Judith beheading Holofernes was popular subject matter in the Baroque period. Judith, a Jewess, is sent with her attendant to the invading army camp of Holofernes, the general, who she charms and inebriates before she chops of his head, thus saving her people. Charming subject matter, no?
It is often theorized that the artist of the painting above, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) depicted the subject so forcefully because she was raped. Rape no doubt had its effect on Gentileschi, but her life is remarkable for many other reasons.
This talented woman was trained by her father Orazio in the style of Caravaggio and came to be a professional artist, a rare woman among men. She was the first woman to be a member of Academia del Designo and a painter whose historical scenes (a genre thought to be beyond women) enabled her work to be featured in the houses and churches of Florence and Venice. You can see why she is a treat for contemporary feminist theorists, both for her accomplishments and her sufferings.
Her biography is often given as a series of male-dominated events. First she was her father’s daughter. She was raped by a student of his. She was married to another painter to save her honor after the rape. After, her work is often difficult to tell from her fathers, and of her 34 extant paintings, some have only recently been attirbuted to her. Her non-feminist art historical reputation often refers to her as a Caravaggesti, one of the many followers of Caravaggio.
Yet just look at another treatment of the Judith and Holofernes below:
The above painting is read into as Gentileschi releasing her anger and rebelling against patriarchy by portraying a strong and vengeful female character. She was raped at 19 in 1612, and she painted the top image in 1612-3 and the one immediately above in 1620. Note how she developed her theme with a larger and more detailed treatment. The violence was not unprecedented. She was a student of Caravaggio and he too painted this subject, as it was a popular one of the period.
Look at Caravaggio’s portrayl, painted in 1598-9, compared to Gentileschi’s treatment of the subject. This Judith Beheading Holofernes depicts the same moment of beheading with blood spurting, but Gentileschi’s women are more active than this Judith who leans away from the blood. Caravaggio’s painting seems staid after Gentileschi’s physical treatment, despite the immense skill with which Caravaggio creates the severed head’s grimace.
Perhaps one shouldn’t view Gentileschi’s oeuvre through the lens of rape entirely, as it limits our understanding of context and the credit one can give to her accomplishments, which amount to so much more than a by-product of inflicted violence. But it can hardly help informing our perspective of her Judiths, fearlessly conquering generals. In many ways, her long and successful career can be seen as a triumph over her early rape.