Lesser-Know Masterpiece by Artemisia Gentileschi Goes on View

Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith and Her Handmaiden with the Head of Holofernes” (1639 or 1640) (photo by Børre Høstland, all images courtesy of the National Museum)

Almost 400 years after her death, Artemisia Gentileschi has become something of an “It Girl” in the museum world. One of the few successful female painters to be recognized in her time, Gentileschi has been the subject of recent exhibitions that have reignited interest in the female artists who have managed to find their way into a male-dominated profession. A rare painting by Gentileschi, now on public display at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design (Nasjonalmuseet) in Oslo, revisits a subject loved by the artist’s die-hard fans and art history nerds everywhere.

“Judith and her servant with the head of Holofernes (1639 or 1640) depicts a scene from a dramatic Old Testament parable in which the lady Judith and her servant conspire to seduce and behead an invading Assyrian general and then escape from the bedroom with his head. While Gentileschi has rendered this motif several times, including in a famous depiction showing Judith actively decapitating Holofernes, the closer view of this painting captures the women sharply from the waist up, with the head centered in the frame takes pride of place. The usage of chiaroscurowith darkness surrounding the two women seemingly making them peer out of frame to see if they can safely escape the crime scene.

Experts confirmed the work as an original by Artemisia Gentileschi. (Photo by Ina Wesenberg)

With this acquisition, the National Museum hopes to reconstruct a moment from an exhibition at Palazzo Barberini dedicated to iconography in the time of Caravaggio, which Artemisias placed next to a painting of the same name, composition and subject by her father and teacher Orazio Gentileschi hanged.

“Orazio and his three sons had lived in London since 1626,” curator Cynthia Osiecki said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “While Artemisia enjoyed an individual career away from her family, her brothers always stayed in Orazio’s studio as assistants.”

Gentileschi, whose career spanned 40 years, worked in Rome, Florence, Venice and London before finally settling in Naples. This work was created at a time when she was looking after her father while he was working in London as court painter to Charles I, along with other famous painters of the time including Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens. Orazio was also heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s work, having befriended the artist in Rome, and the influence of the Baroque master can be seen in both of the Gentileschi’s attitudes to the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes.

“Beginning with Caravaggio, painters in his circle explored ‘horror,’ or horror,” said Osiecki. “This gruesome beheading of Holofernes was like David and Goliath – a popular subject for this group of artists. It allowed them to create a theatrical setting with dramatic lighting and lots of gore and tension on one screen.”

Installation in progress at the National Museum (photo by Børre Høstland)

In fact, Gentileschi addressed this theme at least once more in her body of surviving works—80 in all—in a dramatic painting of the same name, part of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) collection. The DIA’s painting is dated 1623-1625, an earlier version than the Oslo Museum’s acquisition, which is dated 1639-1640 – but it offers his collection a unique opportunity to display works from throughout the artist’s career.

The Nasjonalmuseet already owned a work by Artemisia Gentileschi depicting Mary Magdalene, donated in 1866 as a work of the “School of Caravaggio” (most likely painted in Naples around 1640). In addition, they own an Orazio Gentileschi from 1608 to 1611, which suggests that Artemisia contributed to the painting, as the brushstrokes match those in the painting of Mary Magdalene. Last year the institution also received a long-term loan of a work of Saint Catherine of Artemisia, painted in her early Florentine period around 1614-1615.

“The addition of this painting to our collection allows the Nasjonalmuseet to be one of the few museums in the world to tell the story of her career in chronological order, as the newly acquired painting was painted in London,” said Osiecki. “It’s not often that we can visually tell the story of successful early modern women artists with more than one work in a museum.”

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