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Violence and Virtue

Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes

Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes opens today in galleries 202 and 202A. This small but significant exhibition has as its anchor Gentileschi's most well-known work, Judith Slaying Holofernes, on loan to the Art Institute from Florence's Galleria degli Uffizi. This first-ever appearance in Chicago is the latest in a series of notable Baroque loans to the Art Institute, joining Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus in 2009 and The Lute Player, by Artemisia's father Orazio Gentileschi, in 2010.

The story of Gentileschi's rape by Italian painter Agostino Tassi and the ensuing legal trial is well-known. The heinousness of those events drove her to Florence, which is where her career blossomed, and this is the true story of Violence and Virtue. Curator Eve Straussman-Pflanzer's essay in the accompanying exhibition catalogue describes Gentileschi's eventful and turbulent time in Florence. As a woman in the artistic court of the powerful Medici family—an extreme rarity—Gentileschi's talent and identity were never in full accord or acceptance. Despite keeping company with renaissance luminaries of the day (Michelangelo's nephew and bad boy astronomer Galileo among them) she struggled for full acceptance and steady commissions. Her direct, climactic, and violent depiction of the popular Judith story didn't win her many fans, neither during her life nor for centuries afterward.

Indeed, while Artemisia Gentileschi and her Florentine Judith now hold a firm and celebrated place in the art historical canon, such notoriety was never certain. A 20th century redress of her talent and virtuosity gained much momentum during the 1970s, when Feminist-inspired reinterpretations of art history proliferated. Recognition has grown over the intervening decades, and Gentileschi is now seen as one of the most important artists to emerge from 17th-century Italy.

Image Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, inv. 1567.