Thursday, July 22, 2010

Reflections of the Artist: Caravaggio vs. Artemesia Gentileschi

This is a paper I wrote for my Baroque Art History class, for which I received an "A" grade. I won't attach images of the paintings in question because I'm not sure how the rules work regarding that in blogging just yet.

An artist's work will often reflect his/her own reaction to the time and culture in which s/he lives. Nothing can illustrate this more effectively than a comparison between the Italian Baroque painters Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. Contemporaries of one another, they both had an interest in portraying realistic people and situations, though they approached this interest differently due to their different experiences. This was especially true regarding their respective genders.

Caravaggio was bold and offensive both as a man and a painter, shocking Italy with his bluntly naturalistic and often irreverent-seeming artwork and the unbridled violent streak that caused him to flee the country, while Artemisia, bolder still, flouted the conventions and challenged the assumptions of her time simply by being both female and a painter--in other words, by being true to herself instead of accepting her prescribed role. Their similarities seem to demand their differences; while Caravaggio had to make an effort to stand out among the many other male painters, Artemisia had to make an effort to be a painter in the first place and an even greater effort to be taken seriously. It is doubtful as to whether the latter even occurred in her lifetime.

A comparison of their respective depictions of a popular contemporary subject, the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, effectively shows their respective experiences with the culture and its views as well as their respective passions regarding such. Both of their pieces capture the most grisly moment of the story and neither artist holds back or shies away from realism, depicting the scene in all its brutality and gory violence, but the vast difference in their personal values is as blatant and obvious as the visual itself.

Caravaggio may have seemed quite the rebel when one regards his work or considers his lifestyle, but in his Judith and Holofernes (fig. 1) he displays more conformity to culture. The image is far more idealized and reflects his approval of the values of the times. Judith is portrayed in ideal beauty, contrasted by the hideousness of both the dying Holofernes and her elderly maidservant. This is meant to underscore her moral significance (O'Neill 257). The triumph of good over evil--a message as old as time--is evident in this image and clearly reflected in the appearance of the heroine of the tale.

Additionally, Judith is realistically painted but not realistically posed. she stands tall, proud, and rigid as she slices off Holofernes's head--her pose belies her action. She is not a real woman who exists in the real world. She is a femme forte, "a term that began to be used around 1630...meaning that rare, virtuous woman whose price is far above rubies" (Garrard 167). A femme forte is an exceptional woman who exists in a higher realm than reality, as they saw it in the seventeenth century. To them, women simply lacked reason, fortitude, intelligence and moral character--all characteristics associated with men in the culture--and it was exceedingly rare in their minds that a woman could rise above the obstacle of her gender to be as good as a man. As a result, a strong woman was not entirely a woman but more a man, and was not portrayed in terms of female empowerment.

The lack of realism in Judith's pose is not the result of Caravaggio's lack of skill but an emphasis that a woman of this caliber is not realistic. It makes perfect sense when viewed in regard to the seventeenth-century mentality. Caravaggio is a conformist in this sense; at first glance, to the average viewer, it might seem to be a strong feminist statement but it really only confirms, both socially and theologically, that women are inherently inferior.

The consideration of the Counter-Reformation must also come into play with this piece. Art created during the Counter-Reformation in the Catholic church often underscored and affirmed the importance and divinity of the Virgin Mary, but she too was portrayed as femme forte--possessing virtues inherently unattainable by the vast majority of the "weaker sex". Judith "prefigures the Madonna, and is invoked on the feast of the Immaculate Conception" (O'Neill 256), and so it is arguable that there is a Counter-Reformation message embedded in the image, emphasizing the validity of the Virgin through the emphasis on her precursor. The message, as such, is also accessible to the average viewer. Again, there is less rebellion than there is conformity in his work, as it reaffirms the power of the status quo of his time.

Artemisia, on the other hand, paints the story from a completely different viewpoint, and she also explored the subject in greater detail, producing a number of different images. In her Judith Slaying Holofernes (fig. 2), Judith is not an ethereal femme forte, inaccessible and unrelated to real women, but is a real woman in a real situation. Her maidservant shares in this; unlike the Caravaggio piece in which the maidservant is used primarily to help set off Judith's symbolic beauty, this maid is complicit with her mistress as she actively participates in the deed. Both of them are in believable poses in relation to their actions, with no hint of idealistic grace and beauty in either stance. Both of them also appear to be physically up the the task, especially Judith who is obviously strong and well-fed with thick arms that seem perfectly capable of wielding the sword in her hand, and she hacks through Holofernes's neck as if it were a side of beef, as opposed to the graceful carriage of Caravaggio's Judith. In both paintings a spurt of blood explodes from Holofernes's cut throat, but in Artemisia's version it bathes the bed on which he lies.

There is also greater dramatic quality in Artemisia's Judith Slaying Holofernes. The very tenseness of the figures and the realism of their expressions convey a sense of animated, momentary violence, as opposed Caravaggio's far more eternal and archetypal depiction. Both Judith and her maidservant sport stern and unrelenting expressions--which is reasonable in relation to what they are doing at the moment--as opposed to Caravaggio, in which Judith is serious but transcendent, and her maidservant reacts to the scene in horror. There is greater passion and power in Artemisia's piece, rather than the carefully composed image of Caravaggio. Her figures do not pose for an eternal moralizing portrait but live in the moment. Caravaggio's figures are more like puppets used to illustrate points about the Catholic church, the rare transcendence of the femme forte, and the triumph of good over evil. Artemisia's figures are not concerned with moralizing or idealism, but are rather real, passionate human beings engaged in a realistic struggle and expressing very mortal and human emotion. She relates to the scene and to the characters--to her, they are not simply dolls or puppets. It is clear that she truly feels the violence she portrays in this work. This story is personally important to her.

