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Judith and her Maidservant - Analysis
Artemisia was a feminist. When they thought a woman couldn't do serious subjects, she did. And probably that's why, instead of doing pretty women or flowers or scenery, she tackled gruesome themes. I don't know. She learnt the art from her father, a follower of Caravaggio, and she did better than her brothers.
Anyway, this painting of hers treats the story of Judith, a popular subject that had been portrayed by many before her time. If you haven't read the Book of Judith, please do so. That will put the picture in its context.
At first glance, Judith and her Maidservant looks like some domestic scene; women returning home after shopping or something. Then we look into the shopping basket and see the disembodied head. She's treated it matter of factly, as if it was a normal thing to do.
What's strange in this picture are the lines leading away from it. The glances of the women lead us outside the frame, and that's something rarely done in art. That's like links taking your precious visitor outside your site, when its recommended that you occupy them in it as long as possible. Looks like the head in the basket is so powerful an image that your eyes will automatically be drawn towards it. You will look at Judith, glance right at servant, follow the diagonal of her sleeve and come back to basket. Actually, the Caravaggio influence is the clue. Like him, she puts you there, with her, sharing her concern and tension. Like a stage magician, she does not look at the object she wants hidden. What do you feel?
Click on the details I had abstracted to see them blown up. She has painted jewellery, drapery, the ornamental hilt of the knife, and the basket in photographic detail. A la Caravaggio. She hasn't used his harsh lighting, though, and preferred the soft traditional route. The theme of Judith is already like a modern horror story. A clown killer or a baby demon kind of theme. A soft woman killing someone in cold blood. Though this time, the killer is on the good side.
Artemisia heightens this effect by making her characters very feminine, with jewellery and other fittings. And a flower basket with a plucked head in it! And blood staining her pure white dress.Judith's attitude is: what has to be done has to be done. Coolly.
- Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio
Take a look at Caravaggio's treatment of the subject. Artemesia was inspired by Caravaggio, and she would have surely seen this and been influenced by this painting. What do you think?
- Judith Beheading Holofernes
This is Artemisia's rendering of the actual act. Caravaggio's influence is rather strong in this one.