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Oil painting - Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes
  • Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes
    Ponzoni, Matteo, born 1583 - died 1663
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Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Venice (possibly, painted)

  • Date:

    mid 17th century (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Ponzoni, Matteo, born 1583 - died 1663

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by John M. Parsons

  • Museum number:

    519-1870

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Matteo Ponzoni (ca. 1586- before 1675) was born in Venice, from a noble family and studied there under Palma Giovane (ca. 1548 - 1628) and Sante Speranda (1566-1638). He appeared as a member of the Fraglia, the Venetian guild of painters, in 1613 but moved to Split, Dalmatia (now modern Croatia) in 1635 until 1648. He then returned to Venice where he died some time before 1675. Among his pupils were Giovanni Carboncino (active 1672-1692), Antonio Zanchi (1631-1722), Andrea Celesti (1637-1712 ) and Pietro Negri (1635-ca. 1679).

This painting illustrates a popular subject in the Baroque period retelling the story of Judith who saved her city from the siege of Holofernes by killing him and presenting his head to his fellow citizens. She is here represented on the right holding the head of Holofernes in her left hand and a dagger in the other. Her maid illuminates the scene with a candle and is looking at the head with surprise and curiosity while Judith raised her eyes at the beholder in sign of victory. Although the attribution of this painting was much discussed during the last decades, the stylistic features share some significant characteristics with the art of Matteo Ponzoni and could therefore result from the work of one of his pupils.

Physical description

On the right, Judith is holding the head of Holofernes in her left head and a dagger in the other, her maid behind her on the left is raising a candle to light the scene.

Place of Origin

Venice (possibly, painted)

Date

mid 17th century (painted)

Artist/maker

Ponzoni, Matteo, born 1583 - died 1663

Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas

Dimensions

Height: 90.3 cm estimate, Width: 79.4 cm estimate

Object history note

Bequeathed by John M. Parsons, 1870
John Meeson Parsons (1798-1870), art collector, was born in Newport, Shropshire. He later settled in London, and became a member of the stock exchange. His interest in railways led to his election as an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1839, and he was director or chairman of two railway companies between 1843 and 1848. Much of his time however was spent collecting pictures and works of art. In his will he offered his collection of mostly German and Dutch schools to the National Gallery (which selected only three works) and to the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington, later the Victoria and Albert Museum. The South Kensington Museum acquired ninety-two oil paintings and forty-seven watercolours. A number of engravings were also left to the British Museum.

Historical significance: The painting illustrates an episode of the Old Testament narrated in the book of Judith (13, 1-10). Judith saved her city of Bethulia from the siege of Holofernes, general of the Assyrian king Nabucodonosor, by beheading him and bringing his head to his fellow citizens.

She is always accompanied by her maid, represented here on the left. Judith is elegantly dressed and bears precious jewels, such as the pearl necklace and lavish diadem, refinements which contrast with the masculine features of her face and body. She is holding the head of Holofernes in her left head and a dagger in the other. Her maid illuminates the scene with a candle, looking at the head with surprise and curiosity, whilst Judith raises her eyes at the beholder in a sign of victory. The palette is here dominated by strong hues of brownish reds, browns and dark greens. The scene is bathed in a strong chiaroscuro, emphasized by the light from the candle, placed in the middle of the composition. Such illumination is typical of Caravaggio's followers, both Italian and Northern.

This work displays Netherlandish as well as Italian characteristics; the realism of the woman's faces, for example, points to the Netherlands, while Judith's costume is Italianate. It has consequently been subject to a variety of attributions, which may be listed:

1. Von Honthorst (1893 Catalogue, p. 180) as was customary for such candlelit compositions in the 19th century
2. North Italy (August L. Mayer, oral opinion, 1936 - perhaps Genoese origin; Alfred Moir, written communication, 1968; Otto Kurz, oral opinion, 1971, detecting the influence of Bernardo Strozzi - Genoa, Venice, 1581-1644 - and suggesting a possible origin in the Netherlandish colony in Genoa)
3. A Flemish artist working under Venetian influence (Denis Mahon, oral opinion, 1960)
4. Louis Finson, Flemish school, before 1580-1617 (Netherlands Institute of Art History photograph no. L.8693; Horst Gerson, written communication, 1960)
5. Frans Badens, a native of Antwerp, who worked in Amsterdam and who was an exponent of an Italianate, distantly Caravaggesque style (Giorgio T. Faggini, 1969).