The use of lighting is also more dramatic in Artemisia's piece, which is strange since Caravaggio is supposed to be known in part for his dramatic lighting. In Caravaggio's Judith, he still utilizes the simple black background, but the shadows fail to integrate with most of the figures and completely avoid Judith altogether. The majority of the shadows that are present fall on Holofernes and the maidservant, drawing them into the background, while Judith stands as a brilliant beacon in the center, again underscoring her divine, unwomanly virtue. This contrasts with Artemisia's piece, in which the light falls equally on all the figures to create a more believable environment despite the simple black background, underscoring the momentary drama of the entire scene rather than emphasizing the symbolic characteristics of any particular player in the story. The chiaroscuro effect of the lighting helps to enhance the violence of the scene, however.

Overall, the effect of Artemisia's vision is far more gruesome than Caravaggio's vision of the exact same story. Artemisia's vision focuses on the human and the momentary, while Caravaggio's emphasizes the transcendent and eternal. Artemisia's vision is a greater success in realism than Caravaggio, the celebrated master of realism, and manages to out-shock the master of shock with her image. A clue to how this is possible lies in her personal experience as a seventeenth-century woman, as a painter, and as Artemisia.

The concept of femme forte, that subject of the superior woman who transcended the worthlessness and weakness of actual women in seventeenth-century eyes, contrasted to another concept prevalent at the time: the concept of ingegno. This was one of those admirable virtues thought to exist in the real world, but only in men, especially in regard to creative work.

"By contrast, the artistic creations of men were considered in the Renaissance to be the products of ingegno, a term whose meaning ranged from superior rational intelligence to absolute genius resulting from divine inspiration. Women in general were not considered capable of possessing ingegno because they allegedly lacked the higher power of reason, especially those pertaining to inspiration, that were believed in the art academies to distinguish the genuine artist from a mere craftsman. The idea that women were weaker in reason than men and the corollary notion that, being subject to men and thus farther removed from God, women were incapable of divinely inspired invention--concepts that had firm grounding both in scholastic theology and in Renaissance poetic theory--were the bases for the tacit assumption among male artists and theorists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century that women might practice painting or sculpture, but could not, on account of their inferior biological nature, produce works of creative genius. (Garrard 174)"

Ingegno was something no woman was thought to ever be able to aspire to, no matter how hard she tried. Even if she could persevere against all odds and become an artist, and even if she produced works of incredible genius to the unbiased viewer, none of it could ever be appreciated in her time because it remained stubbornly unrecognized as a result of this idea. Artemisia, by right of being female, was not capable of creative genius, even if she was. Unlike Caravaggio who, by right of being male, had more access to the field of art and was one of many male painters who simply had to stand out with his work, Artemisia had to prove her mettle to a society that refused to acknowledge she had any mettle to prove. Her works were purchased, of course, but her clients were likely more interested--and possible aroused--at the idea of a woman painter than by her actual painting. (Garrard 172)

Despite the fact that she could never really be taken seriously as an artist by her contemporaries or by her society, she had to work harder to achieve the same level of excellence. As a woman, she was not allowed to attend figure drawing classes or hire any male models for her paintings, so she was forced to improvise. She used her "firsthand knowledge of female anatomy" to create images of female nudes that were much more accurate in detail than her male contemporaries and possible contributed to the erotic appeal of her work to her clientele (Harris 52). On top of that, as a woman she could give her female figures far more humanity than the male artists of the time, who hardly regarded females as being human. Rather than being Madonna-whore archetypes either proudly moralizing or wiggling seductively, she painted three-dimensional personalities as well as painting three-dimensional forms (Garrard 171).

The greatest factor in her undeniable passion for the subject matter, however, has to be the fact that she was raped by her teacher Agostino Tassi, and to add insult to injury, "was tortured by thumbscrew to test whether she was telling the truth" when it went to court--and in the end, her rapist went free and her reputation was forever tarnished (Ashby 50). This may seem inconceivable--or even obscene--to us as we live in the twenty-first century that a rape victim would be tortured, but this was the inevitable result of a society that regarded females as lazy, shiftless liars. She had been raped, dishonored, and yet as a female and consequently a deceiver, she was the one to be regarded with suspicion, to the point that she was tortured to protect her rapist from her "natural" female deceptive nature. This alone, outside of the cultural contempt for females, would have been enough to account for the intensity one can feel in her Judith Slaying Holofernes. Perhaps she envisions herself as Judith, exacting her vengeance on the man who had destroyed her, bringing Tassi finally to the justice that he had so unjustly escaped.

In Judith and Holofernes (fig. 1), it is clear that Caravaggio supported the Counter-Reformation Catholic church, believed in the eternal and archetypal idea of good triumphing over evil, and affirmed the inferior nature of women by emphasizing femme forte. In Judith Slaying Holofernes (fig. 2), Artemisia clearly stands against the standards of the day regarding the worth of women and draws emotionally on the experiences of her own personal past, passionately portraying her female figures as real women with strength and humanity, who are captured in the moment rather than posing artificially. In comparing Caravaggio to Artemisia in their depiction of the story of Judith and Holofernes, it is obvious where they stood regarding their society and how they felt about the conventions of the time. The fact that they have painted identical subjects, yet have come up with two extremely different versions each conveying a completely different message, is a conclusive demonstration that they are reflecting their very different experiences as people in their work as artists.


Ashby, Ruth and Deborah Gore Ohrn, eds. Herstory: Women Who Changed the World. New York: Viking, 1995.

Garrard, Mary D. Artemesia Gentileschi. New Jersey: Princeton University, 1989.

Harris, Ann Sutherland. Seventeenth-Century Art and Architecture. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2005.

O'Neill, John P., ed. The Age of Caravaggio. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985.