A Woman’s Perspective in Baroque Art

gentileschi judith and her maidservant

(Artemisia Gentileschi, Part II)

What is Baroque Art

For the last two months I’ve been talking about Baroque art this and Baroque art that, but what is it really? This little blurb sums it up better than I could in an entire blog post: 

“The Baroque artists were particularly focused on natural forms, spaces, colors, lights, and the relationship between the observer and the literary or portrait subject in order to produce a strong, if muted, emotional experience.”


Essentially we’re looking at drama. We’re looking at using tension in the forms and lighting to draw the viewer into the scene being depicted. Different regions had their own spins on the concept. Last month I wrote about Peter Paul Rubens, another Baroque artist from Antwerp. If you put his work side by side with Artemisia Gentileschi’s you’ll see that they had very different technical approaches to their subjects, but both fall into the definition of Baroque art. 

rubens judith and her maidservant
Peter Paul Rubens. Judith with the Head of Holofernes. ca. 1616
gentileschi judith and her maidservant
Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith and her Maidservant. ca. 1623.

OH the DRAMA… er… Contrast

Ever since I learned the terms chiaroscuro and tenebrism, I’ve used them interchangeably. I think I was even taught that they were the same thing. In researching this post I learned that they in fact are not the same thing – similar, but different. What I’ve noticed is that chiaroscuro tends to be used more when talking about Italian artists, probably because it’s an Italian word, and tenebrism tends to be used more elsewhere. That or my brain is messing with me because I’ve been doing it wrong for a loooong time…

So what’s the difference? 

Chiaroscuro literally comes from the Italian words for light and dark. When you see a brightly lit subject against a dark background, that’s chiaroscuro. Tenebrism is a type of chiaroscuro. This article describes the difference as being in the shadows. Tenebrism takes the dark areas to full black and creates a sort of spotlight effect. The article goes further: 

“If chiaroscuro is about the relationship between light and shadow, then tenebrism is about the shadow itself.”

Beautifully said. Chiaroscuro is a core element of Italian Baroque art and mastering it is a sure-fire way to get more depth and drama into your art. Personally I fall way too hard into tenebrism when I shade, but I’m doing better! I swear!

Where’s the Art??

Let’s look at some paintings! We’re going to explore Artemisia Gentileschi’s work by comparing it to her contemporaries. Her treatment of various popular subjects was very different than that of her male counterparts. You will often find art historians comparing her pieces to those of Caravaggio – perhaps one of her greatest influences after her father.

Even without these comparisons, her art still stands out. She had a perspective that no other artist of her time could have and the level of her craftsmanship rivaled that of her peers. With that, let’s dive into her first known painting – Susanna and the Elders.

Susanna and the Elders, 1610

The Susanna and the Elders story is from chapter 13 of the book of Daniel. She was the beautiful wife of Jo’akim, a wealthy man from Babylon. He was the most honored in his community and frequently entertained visitors. This included two elders that were recently appointed as judges. 

Every day at noon, when everyone had left, Susanna would walk the gardens outside her home. On a particularly hot day, she wanted to bathe in the garden, sending her two maids to fetch her oil and ointments and ordering them to shut the door behind them. 

They didn’t see the two elders hiding. The men had grown to lust after Susanna and were lying in wait for the chance to seduce her. As soon as she was alone, they ran to her and professed their “love”. They told her that if she did not lay with them, they would tell everyone that she sent her maids away so she could lay with another man.

gentileschi baroque susanna and the elders
Artemisia Gentileschi. Susanna and the Elders. 1610

This is the moment captured here: the two elders leering over the young woman as she resists their advances. Artemisia depicts her twisting away from them, a look of fear and distress on her face as they conspire behind her. The figures of the two men form a single heavy presence hanging above Susanna, making them all the more threatening and oppressive. The three figures form an inverted pyramid, expressing the power they hold over their victim in that moment. 

The men are dark and shadowy, while light shines upon Susanna. Not only does this illustrate their ill intentions against her, it highlights Susanna as a virtuous woman who did not give to them. I also believe the light on Susanna foreshadows the favor she received from God later in the story. Despite being arrested as a result of the elders’ false accusations and sentenced to death, her prayers for salvation were answered when Daniel proved her innocence. 

Cagnacci vs. Gentileschi

Now let’s compare it to Guido Cagnacci’s version. He was another Baroque painter that lived right around the same time as Artemisia Gentileschi. 

guido cagnacci susanna and the elders baroque
Guido Cagnacci. Susanna and the Elders. ca. Second Half of 17th Century
gentileschi baroque susanna and the elders
Artemisia Gentileschi. Susanna and the Elders. 1610

In Cagnacci’s version, Susanna is on the same level as the Elders. She leans slightly away from them slightly, but her face is calm and she’s making eye contact. This is hardly the reaction a woman would have when being interrupted by two old men in the middle of her bath. We see the same shadowy figures contrasting against the light on Susanna, but the composition and her pose suggest she is the one seducing them. Any indication of her virtue, such as her crossed legs, seems like an afterthought. Her presence and her beauty appear to be more for the consumption of the viewer than a realistic portrayal of Susanna’s plight. 

