Monthly Archives: July 2011

Judith and the Other Big One – exhibit A

Now we are getting to one of my favorites.  Artemesia Gentileschi.  She Kicks ass.

Let me say that again.  She.  Kicks.  Ass.

Artemesia Gentileshi, “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” 1613, Capodimonte Museum, Naples, Italy

This is the first of six executions of the Judith story by Artemisia.   She was obviously obsessed with this story, and with good reason: she was raped by her tutor — who was charged and acquitted.   And even without that crime, she functioned in a world of men — long before sexual harassment was considered inappropriate.

Artemesia Gentileshi was the daughter of a famous artist, Orazio Gentileschi.   She began her career at age 17, and her father hired Agostino Tassi to be her tutor 2 years later.   Orazio pressed charges against Tassi after he learned that Tassi raped and continued relations with his daughter with no intention to marriage.   In the 7-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had adultery with his sister-in-law and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings.   During the trial, Artemisia was given a gynecological examination and was tortured using thumbscrews.   Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year, although he never served the time.

It is hypothesized that Artemesia’s repeated portrayal of Judith was revenge-therapy for the rape.   This painting was completed during the year of the trial.

What makes this painting kick-ass? Why is this one of my favorites?

  • Judith fully involved in the struggle, as if she is unconcerned with completing the decapitation and getting soiled.   And that is realistic determination.
  • The maid is a similar age and fairly portrayed for a devoted companion in crime.
  • Holofernes horror and his struggle are believable.   With two capable women holding him down, all he can do is lay there and gurgle.
  • And the bloody stream is accurate.  A gush that flows down onto the sheets — not shoots in a linear trajectory from the wound.   (although I have not personally witnessed a slice into the jugular vein so maybe I am wrong about that)
And most importantly, Judith looks so confident and pleased.    Exactly as i would expect her to feel.
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Posted by on July 31, 2011 in Gory


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Judith and the Not-So-Big One

Before we leave the subject of Caravaggio entirely, here is something rather sad.

Caravaggio or Finson, “Judith With The Head Of Holofernes,” 1607, Oil on canvas, 140 x 160 cm, Collezione Banca Commerciale Italiana, Naples, Italy

After all the hoop-la about (insert trumpets here) Caravaggio, this specimen is rather … drab.  It is essentially the same composition as the version of 1598, but missing some of the finer details.

  • Yes, the soon-to-be-severed head of Holofernes is screaming in terror and pain – but his blood is slowly seeping versus spraying from his wound.
  • Yes, the maid is old – not not nearly as old as before.  and she stands between Judith and the victim, whispering her encouragement, much more a part of the action than a patient by-stander.
  • Yes, Judith looks concerned – but not as simultaneously revolted and determined as before.

In fact, Judith is very different than the previous portrayal. she is older than the youthful widow — thinner in the face, less energetic.  She is dressed somberly — as if in mourning — in a black robe with long sleeves and a hood rather than wearing a gleaming gold gown with exposed bosom and uncovered curls.

What happened in those 9 years? Caravaggio’s bad boy ways caught up with him:  he killed a man in a brawl and fled from Rome to Naples.  The disarray of his life seems to have diminished the colors of his palette, and the criticism of the vulgarity of his realism may have caused him to tone down his characters. especially at the request of a high-paying patron.  It is also possible that this is not the work of Caravaggio, but a copy of his lost original (1).  Which is why it has been in and out of my catalog.

Original or not, it is still Judith beheading Holofernes. So here it stays. with all the other works tagged the cut to indicate they show Judith in the act of severing Holofernes’ head — the criterion being that the fauchion has been applied but at least part of the neck is still attached. and there is usually lots of blood, although that’s not a required element.

(1) John T. Spike, Caravaggio, Abbeville Press, 2010 (2nd ed.);
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August 19, 2011:  stop the presses.   I found conflicting information.   Over at Open Book Publishers, they identify this painting as the work of Louis Finson — a Flemish painter who may have studied with Caravaggio and certainly copied numerous paintings by Caravaggio.

Do you think it is possible that the Bank of Naples does not know they have a copy??!  Anyone willing to stop by there and ask??

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For something a bit more fun, experience a hilarious take on some of the upcoming works at: Judy Gets Some Head, by Christopher Moore

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Posted by on July 30, 2011 in Cacciatore


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Judith and The Big One

Remember that disclaimer way back in Post #3?   This is the time to recall all the things I am not.  Because i am now faced with the most arduous task of this blog.  Talking about The Big One.   Talking about (insert trumpets here) Caravaggio.

