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Judith Slaying Holofernes is a famous scene that Artemisia Gentileschi captures in brutal reality with this detailed painting from 1620-1621. She produced several similar versions of the same theme, and this one is identified by its location in Florence.
Artemisia Gentileschi was an artist famous for her brutal reality which her male colleagues rarely matched. Her style was different to them and many collectors appreciated these differences. She seemed to be able to understand the emotions of each figure in her scene and could then depict it accurately upon their faces. Perhaps her femininity allowed her to get in tune with these emotional states more easily. She was often underestimated as an artist, indeed even ignored by academics for several centuries. Thankfully, this situation has changed considerably over recent years and we now know a lot more about her life and career than we ever have done. She has also been the focus of a number of high profile exhibitions which have attempted to cater to this growing demand for a more balanced selection of artists within their rotating displays. It is pleasing to find female artists featured more frequently today, and Artemisia herself has become something of a feminine icon.
The extraordinary Uffizi in Florence owns this large piece. It is dated at 1620-1621, making it around a decade later than a similar painting which resides in Naples. The emotional content found here was ideally suited to her artistic style that was bold and powerful, incorporating a level of realism that others male artists would not dare to do. They preferred to create idealised versions of their figures, particularly the women. This alternative approach enabled her to attract some significant donors during her career that helped to support her after she left the financial comfort of her family home. Her movement around the country also coincided with her producing larger canvases for the first time and this can be understood by studying her work in chronological order and comparing that with the periods that she spent living in different locations. Her decision to break away from under the guidance of her father would benefit her career enormously, though his role in the first place was also extremely important.
It is perhaps the squirts of blood that first take your attention within this painting, as Holofernes approaches his death. His eyes look out in shock and fear as he becomes overpowered by two strongly willed women who are able to carry out their brutal assault. The artist would have approved of this scenario, where a strong man is outwitted by his female enemies. Judith calls on the help of her maid in order to have the strong man held down, giving her the opportunity to strike the fatal blow and ultimately behead him. Gentileschi was a well trained artist who was technical able in a number of different artistic disciplines, and we see that here within this painting. For example, the drapery is beautifully done with realistic depictions of all manner of different materials, such as the red velvet cloth that is carefully used to cover Holofernes' midrift. There is then the outfits of the women, both of which carry precise details and lifelike textures helping us to feel present in the painting.
Gentileschi delivers a brutal depiction in this Florence version of Judith Slaying Holofernes. There is absolutely no attempt to tailor the content in way which tells the story in a less shocking manner, and if anything the artist is trying to create as much drama as possible. The use of Caravaggio-esque lighting provides the perfect setting, where all other detail is removed and we immediately focus on the struggle directly in front of us. There is nothing romantic or heroic here, it is purely the reality of life and death, and the desperate struggle for survival. With the artist having produced an earlier version of the same theme, we have an ideal opportunity to compare and contrast the two versions and then to try to summise as to just why she altered the second iteration in just the way that she did. It must be said, though, that the two paintings are fairly similar in most ways, certainly with a common style and also the composition is laid out in much the same way. The Florentine version places us slightly further from the action, as well as altering the clothing of the three figures.
There are many who have drawn a link between the artist herself and Judith as depicted within this painting. Essentially, Gentileschi was attempting to redress the balance of problems in her own life by allowing a female figure to dominate within this work. Her dreadful treatment at the hands of a colleague of her father's several years earlier had deeply impacted her own psyche and she continued to feel dishonoured and humiliated by a physical attack by Agostino Tassi. Perhaps she saw his image in Holofernes as the male figure is held down and beheaded, and perhaps she even desired this punishment for the individual who had done her so much wrong. Crucially, a clue to this is in the bracelet worn by Judith within this painting which captures the image of Artemis, a Goddess who would use extreme violence against anyone who attempted to do similar to her. This painting in its entirety may therefore have given her some comfort and helped her to process the trauma of an incident which was still very much in the forefront of her mind.
The artwork sits alongside a huge collection of major artworks from past centuries within the world famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence. For followers of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, particularly from an Italian perspective, simply have to visit this particular venue. The collection is simply too big and impressive to summarise it accurately down to just a few highlights, but some of our personal favourites that you might like to discover, alongside this piece from Artemisia Gentileschi, include Ognissanti Madonna and Badia Polyptych by Giotto, Bacchus, Sacrifice of Isaac and Medusa by Caravaggio, The Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci and also The Holy Family (Doni Tondo) by Michelangelo. Florence itself would be home to Gentileschi for several years and is also a key location within the earlier Renaissance, making the prominence of the Uffizi Gallery within this city entirely right and proper. A number of other significant cultural venues are also to be found within walking distance of the gallery too.