David contemplating the Head of Goliath

Orazio Gentileschi
1563 – 1639

David contemplating the Head of Goliath

Painted circa 1692

Oil on lapis lazuli, laid on slate: 10 x 7 5/8 inches, 25 x 19 cm

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Provenance

  • with The Weiss Gallery, 2012;
  • Private collection, UK, on loan to the National Gallery, London.

Literature

  • Roberto Contini, Francesco Solinas, et al, (ed.), Exhibition catalogue: Artemisia 1593 – 1654: Pouvoir, Gloire et Passions d’une Femme Peintre, Paris, 2012, p. 31, no. 9.

Exhibitions

  • Paris, Musée Maillol, Artemisia 1593 – 1654: Pouvoir, Gloire et Passions d’une Femme Peintre, 14 March – 15 July 2012.

This extraordinary object, painted on the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, is unique in the oeuvre of Orazio Gentileschi, arguably one of the greatest painters of the baroque period. The painting’s early function and history are as yet unknown but its intimate scale, exquisite handling and the sheer costliness of the lapis all indicate that it was an important commission for a patron with highly sophisticated tastes. Prof. Dott. Francesco Solinas, co-curator of the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition in which the painting was recently exhibited (Paris, Musée Maillol, 2012), has suggested that it may have been commissioned as a papal gift. Notably, the painting is datable to circa 1612, shortly after Orazio had completed work on two important fresco cycles for the Borghese: one for an apartment in Pope Paul V’s grand palazzo on the Quirinal, and the other in the casino (or garden loggia) belonging to the pope’s nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The artist was already fifty years old by this date, but his reputation and demand for his work grew considerably in the wake of Caravaggio’s death, and resulted in some of his most important commissions – not only in Italy – but also abroad, in Paris and London.

The Old Testament subject is taken from I Samuel, 17: 50-51. David is portrayed after the fight – victorious yet quietly contemplative, and in stark contrast to Orazio’s earlier, dramatically Caravaggesque depiction of David slaying Goliath in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (c.1607 – 1609). Orazio’s fascination with the subject reveals in turn his interest in the works of his contemporaries, Caravaggio and Guido Reni, both of whom often turned to the subject of David and Goliath. Reni, in particular, treated the theme of David contemplating the head of Goliath in his large canvas of c. 1604 – 1606 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), probably only a few years before Orazio conceived his own composition. However, where Reni’s rendition is elegantly contrived, Orazio’s is artfully naturalistic: he is as much interested in the textures of David’s sheepskin cloak as he is in the youth’s emotions, adapting the sharp caravaggesque lighting of his figure to a naturalistic outdoor setting. Nonetheless, his David is as muscular as a Roman statue, and the sheepskin is artfully draped to expose his impressive figure in repose, while he ponders Goliath’s head at his feet. He nonchalantly clasps the stone with which he killed Goliath in his left hand, a sword in his right. David’s victory over Goliath was intended as a metaphor of virtue – an exemplum virtutis – and this intimate presentation of David in a secluded landscape, simply dressed and holding his humble weapon, serves to underline the picture’s symbolic purpose.

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