured with thumb screws to obtain a confession. Her choice of subjects suggests an ambivalence toward men and equally depicts the courage of her heroines (sometimes thought to be herself). Her personal experiences allow her to portray the subject's complex actions and emotions with incomparable understanding. Most of her works are illuminated by candle light (perhaps a use of too strong directional light) showing her ties to the Dutch masters.

Her baroque style featured an emphasis on emotion and action which differed from the rational approach of the renaissance artists. She was able to portray the human body from any angle, with the most complex perspectives and thus reproduce almost any appearance of reality.