Images (for sample essay):
Grant Wood, Parson Weem’s Fable, 1939 Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant, ca. 1625
Amon Carter Museum, Dallas (Detroit Institute of Arts)
In comparing Wood’s Parson Weems’s Fable and Gentileschi’s, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, though the subject matter between both of them is very different, there some striking similarities in composition- looking at these elements yields a better understanding and appreciation of both works.
First, compositionally, both paintings are asymmetrical. While asymmetrical, both also seem balanced. In Judith…, the gazes and gestures of the characters suggest that there is something beyond the darkness on the left side of the composition- they suggest that there is more going on than what we see, providing a sort of implied balance. In Weem…, although the composition is asymmetrical, Wood creates a central focal point so deftly (as will be explained throughout) that the asymmetrical nature of the composition is not distracting, therefore it seems balanced. Additionally, Artemisia’s composition has a good example of tenebrism- it is overall, very dark, and Wood’s does not. Hierarchical scale helps Wood draw attention to George, the most important figure (and focal point). He is much smaller – by scale – than any other figure. Artemisia doesn’t use hierarchical scale.
Regarding viewpoint, Wood places viewers on the outside of a curtain that the Parson is drawing aside. It reminds me of a movie or theatrical production (which, indeed, the whole scene is a fabrication of Weem’s mind). This helps to portray the subject matter as just a fable. In Artemisia’s painting, viewers are in a very different position. It is as they are crouching near Holofernes’ heard with the maidservant- in a worm’s-eye-view perspective – thus adding to the sense of urgency in the scene- viewers become a part of the story, opposed to just looking at it.
Both artists, though using different techniques, create an illusion of depth in their works. Wood calls on strong diagonal lines (in the architecture) to draw viewers back into the picture plane. There is also a touch of atmospheric perspective (as the trees on the hillside see to get hazier as they recede into the background). Additionally, the background figures, (esp. the trees) get smaller as they go back – this suggests diminution in scale. One element that both artists use to create the illusion of depth is directional lighting. In Weem’s Fable, there are very obviously cast shadows created by the figures this suggests their three-dimensional quality and depth. The light seems to be coming from the lower left side in this painting. In Judith…, the light also seems to be coming from the candle on the left side of the composition. This illuminates any surface turned toward it, but leaves theirs in shadow, creating a strong chiaroscuro effect and sense of depth. Artemisia also calls on overlapping to create depth in her work – Wood uses it a bit where the cherry tree overlaps the father’s leg, but it much more prevalent in Artemisia’s work.
Both artists use line, both actual and implied, very effectively in their work. Wood uses strong curvilinear lines (in the curtain and the cherry tree) to frame the scene between George and his father- thus drawing attention to the central focal point. Similarly, there is a strong curvilinear line created by a curtain in the Artemisia work. Wood also uses implied line – through the parson and the father’s gestures to draw attention to little George. Again, Artemisia uses implied line as well to suggest that there is something or someone in the darkness on the left side of the composition. One use of line is evident only in Wood s the rectilinear line created by the building at the right side.
Finally, perhaps the starkest difference between the contrasts between these two works involves color. Artemisia uses a very limited palette for her painting. The rich gold and red hues are quite saturated and rich, whereas the purple worn by the maidservant is more desaturated and less illuminated, and thus that figure is of secondary importance. The small amount of white on the women’s clothing create the brightest spots in the painting. Drastically different is the somewhat high-key palette used by Wood. He uses a range of color, from a very saturated red on the father’s coat, to desaturated shades and tints of the same color on the curtain and building. The dominant red and green tones, which are complementary colors, serve to intensify and unify the representations. George, in his stark white tunic, is the brightest character in the composition, again reminding viewers that he is the focal point.
When pulling all these elements together, viewers can begin to see how they can help the artist to convey their subject matter. In the case of Artemisia, the overall darkness, contrasted with the bright light from the candle lends to the dark, morbid subject matter, but the redeeming idea that the enemy captain is dead. In addition, the implied lines and gestures add to the sense of urgency in the scene. Finally, the white articles of clothing that each woman is wearing could suggest that even though they killed Holofernes, they are pure or innocent in motive. These are just a few of the ways that the art’s choices in technique and form help convey the subject matter. In Parson Weem’s Fable, the viewpoint (as discussed earlier) helps viewers to remember that the scene they are witnessing is fabricated. They are, in essence, watching parson’s fable unfold – I liken it to watching – a sit-com on TV. Also, Wood uses line very effectively to focus on young George – without the curvilinear frame and implied lines, one might not be drawn to the focal point. Finally, the generally high-key palette lends to a feeling of lightness 0 just as the Parson’s tale should be taken lightly.
Critically examining two works of art, and finding their similarities and differences allows viewers to better appreciate each piece and the choices that the artist made in its creation.