Caravaggio, “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” c.1598, Oil on canvas,145 x 195 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, Italy

This may be the most famous Judith of all.   It is easily in the top 3 list with Gentileschi and Cranach (who I have yet to discuss; top 4 if I add Donatello).  In addition to the fact that (insert trumpets here) Caravaggio is a demi-god among painters.

It is definitely one of the goriest.  But not necessarily one of my favorites.  It begins the section I tagged “dissection” — because they all depict Judith in the act of decapitation.

The characteristic acclamations of (insert trumpets hereCaravaggio’s style — which had a major influence on Baroque art – include:

  • Realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional
  • Dramatic use of lighting known as tenebrism, in which chiaroscuro becomes a dominant stylistic device
Both of these characteristics are easily seen in this portrayal of Judith.   (insert trumpets hereCaravaggio
selected the most dramatic moment of the story in which Judith applies Holofernes’ sword to his own head, the blood begins to pour from his mortal wound, and he is still alive.   He chose the realistic versus idealized rendering of Judith’s effort, of Holofernes’ struggle, and of the maid’s aged face.  He conveys the twin emotions of Judith’s determination and repulsion, Holofernes’ horror, and the maid’s anticipation.  He uses the light pouring in from an unseen source, against the blackness of the tent interior.

So why isn’t this one of my favorites?

  • Judith is too detached from the struggle, as if she is able to complete the decapitation without getting soiled.   And that is hardly realistic.
  • The maid is so freaking old!   Why did he have to do that??   There is nothing in the story to indicate the maid is old, so why portray her at her very worst?   Hunched, wrinkled, unattractive, balding — just worn-out-old.   How unfair for a devoted companion in crime!
  • Holofernes horror is believable, but his struggle is not.   that’s it?   a scream?   wouldn’t you lunge at your attacker?   grab the sword?   something besides just lay there and gurgle?   good lord, this guy is a general, accustomed to battle – and this is the best he can do?
  • And the bloody spray, that can’t be right.  I don’t even watch CSI, but I cannot imagine blood shooting straight out from his wound.   Maybe if you have that stop action camera like they use in sports. But otherwise, I would expect a gush that flows down onto the sheets — not spurts in a linear trajectory from the wound.
Yes, my perspective is informed by 411 years of art since (insert trumpets hereCaravaggio.   Advances in technique.   Photography.   forensics,  anatomical science.   Movies.  Video.  Digital reproduction.  Special effects.   I would probably appreciate the genius of (insert trumpets hereCaravaggio if I had never been exposed to those things.  Like appreciating the technicolor of The Wizard of Oz after seeing only black-and-white films.  Considering that I have that exposure, it is an effort to imagine the world in which this depiction was considered revolutionary.

But that is the flaw of all history.  Having been exposed to what comes after, we cannot fully appreciate what it is like before.

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Posted by on July 29, 2011 in Gory


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Now for something completely different (IV)

Dang, I can’t seem to get away from the saber and the red dress.

A Date With Judy (1948, vol. 4)

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But now for something REALLY different, one of my favorite Judy’s –

Judy Tenuta!!


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Judith in Monotone

I’ve been waiting to write about this.  One of the most exciting pieces in this gallery.  For me, that is.

This is the work of Arthur Greuell, a Belgian artist of the past century.   Not to be confused with Johnny Gruelle who wrote the Raggedy Ann books.  Nope, not even close.

Arthur Greuell, “Judith,” 1891-1943, oil on canvas, 48″ x 52,”auctioned by New Orleans Auction Galleries April 2009 (Lot 247), USA

This piece was auctioned by New Orleans Auction Galleries in April of 2009 and featured on the cover of the catalog.   It sold for $9,600 – far beyond the estimated value (1,2).   The condition report notes “the artist has skillfully drawn the movement and musculature of the figures in a dramatic monochromatic palette in the style of Caravaggio.”    In the style of Caravaggio only because it depicts an aggressive, violent moment in the story of Judith.   Otherwise, there are so many elements that are different.

I have never seen a painting like this before.  The elements that fascinate me have to be listed to cover them all.

