Saturday, January 20, 2018

"Detail from Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes" (oil on stretched linen; 10" x 8")

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My New Year's Resolution is the pursuit of beauty. Well, I have been pursuing beauty in my paintings for many years, but I have a specific goal in mind. I started taking the year-long online workshop called "Let's Face It". It is run by Kara Bullock and 20 guest instructors; this year it focuses on portraiture throughout art history since the Renaissance. The students can follow the week's lesson step by step, or do whatever they wish to do, which suits better my independent style. Caravaggio was the second week's artist.

My painting is the copy of a detail from "Judith Beheading Holofernes" (c.1602) by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio. The widow Judith first charms the Assyrian general Holofernes, then decapitates him in his tent. The painting was rediscovered in 1950 and is part of the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome.

The deuterocanonical Book of Judith tells how Judith served her people by seducing and pleasuring Holofernes, the Assyrian General. Judith gets Holofernes drunk, then seizes her sword and slays him: "Approaching to his bed, she took hold of the hair of his head." (Judith, 13:7-8).

Caravaggio's approach was, typically, to choose the moment of greatest dramatic impact, the moment of the decapitation itself. The figures are set out in a shallow stage, theatrically lit from the side, isolated against the inky, black background. Judith and her maid Abra stand to the right, partially over Holofernes, who is vulnerable on his back.

The faces of the three characters demonstrate his mastery of emotion, Judith in particular showing in her face a mix of determination and repulsion. Artemisia Gentileschi and others were deeply influenced by this work and even surpassed Caravaggio's physical realism, but it has been argued that none matched his capture of Judith's psychological ambivalence.

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