Judith Beheading Holofernes usually hangs in the Uffizi in Florence, but if you are in Chicago, you can see it at the Art Institute until January 9, 2014. I saw it with Ruth Calvo and Spudtruckowner when they passed through town. I wrote about this painting here, and the discussion holds up pretty well on this seeing. I’d add two points.
First, there are spurts and spots of blood on Judith’s breast and arm that are very visible as it hangs here and less clear at the Uffizi. The droplets are three dimensional and the exact color of blood. The spurts seem a bit thin to me, but they capture the butchery. Judith has rolled up her sleeves, as has the maid, and they are working at this killing.
Second, take close look at the mattress. Look at the trails of blood in the folds as if the blood were seeping flows on the silk sheets. Look at the patch of blood flattened into the sheet under Holofernes’ left shoulder. These details demonstrate the mastery of Gentileschi.
I heard a lecture on the painting from the curator. She said that artists at that time were categorized by the nature of their works: flower and nature painters at the bottom, portraits higher. At the top were history painters, and Gentileschi was one of the very few women thought capable of making history paintings. She discussed at length the fact that Gentileschi was raped by one of her father’s artist colleagues, and the impact this had on her work. I think all art has to stand on its own, without reference to the history and the explanations of the artist. This painting may reflect back to the experience of rape, and may be motivated by revenge fantasies, but it clearly stands on its own. You don’t have to know her life to see the brutality. Perhaps the primary impact of the rape is that Gentileschi chose subjects for her paintings that allowed her to harness and direct her rage into her work.
There are several other versions of this painting in the same room. There is this painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, with a typical Cranach figure, somehow spider-like, holding a gruesome head. There is a monumental nude version by Jan Sanders van Hemessen and an odd version from Felice Ficherelli which is on this page with a whole group of paintings of this subject.
The Art Institute provided a wonderful addition to this story, a fabulous short sword of the kind Judith is using. It makes everything about this painting more real.