Up Close With Klimt's 'Judith II'

By Ca' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

Judith (1901) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Judith I, 1901

In 1909, eight years after Gustav Klimt produced his controversial painting "Judith I", he returned to the same subject. The biblical figure of Judith, who used her physical charms to seduce the Assyrian general Holofernes and then beheaded him with her own hands in order to save the Jewish people by this heroic act, held a particular fascination for Klimt and his contemporaries. For them, Judith embodied the femme fatale, a concept of womanhood in which eroticism and danger are closely linked.

Judith II Salomè (1909) by Gustav KlimtCa' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

Judith II, 1909

Whereas in "Judith I" Klimt depicted the heroine from the front, gazing at the observer, for the second version he chose to show Judith from the side. With her body bent slightly forwards, she is turning sharply to the left, her eyes fixed on a distant horizon, and her face shown only in severe profile. By portraying her in such a dynamic pose, Klimt may have been making a connection between Judith and another biblical event, namely Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome, the daughter of Herodias, danced for Herod and for her reward—on the advice of her mother—she requested the head of the prophet John the Baptist—a wish which Herod granted, albeit reluctantly.

Klimt does seem to refer to the Dance of Salome in that he clearly depicts Judith in a forward-leaning pose, as if dancing.

Visually, this feeling of movement is accentuated primarily by the long, wavy lines of the two light-colored ribbons that apparently adorn Judith's magnificent dress.

Klimt also creates a strong sense of unrest and dynamism by the abundance of embellishments, the very different shapes and contrasting colors in the patterns on Judith's dress and on her jewelry.

The elaborate design on the dress consists mainly of geometric shapes, often elongated triangles but also round, spiral shapes in different shades of gray.

These monochrome shades of gray are enlivened by the brilliant and diverse hues of the various floral and other decorative features of the dress.

The wealth of intense and contrasting colors culminates in the striking striped pattern on a scarf that forms part of Judith's headgear.

Equally eye-catching are the soft, flower-like motifs that cover part of Judith's shoulders like a necklace.

Klimt has made the background an unclearly defined area in fiery orange-red, enriched in parts by golden spiral patterns and the occasional rectangular shape, also in gold.

This orange-red background adds new shades, not used elsewhere, to the already rich palette of colors bejeweling this painting and it further enhances the overall impression of exotic, oriental splendor.

Klimt leads the eye down from this beautiful woman's distinctive face to her brazenly exposed, erotic breasts, …

… then further down to Judith's hands, with their splayed fingers clutching the sack …

… from which, right at the bottom of the picture, the decapitated head of Holofernes emerges. In this way, Klimt uses the unusually tall, narrow format of the painting to create an artistic and even dramatic composition in a way that is new to him.

The feeling of dynamism that Klimt generates by the kaleidoscopic colors and the accumulation of decorative detail also plays an important role in the drama of the picture, and this is intensified by the skillful way in which he guides the viewer's gaze.

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