Gentileschi was the only female follower of Caravaggio and also had a keen interest in the work of Michelangelo too. Her use of lighting and dramatic content, as shown in this painting, were completely in tune with the former's career. She learnt the techniques of Caravaggio via her father who was a keen follower himself. Judith Slaying Holofernes provides a brutality which typified the style of this bold artist. She would connect emotionally to the figures in her paintings that her male colleagues in the Baroque era would struggle to achieve. This provided a unique selling point to her career and allowed her to attract a number of significant donors from right across Italy, with some even further afield. Italy was highly competitive between different artists during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, so any slight advantage would be need to be maximised.
This version is dated at circa 1612-13 and can be found at the Museo Capodimonte, Naples. It is a large artwork, measuring 158.8 cm × 125.5 cm, which is in line with the larger canvases that she started producing after leaving her family home to travel to other parts of the country. The fact that she revisited this theme several times have given us the additional benefit of being able to compare and contrast the subtle differences of each of these versions, including this one and another which can be found in Florence. The particular scene was mostly frequently used as artistic inspiration during the early part of the Renaissance, but would have fallen into this artist's career because of her keen interest in artists from that period. There was of course an interest in the work of Caravaggio who made use of similar themes but within a more expressive manner than had been seen previously and this would prove to be exactly how Gentile wanted to work as well.
The brutal composition in front of us features Judith slaying Holofernes with no detail spared. Her maid comes into the room to help hold down this strong man and allow her master to complete the beheading. Gentileschi goes into great detail in a way that allows us to feel as if we are there ourselves, with splatters of blood covering the pillows nearest us. The knife used is also noticeably decorative, giving an indication of Judith's own prominent position within society. If we look at the victim we also see two memorable artistic touches, firstly in how he continues to fight to the death, or struggle at least, with one of his hands attempting to hold off the maid. His eyes also look directly at us in shock and terror as the reality of his impending death seems to have been understood. The artist was a woman in a man's world and in some cases her paintings helped to underline this, with in the case of this painting, we see two women working together in order to overcome a powerful man, both in terms of his physical strength but also his role within society. It is precisely these types of themes which have become particularly fashionable at the moment as the topic of Feminism continues to re-invent itself as society continues to progress.
Gentileschi developed her career by moving around several times, taking in different Italian cities and even living abroad for a short period. She would only have been around twenty years of age at the time of painting this version of Judith Slaying Holofernes. It also came about shortly after her rape at the hands of a colleague of her father and so perhaps some of the anger that she felt at this time was used to drive this particular artwork. We find a male figure at the mercy of young women - could this have been a reference to her own terrible experience just a few years earlier? The trauma of that incident probably lied behind her decision to travel around after that point but she also seemed to appreciate the opportunity to break away from under her father's wing and seek out a new level of indepedence, both within her life but also her artistic work. She initially moved to Florence where she stayed between the years of 1612-1620 and these were important years in her development as a human and an artist.
A larger image of the painting is included below in order to allow you to appreciate the detail of this artwork as much as possible. The lighting is dramatic, entirely in line with the style used by this artist throughout her career. The contrast is so abrupt that one cannot make out any background information at all, when normally there might be some decorative touches to display elements within the room in which they struggle. This raises the tension brilliantly. Gentileschi was particularly good at capturing different materials, be it with clothing or drapery. The bed sheets seem incredibly realistic, somewhat translucent so that the bed shows through underneath. The dresses of the two women are also a combination of sleek colour with thicker material around the sleeves, with the maid's clothing being more hard wearing in order to outline their different roles in society.
This painting can be found alongside a large collection of notable pieces from various art movements within the respected Museo Capodimonte in Naples. A journey here will also yield the opportunity to see a number of other original artworks by some of the biggest names in art, including the likes of Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Masaccio, Lorenzo Lotto and El Greco. Within that, it is hard to really summarise the highlights of such a broad and impressive collection, but some of the individual masterpieces to check out alongside this work by Artemisia Gentileschi includes Crucifixion by Masaccio, The Misanthrope by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Madonna and Child and Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli, Transfiguration by Giovanni Bellini, Portrait of Francesco Gonzaga by Andrea Mantegna and Mary Magdalene by Titian. Naples features one of the best cultural experiences to be found in the south of Italy and this region also hosts an exciting and unique culture that differs slightly from other parts of this incredible country.