Blood, Water, Paint

The first time I saw Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, I was astonished. Something about it felt real –  like lived experience – though I couldn’t say if it was the expression on Holofernes face, the weight of the women holding him down, or the blood on the bed.

I looked Artemisia Gentileschi up and discovered that she was a master painter of the renaissance era. Her paintings stayed on my radar, but I didn’t dig into who she was until a couple of weeks ago when I read a review on the Artnet News blog about a book called Blood, Water, Paint written by Joy McCullough.

The book tells the story of Gentileschi’s relationship to painting and the world of men she lived in – and of her rape by one of her father’s business acquaintances, Agostino Tassi. Artemisia’s father took Tassi to court, but the one who ended up on trial was the young Artemisia.

During Tassi’s seven-month trial, midwives physically examined Gentileschi in front of a judge, who then demanded that her hands be tortured in order to see if she changed her story under pressure. The saga is meticulously documented in some 300 pages of court records ...”  Excerpt from Artnet News review

The book is written mostly in spare verse and is a powerful read.

“i blink
try to shake off
the weight of a gaze
I never welcomed
from a man
who now occupies
my studio …”

Artemisia was seventeen when she was raped. The rape trial was held in 1612 in Rome and she painted the first version of Judith Beheading Holofernes (above) in 1614, when she was just twenty years old. (She painted a second version – almost identical – in 1620-21).


  1. Chilling. This biblical story has inspired many amazing works, but I did not know this one, or the story behind it of the artist.
    I had an argument with a (conservative) friend about Kehinde Wiley’s version, where Judith is a black woman and she is holding a white man’s head. The story is rich with symbolism on many levels. (K)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a powerful story with resonance through the ages into today’s world. The rape itself then the violence of the authorities against the victim. This painting is such a powerful response and such a contrast with the paintings of rapes from classical mythology from the same era, presumably undertaken to provide titillation for their patrons.

    Liked by 1 person

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