Almost 400 years after her death, Artemisia Gentileschi has become something of an “It Girl” in the museum world. One of very few successful female painters recognized within her own time, Gentileschi has been the subject of recent exhibitions that have renewed interest in the women artists who managed to make their way in 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 theme beloved by the artist’s die-hard fans and by art history nerds all around.
“Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes” (1639 or 1640) portrays a scene from a dramatic Old Testament parable wherein the lady Judith and her maidservant conspire to seduce and behead an invading Assyrian general, and then escape from the bedchamber with his head. While Gentileschi rendered this subject multiple times, including in a famous portrayal that captures Judith actively beheading Holofernes, this painting’s narrower view captures the women in tight focus from the waist-up, with the head holding pride of place at the center of the frame. The use of chiaroscuro, with darkness silhouetting the two women, makes them appear to be veritably peering out of frame to see if they can safely escape the scene of the crime.
With this acquisition, the National Museum hopes to recreate a moment from a Palazzo Barberini exhibition dedicated to iconography in the time of Caravaggio, which hung Artemisia’s alongside a painting of same name, composition, and subject by her father and teacher, Orazio Gentileschi.
“Orazio and his three sons lived in London since 1626,” said curator Cynthia Osiecki in an interview with Hyperallergic. “While Artemisia enjoyed an individual career away from her family, her brothers always stayed as assistants in Orazio’s studio.”
Gentileschi, whose career spanned over 40 years, worked in Rome, Florence, Venice, and London before eventually settling in Naples. This work was created during a period when she came to tend to her father while he was working in London as a court painter for Charles I along with other famous painters of the time, including Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens. Orazio was also deeply influenced by the work of Caravaggio after he befriended the artist in Rome, and the Baroque master’s influence can be seen in both takes by the Gentileschis on the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes.
“Starting with Caravaggio, painters in his circles explored ‘orrore,’ or horror,” said Osiecki. “This gruesome beheading of Holofernes was just like David and Goliath — a popular topic for this group of artists. It allowed them to create a theatrical setting with dramatic lighting and lots of gore and tension on a canvas.”
The painting is also unusual for Gentileschi, the museum says, in that it has “no uncertainties concerning dating and attribution.”
“The painting was previously only known through a black and white photograph, so experts could not conclude that it was a work by Gentileschi until the original revealed the signature,” a statement reads.
Gentileschi revisited the subject of Judith and Holofernes several times, such as in a dramatic painting of the same name that is part of the Detroit Institute of Art’s (DIA) collection. The DIA’s work is dated to 1623–1625, making it an earlier version than the Nasjonalmuseet’s acquisition — but the latter offers the Oslo museum a unique opportunity to show works spanning the artist’s career.
The Nasjonalmuseet already owned a work by Artemisia Gentileschi depicting Mary Magdalene, which was donated in 1866 as a work by the “School of Caravaggio” (most likely painted in Naples around 1640), and the early work “Saint Catharine of Alexandria” (1614-15) is on currently on loan from a private collection. Additionally, the Nasjonalmuseet owns an Orazio Gentileschi work dated between 1608 and 1612 that suggests Artemisia contributed to the painting, as the brushstrokes match the ones on the Mary Magdalene work.
“Adding this painting to our collection allows the Nasjonalmuseet as one of the few museums in the world to tell the story of her career in a chronological order, as the newly purchased painting is painted in London,” said Osiecki. “It is not often we in a museum can visually tell the story of successful early modern women artists with more than one work.”