Three Versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes:
Valentine de Boulogne (1591-1632)
Artemisa Genitileschi (1593-1653)
One of my favorite classes I ever took was my Feminist Art History class, and we covered Artemisia Gentileschi quite a bit — specifically, her Judith Beheading paintings in contrast to other artists, especially Caravaggio. It’s a perfect example of a male perspective vs a female perspective.
While Judith in Caravaggio’s and Boulogne’s paintings are prim, clean, slender, and beautiful within the gory act they are committing (indeed, Caravaggio’s Judith seems about as uncomfortable by the act as a lady mewling over a broken nail), Artemisia has her Judith as heavy-set, with thick arms and a thick frame, and a far more forceful participator in the act.
Additionally, the handmaiden in the first two examples are both old, feeble women who are not meant to be focused on — they hang back in the darkness, waiting or fretting over Judith. On the left side is a man in the throws of dying, and on the right is a woman of elderly age, both undesirable people/outcomes. The ugliness frames and further highlights Judith’s beauty. However, in Artemisia’s rendition, the servant is not only much younger, but she’s an active accomplice in the grisly act.
Finally, Holofernes in both Caravaggio’s and Boulogne’s renditions is simply lying back and allowing his head to be cut off: his hands remain at his side, and his blood seems to avoid the ladies to the right. In Artemesia’s depiction, he’s actively defending himself, blood is spilling absolutely everywhere and on his attackers — the very female aggressors he is trying to forcefully shove away, yet still being overpowered and defeated.
To put it simply, the contrast between Artemisia’s painting and the other two examples here (and the many many many other Judith renditions throughout art history) is the act of beheading Holofernes is the center focus, not Judith herself. It’s a clear example of agency, and what it means to be a subject that is passively looked on while meekly reacting to a situation vs a subject that is empowered and in full control of the act she is committing.
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