Violence and Virtue in Chicago

Christine Jackson
Jan 11, 2014 7:11PM

Last weekend I was lucky enough to get to see this masterpiece in person. 

The Art Institute of Chicago and The Foundation for Italian Art and Culture came together to present Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, along with several other pieces focusing around this biblical tale. 

Having studied Gentileschi's work several times, I thought myself prepared for what I would see. I was excited to view the exhibition more for the idea of being in the presence of greatness than to necessarily view the painting. As one of the first female artists to really gain popularity and respect, getting to view some of Gentileschi's work in person was a bit like a pilgrimage for me.

I underestimated how different, how much better, something can look in person. 

Seeing this painting and knowing the Gentileschi's story, you can feel her anger. She was raped by Agostino Tassi at 18, and though he was convicted a year later (after Artemisia was tortured to prove she was telling the truth) Tassi was never punished. The darkness of the painting is partially her Carravaggist roots, but it's also a testimony to her anger and bitterness. 

I've always admired this piece, but I never saw what makes it so interesting to me now: the blood. It sounds morbid, but the way Gentileschi paints the blood of Holofernes is, in some ways, beautiful. Like the telling layers of paint across Van Gogh's skies and fields, you can track Gentileschi's movements in blood. The intensity felt from drip and spatter is truly moving. 

Gentileschi could picture herself as Judith. Though she could not kill her attacker in reality, she would do it time and time again in her art. The execution (pardon my phrasing) is so emotional that seeing it in person is truly an experience.

Christine Jackson
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019