One of my favourite old master painters is Artemisia Gentileschi – an Italian Baroque painter (circa 1600’s). She had a colourful life, and since the rise of the feminist movement and the search for ‘women’ artists - there is a renewed interest in her work.
While the modern Feminism movement might have brought Artemisia to my attention; it is her use of light to create a sense of movement in her paintings and her portrayal of women in her paintings that held my attention.
Artemisia’s women are all womanly flesh, bone and blood. There is a complexity and a haunting realism in her women that I often find missing in other old masters. All of which brings me in this Chanukah season to a common theme of Judith and Holofernes.
There are two common ways Judith is protrayed in old master’s paintings. Judith will be painted with almost a man’s body with the breasts tacked on as a bit of an after thought. She will often possession the demure of some kind of shrinking violet with the face of innocence and purity which all leaves the suggestion; Judith is really incapable of killing a mouse.
Artemisia was heavily influenced by Caravaggio but I believe she surpassed his talent.
This is Caravaggio’s Judith beheading Holofernes. Notice how Caravaggio’s Judith looks so young and naive, hardly capable of coming up with a plan of action to behead a man to win a war; let alone have the wherewithal to carry it out.
Caravaggio’s Judith looks horrified by the act she is in the midst of committing. And it is Judith’s elderly maid who is the sinister one here. Judith’s elderly servant is painted to as a foil to Judith’s youthful innocence. The servant acts as a kind of evil crone to egg on Judith to behead Holofernes.
Contrast this with the strength and resolve of Artemisia's Judith. This is a woman who can make a war plan and has the wherewithal to see it carried out to victory.