Franz von Stuck • Judith and Holofernes
Oil on cardboard
47.5 : 40 cm
Signed lower left
The Artist’s Estate
By inheritance to family Oberhummer (related by marriage with Franz von Stuck), until 1980s, (thanks to the information of Mrs Regina Heilmann-Thon, great-granddaughter of Franz von Stuck)
See Heinrich Voss, ‟Franz von Stuck 1863–1928. Werkkatalog der Gemälde mit einer Einführung in seinen Symbolismus”, Munich 1973, p. 57 and p. 233, no. 595/181
The battle between the sexes is a typically fin-de-siècle subject and one of the central themes in artistic production around 1900. Franz von Stuck, the Munich painter and ‘prince of artists’, was responsible for creating some of its most iconic imagery. Paintings such as Sin (Neue Pinakothek, Munich), Salome (Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich) and Judith and Holofernes (Staatliches Museum, Schwerin) brought him recognition throughout Europe and are his lasting legacy. Common to all three compositions – there are several versions of each painting – is his characterisation of woman as a femme fatale who as temptress and seducer exploits her erotic powers to drive man to his ruin.
The story of Judith and Holofernes is told in the Old Testament. Judith is a rich and beautiful Jewish widow who devises a bold scheme to save the inhabitants of the Jewish city of Bethulia, under siege from the Assyrian army. She succeeds in seducing Holofernes, the Assyrian general, with her beauty. Intending to seduce her, he invites her to a nocturnal banquet in his tent. When the banquet is over Holofernes falls into a drunken stupor. She waits until they are alone before severing his head with his own sword. The Assyrians flee in disarray and the inhabitants of Bethulia are saved. Judith is rewarded for her valour as a patriotic heroine, symbol of self-sacrifice and example of virtue overcoming vice.
These aspects of the story are of peripheral interest to Stuck in his interpretation of the theme. He diverges from the traditional version of the story and by juxtaposing the white skin and naked body of Judith with the dark-coloured, unclothed torso of Holofernes suggests that a sexual act has taken place. In allowing himself this artistic freedom he emphasizes the dramatic consequences of blind sexual dependence. In addition, his compositional and colouristic decisions enable him to portray eroticism and death as interdependent principles. In the gloom of the tent red and black stand out as dominant tones while subtle streaks of blue, green and gold on the drapery, sword and jewels punctuate the darkness. Set against it is the kneeling figure of Judith. The gleam of her body becomes the immediate focus of the viewer’s attention as she looms over the contorted body of Holofernes. Grasping the sword with both hands she turns, expressionless, to direct a last look at the defenceless general before severing his head with two swift blows.
Stuck produced no fewer than seven versions of this dramatic subject. As a group, they represent the quintessence of his decade-long preoccupation with the theme of the battle between the sexes. Irrespective of the brutality of the subject Stuck expresses it as a sensual, aestheticized symbiosis of eroticism and death, thus lending it timeless validity.
Franz von Stuck
1863 Tettenweis (Bavaria) - 1928 Munich
Franz Stuck’s life is a story of rags to riches. A miller’s son, he advanced to be one of the most highly respected artists of his day. His princely lifestyle contrasted starkly with his modest beginnings, earning him the title Malerfürst.
As a child, Stuck showed precocious skill as a draughtsman. Unusually for a boy of his social rank, his talents were nurtured from an early age and he was sent to train at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Munich. After completing his training he enrolled at the Munich Academy. As an academy student in the years 1881-5 he produced humorous drawings for illustrated magazines and provided sketches for a portfolio titled Allegorien und Embleme. These works demonstrate a growing sensibility for ornamental effect and a penchant for highly imaginative mythological imagery, both of which were to form the bedrock of his artistic practice and bring him widespread recognition.
Stuck’s breakthrough came in 1889 when he was awarded a gold medal for a painting titled Der Wächter des Paradieses at the annual exhibition staged at the Munich Glaspalast. The painting, an idealized life-sized self-portrait, is now in the collection of the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich. As a founder member of the Munich Secession in 1892 he was able to exercise increasing influence in official artistic circles. His appointment as professor at the Munich Academy in 1895, coupled with the construction of a magnificent villa on Prinzregentenstrasse in 1897-8 elevated his social status. The building was built and decorated according to his own plans – an attempt to create his own ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk through a symbiosis of architecture, painting and sculpture. He was ennobled in 1905.
Stuck’s importance lies in his unrivalled ability – as a draughtsman, painter and sculptor – to use his unerring decorative sensibility to break down the boundaries between fine and applied art. Echoing Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger, his Symbolist imagery is filled with yearning for a world enraptured by beauty, between heroism and hedonism. Paintings like Die Sünde (Neue Pinakothek Munich), Der Krieg (Neue Pinakothek Munich) and Der Kuss der Sphinx (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) and sculptures such as Verwundeter Kentaur and Reitende Amazone are icons of early twentieth-century art – works whose aesthetic appeal and pulling power are still unabated.