Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes

In this second version of the Judith and Holofernes story by Artemisia Gentileschi the sword also represents “a paintbrush”, both long, thin objects. The basket, meanwhile, intentionally suggests the roundish shape of a palette.1 Thus Judith and her maidservant, each holding one of the painter’s tools, represent two sides of the same artist. The maid who faces the canvas is a reflection of the artist, Judith, whose figure faces both her and us. How? There is an unseen mirror between them. 

That explains why one scholar has seen a resemblance to Artemisia in both the maid’s face and Judith's. She thought that Artemisia might have "subconsciously distributed her psychic participation...between two characters."2 Even if only Judith is a self-portrait, as another scholar believes, then the idea that the sword is a paintbrush is still fairly self-evident.3 The artist's resemblance to both figures is not, however, subconscious but intentional. It must be because both this feature and the composition so clearly express that every painter paints herself.  

 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c.1614-20) Oil on canvas. Pitti Palace, Florence

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Compare the painting to a sketch for Courbet's The Lovers, for instance, and you can see the similarity in their compositions. A separate article on Courbet's finished painting demonstrates how the two images, 250 years apart, share similar meaning.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Courbet, Lovers in the Country (1867)

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In addition, the "painting" that these two "artists" have created is the head of Holofernes’ in their basket. The reason why is that capolavoro, the Italian for masterpiece, literally means head-work. 4 It is a pun of great significance for Italian art that will help you identify the underlying meaning of many other compositions too. It's worth keeping in mind.

Captions for image(s) above:

Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c.1614)

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Notes:

1. Michael Fried has shown how Courbet used similar shapes to indicate a “paintbrush” and a “palette” in his first masterpiece, The Stonebreakers. One worker holds a basket, round like a palette; the other holds a mallet, long and thin like a paintbrush. Fried, Manet’s Modernism (University of Chicago Press) 1992, pp. 105-6

2. Mary Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton University Press) 1989, p.312-3

3. Omar Calabrese, Artists' Self-portraits (New York: Abbeville Press) 2006, p.110

4. Although the first known literary use of the Italian word for "masterpiece", capolavoro, dates from around 1700, the concept is likely to have been used in speech sometime earlier. Yet, even without the current meaning of capolavoro, artists who thought of their art as a description of their own mind could have used an executed head as a metaphor for it. In other words, given that every painter paints himself and thus that both executioner and victim represent the artist, the victim's executed head becomes a metaphor for the artist's own work, his head-work or thoughts. For the first known use of capolavoro, see Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, v. II, ed. Salvatore Battaglia (Turin: Unione Tipografico) 1961, p.708  

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