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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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.
More Works by Gentileschi
Here is a good example of how borrowed form borrows meaning. In Artemisia's self-portrait as an Allegory of Painting, she thought of herself as a personification of Art...
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