  • The Color:  I am amazed by the intricacy achieved with a monochromatic palate.  How many shades of brown did Greuell use?   how many shades even exist?
  • The Scene:  this is the Holofernes i expected – not the victim in a stupor that offers no resistance to the sword but a guy putting up a fight.   The maid being actively involved in subduing him.  The tension between all three characters.
  • The Flow:  The clothing, the arms and legs all in  motion — at first glance, it looks like dancing. swirling.
  • Judith’s corset:   Reminiscent of ballet.   Delicate laces for an indelicate task.
  • Judith’s stance:  The extended leg and pointed toe, the turn of the other ankle — again, the movement of a dancer.
  • Judith’s shoulder:  white and smooth but muscular.   Propelling her hand over Holofernes’ mouth.
  • Judith’s head and neck:  Turned away as if to say “I’m not important here. it’s the action that matters, not me.”
  • The Maid’s face:  Rather than Judith, the Maid is fully turned to the viewer, grimacing with the effort of holding the victim, but determined.  Not afraid.
Viewing this painting on the internet is a privilege but is also disappointing.  There is so much to this work that I cannot distinguish and I suspect there is more going on that I cannot see.  Too bad it is now in a private collection – I doubt I ever see it in actuality.
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The other work by Gruel?  Illustrations for Baudelaire’s Les Poèmes Condemnés (The Condemned Poems)(1927)  –– with themes of lesbianism, rape, and necrophilia.    Remember the disclaimer:  I am no prude.  On the other hand, the illustrations were not nearly as exciting as this piece — so you may visit them at your leisure.    Or not.

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(1) New Orleans Auction Galleries
(2) discussed in The Corinthian Column, April 6, 2009

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Posted by on July 27, 2011 in Glory


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Judith and the Blue Turban

Something seems familiar here  …  the half nude body of Holofernes draped across the bed with his head thrown back  …  almost like a sacrifice  …

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, “Judith and Holofernes,” 1745, Oil on canvas, Scuola dei Carmini, Venice, Italy

a HA! it’s Guilia Lama!!

Giulia Lama, “Judith and Holofernes,” c. 1730, Oil on canvas, 107 x 155 cm, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice, Italy

But note: her painting is a later date.   Which means that little minx copied Piazzetta’s idea for the placement of Holofernes.   However, while her Judith prays for strength, Piazzetta’s Judith appears to have strength and is reflecting on her prey.

Piazzetta was known for two things:  his use of intense color and his creation of complex scenes in which his characters are involved in more than is apparent.   Certainly, this piece displays the bright colors in the deep blue skirt and the medium blue turban.   But the complexity is difficult to determine from this small computer image.   Is it the maid peeking into the tent?   Is it the handle of the sword?    Is it the indiscriminate expression on Judith’s face?    This is definitely the moment after his earlier portrayal of Judith, but it seems less complicated in a way.

Looks like i have to go to Venice to find out.

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Posted by on July 26, 2011 in Distracted


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Judith and the Dark Girl

Red is a popular color in this story.

Jan de Bray, “Judith en Holofernes,” 1659, oil on canvas, 40 x 32.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

But a more interesting consideration is the skin color of Judith’s maid.   Or as we can say based on the story, Judith’s slave.   Because as we read later in the story, Judith gives the maid her freedom — implying that she was not free before.   It should be no surprise that the maid is a slave, since at that time in history most maids were the property of their masters.   Yet it is surprising that the depiction of Judith’s slave changes with the times in terms of her age and her ethnicity.

De Bray was not the first or last to portray the maid with dark skin and features.    Earle and Lowe (2005) note that Mantegna’s Judith of 1491 may be the first.    I had not planned to deal with drawings in this blog (i’m shallow that way and somewhat overwhelmed with the number of paintings that exist) but I have made an exception here.

Andrea Mantegna, “Judith,” 1491, Drawing, 38.8 x 25.8 cm, Uffizi, Florence, Italy

First let me say, this is a beautiful rendering of human faces and forms.    Second, until it was pointed out, I did not notice any identifying features of a negress in the maid.    But then, i am probably looking for skin color — which is not available as a cue to ethnic background in a drawing.     I suppose her features are different from the typical Renaissance face, but not enough for me to say “Whoa. Judith has an African maid.”     But going forward in the art of Judith, Correggio (who i will discuss in a later post) is the next to portray the African servant (c.1501-12) — or d’una sua schiava Mora – followed by Titian and Veronese.   The black maid never became the norm in depictions of the Judith story, but Earl and Lowe estimate she became increasingly characterized in this way in the early 1500’s.

The reason for this change?   By coincidence, 1942 was the year Columbus reached the New World and brought indigenous people into the Spanish court — and into the fascination of Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua and patron of Renaissance art.  (Also sister-in-law to Lucretia Borgia who became the mistress of Isabella’s husband – but that’s just tawdry gossip).    Concurrently, Caucasian slave trading decreased with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans (1453) — and slave trading with Africa increased.     Dark-skinned maids became the status symbol of the Rich and Famous — who were buying the artwork of Renaissance painters. The change of Judith’s maid from light to dark was marketing,   Duh.

Thomas F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, Black Africans in Renaissance EuropeCambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2005.

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Posted by on July 25, 2011 in Glory


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