Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Pietro Benvenuti, Italian, 1769 - 1844


Black chalk heightened with white chalk, on grayish brown prepared wove paper

Sheet: 12 15/16 x 9 5/16 inches (32.8 x 23.6 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Bequest of Anthony Morris Clark, 1978

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An important Florentine Neoclassical painter, Benvenuti received prestigious commissions from patrons such as the emperor Napoleon and the grand duke of Tuscany. This drawing is for a very large altarpiece in the cathedral at Arezzo that was painted in Rome in 1803 and exhibited at the Pantheon there with great success in 1804 before being sent on to its final destination.

Additional information:
  • PublicationItalian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Benvenuti produced his first painted version of Judith with the Head of Holofernes, now in the Museo e Gallerie Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, in 1798. When the painting was deemed unacceptable by the authorities, it was sold to Frederick Augustus Hervey, earl of Bristol, an ardent supporter of Roman Neoclassicism. In 1803 Benvenuti was again invited to paint the subject for the chapel of the Madonna del Conforto in the cathedral at Arezzo. The altarpiece, a large one, was exhibited in Rome at the Pantheon, where it was admired by Antonio Canova before its installation at Arezzo. Its commission was initiated by Bishop Marcacci, for whom Benvenuti had previously painted a large altarpiece in 1792. The presence of pentimenti indicates that the Philadelphia drawing was done as a preparatory study for this painting, and, as is often the case with working sheets, it evinces the energy and vitality of the artist’s first inspiration. This is particularly true of drawings by Neoclassical artists, whose concern with even contours and an unblemished surface often dampened the spontaneity of the primo pensiero. The drawing portrays the major protagonists of the drama: Judith, her handmaiden, and the relicts of the tyrant Holofernes. It is closer to the Arezzo version than to the Neapolitan one in the position of the handmaiden’s arm and in the way she holds a bit of cloth to conceal the grisly head from the people of Bethulia. When Benvenuti went to Paris in 1816 with Canova to recoup paintings and sculptures taken by the French, the Arezzo Judith was one of the masterpieces they brought back. Stylistically, the painting marks Benvenuti’s successful transition from his earlier overwrought Baroque style to the cool monumentality of Neoclassicism. His adaptation of the Old Testament subject to a contemporary ambience is ingenious. Judith’s role as the heroine who bravely saved her people from oppression is emphasized. She is even decked out in a Phrygian hat, signaling her allegiance to the forces of progress. There are three related drawings in the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi: an early freestyle sketch (12022), a compositional variant (12026), and a modello for the Naples painting (12024). Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 64.

    Shepherd Gallery, New York. Italian 19th Century Drawings and Watercolors: An Album; Camuccini and Minardi to Mancini and Balla. Catalogue by Roberta J. M. Olson. New York: Shepherd Gallery, 1976, no. 56, pl. 7;
    Philadelphia Museum of Art. A Scholar Collects: Selections from the Anthony Morris Clark Bequest. Exhibition catalogue edited by Ulrich W. Hiesinger and Ann Percy. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1980. [Later shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 17 April-13 June 1982], no. 93, fig. 93.