If you look at other versions of this scene, you’ll see varying degrees of resistance (or lack thereof) from Susanna. You’ll also see varying degrees of menace from the elders. In a few paintings they even look kind of… nice.





Judith Slaying Holofernes, ca. 1614

If there was one thing Artemisia Gentileschi could do it was to capture a moment. Not just any moment, but one of raw emotion and tension. In Judith Beheading Holofernes, she captured every ounce of anger and vengeance when she portrayed Judith sawing off the head General Holofernes. 

The story goes that Holofernes was an Assyrian General sent by the king to besiege the city of Bethulia where the beautiful widow Judith lived. She prayed to God and decided to kill the General herself. Judith put on her finest clothes and went to the enemy camp with her maidservant. She seduced the General and got him drunk. Once he passed out, she cut off his head with his own sword. 

gentileschi judith slaying holofernes baroque painting
Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Slaying Holofernes. ca. 1614

The scene is brutal. The maidservant holds down Holofernes as Judith grips him by the hair and saws into his neck. Blood drips down the bed. The women wear expressions of anger and determination while the general’s face is frozen in fear and panic. 

This composition is lit by a single light source outside of the scene, the lights and darks adding even more tension and drama to the act itself. The pure darkness of the background adds an element of the unknown and contains the focus of the viewer to that of the women – to kill the general. 

Now I really didn’t want to do this because everyone does it, but it’s such a good comparison that we pretty much have to look at Artemisia’s version next to Caravaggio’s. After all, he is one of the best known Baroque painters. This really takes me back to the good ol’ college days looking at slides of this exact thing…

Caravaggio vs. Gentileschi

caravaggio baroque painting judith beheading holofernes
Caravaggio. Judith Beheading Holofernes. ca. 1599
gentileschi judith slaying holofernes baroque painting
Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Slaying Holofernes. ca. 1614

In Caravaggio’s version we have the same beautiful chiaroscuro, a great moment of tension, and a gruesome portrayal of Holofernes’ death. What’s different is Judith. Sure, she has a handful of hair to hold the General’s head while she cuts it off and the tension in her hand as she grips the sword is beautifully rendered. But look at how far back she’s standing and the uncertainty in her expression. This is not the look of a woman that’s there to murder someone in the night. 

The maidservant is elderly and looks on as she hold the bag to carry the General’s head – a far cry from Artemisia’s version where the maidservant is actively involved. It’s almost as if the artists are expressing two different views on what a woman is capable of. In these moments it can be hard not to place a modern feminist perspective on viewpoints from centuries ago, but it’s just as difficult to deny that Artemisia had something to say about what women can do. 





Judith and Her Maidservant, ca. 1623

This is one of my all-time favorite paintings. I love everything about a single light source painting and anyone that’s been in one of my streams and witnessed my struggle with making things way too dark totally gets why I love this piece. This is what tenebrism is all about.

We’re at the next part of the Judith and Holofernes story where Judith and her maidservant are about to escape the camp and return to Bethulia. They have the bag full of severed head and are peering into the darkness, presumably to see if anyone is coming. Judith still holds the sword she used to kill Holofernes while her maidservant secures the head. 

gentileschi judith and her maidservant
Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith and her Maidservant. ca. 1623.

This is an example of a composition using tenebrism rather than chiaroscuro. The blackness that surrounds them alludes to the unknown and the potential danger as they complete their missions. Strangely they have no blood on their clothes, but this is true for all of the depictions of this tale at the time. Perhaps it was an aesthetic choice or some sense of propriety (weird since we’re talking about two women that just cut a guy’s head off), but maybe the red drapery here is an allusion to the bloodshed. 

Gentileschi vs. Gentileschi

But what about her father’s version? How does Orazio’s Judith compare? 

orazio gentileschi judith and her maidservant
Orazio Gentileschi. Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. ca. 1621
gentileschi judith and her maidservant
Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith and her Maidservant. ca. 1623.

Orazio’s version seems to show more confusion than determination in the expressions of the women. The way they huddle suggests fear. In Artemisia’s Judith, one is on the lookout while the other secures the head. She also added more tension with her single light source where Orazio’s composition includes ambient light that fully illuminates the figures. They still don’t have blood on their clothes, but in this one Judith is wearing red. Maybe it represents the blood and aggression here too?

Finally, Orazio’s composition has the women forming a pyramid. There’s no space to breathe between them and maybe he chose to do that to create that moment of tension. But Artemisia chose to split them up, with one standing  and one crouching. This creates a more dynamic interaction between the figures, the scene, and the viewer.





Phew! This was a long one, wasn’t it? Thanks for going on this journey with me. Artemisia Gentileschi truly is one of my favorite artists! I could have gone on for longer, but I want to know what you think. How do you interpret these paintings? What other differences do you see? 

Most of all, I want to know what artist you want to see next! Let me know in the comments below or holler at me on Twitter

If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it. Hehe, I had to.