Horst Gerson drew a comparison with a Beheading of St John attributed to Finsonius in the Brunswick Museum (A. von Schneider, Caravaggio und die Niederländer, 1933, pl. 36), but this comparison is not entirely convincing. Faggini published a document showing that Badens painted Judith, but this was a very popular subject in the 17th century (A. Pigler, Barockthemen, i, 1956, pp. 191-96, lists some sixty examples with Judith holding the head or placing it in the sack) and there is no evidence to link 519-1870 with the document. Stylistically it does not appear to fit closely with what is known of Baden's work.

Kauffmann (1973 Catalogue, p. 155 ) left the question of attribution open, considering that the most convincing suggestion was that it may be a Netherlandish artist working in North Italy, perhaps Genoa (cf. Mostra dei pittori genovesi a Genova nel '6oo, Genova, Palazzo Bianco, 1969).

However, the massive body as well as the large nose and the pronounced rings under the big eyes are reminiscent of the art of Matteo Ponzoni, who was active in the Veneto and Dalmatia (now modern Croatia), stylistic characteristics suggest however that the painting could be northern Italian and similar to Matteo Ponzoni's manner,o Ponzoni's work, who was active in the Veneto and Dalmatia (now modern Croatia), suggesting that the painting may be by a follower of his.

Historical context note

History paintings developed in Italy during the 15th-16th centuries. These could include religious themes, or depictions of momentous recent events, but the term was most frequently associated with classical subject-matter. The development of art treatises, in which the compositional rules of painting were discussed, also influenced the evolution of history painting.

Matteo Ponzoni (ca. 1586- before 1675) was born to a noble family in Venice, where he studied under Palma Giovane (ca. 1548 - 1628) and Sante Speranda (1566-1638). He is listed as a member of the Fraglia, the Venetian guild of painters, in 1613, but moved in 1635 to Split, Dalmatia (now modern Croatia), where he remained until 1648. He returned to Venice, where he died some time before 1675. Among his pupils were Giovanni Carboncino (active 1672-1692), Antonio Zanchi (1631-1722), Andrea Celesti (1637-1712 ) and Pietro Negri (1635-ca. 1679).

Judith, depicted with the head of Holofernes, was a popular subject in Baroque art due to the dramatic nature of her story and of her heroic example. Many Baroque artists depicted this subject, including the caravaggesque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) whose two versions of the subject are of stunning theatricality and cruel realism (see Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, dated 1611-12 and Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, dated 1612-21).

Descriptive line

Oil Painting, 'Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes', Circle of Matteo Ponzoni, mid 17th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Kauffmann, C.M., Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, I. Before 1800, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973, pp. 154-5, cat. no. 186.
G. T. Faggini, 'Frans Badens (Il Carracci di Amsterdam)' in Arte Veneta, xxiii, 1969, p. 136, fig. 158.

Production Note

This Caravaggesque painting has been subject to a variety of attributions, thanks to its resemblance to numerous concurrent works from Italy and the Netherlands; it has been attributed to Honthorst (1893), to North Italy (August L. Mayer; Alfred Moir; Otto Kurz); to a Flemish artist working under Ventian influence (Denis Mahon); to L. Finsonius, a Flemsih artist (Horst Gerson); and to Frans Badens, an Antwerp painter (Giorgio T. Faggini). Kauffmann believes the question of attribution must remain open and that the suggestion that it is the work of a Netherlandish artist working in Northern Italy, perhaps Genoa, is the most convincing.

Materials

Oil paint; Canvas

Techniques

Oil painting

Categories

Paintings; Christianity; Judaism

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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