Period Style: Flemish Baroque
The Flemish Baroque style was defined by Rubens, who synthesized a unique style from the influences of Renaissance masters, such as Titian and Michelangelo, and painters of the Italian Baroque, like the Caracci and Caravaggio (1). Roughly spanning the seventeenth century, the Flemish Baroque movement can be described as largely Rubenesque. David Teniers the Younger’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, painted in the 1650s, displays early departures from this Rubenesque style; the Baroque passion of Rubens’ masterpieces is barely discernable and the landscape, once painted for the sake of its Baroque beauty, is reduced to a mere background. Though the influences of genre-painting dominate Judith with subtle drama and a heightened painterly sensibility, the dramatic composition of the painting reflects a distinct Baroque style (2).
Primarily known for his genre and landscape paintings, David Teniers the Younger also produced religious and allegorical images, such as Judith with the Head of Holofernes; yet, paintings like Judith often retained some genre-like characteristics. In the painting, the composition of Holofernes’ severed head echoes those of his contemporary Adriaen Brouwer’s rowdy peasants and wild drunkards. Brouwer’s The Bitter Draught, painted in oil on wood, is distinctive in its painterly treatment, thick brushwork, and the subject’s dramatic expression. The warm brown colors and flesh tones suggest dim lighting in a small, intimate space and the muted colors strikingly juxtapose the intensity of the subject’s expression. The modulation of colors reveals the man’s bulbous nose, unkempt hair, and scruffy beard; his depiction is naturalistic without verging on comical. Again, the painterly treatment in space, the lively action, and the drama of the scene typify Brouwer’s The Back Operation.
Similarly, Teniers’ Holofernes is portrayed with a similar color palette. Heavy, rough brushstrokes detail realistic features—a crooked nose, the fleshy bags beneath his eyes, and the slight hint of a double chin. Holofernes’ expression of terror clashes with the subtle gradations of warm colors that define both his face and the musculature of his body in the middle-ground. This departure from idealized features follows the Baroque tradition.
Teniers’ Judith, in addition to maintaining genre-like qualities, also displays influences from landscape painting. Judith is easily divisible into three registers: the foreground, middle-ground, and background. In the foreground, there are the human subjects and Holofernes’ tent; in the middle-ground, the fortress in the distance; in the background, the sky. In the Late Mannerist landscapes of the sixteenth century, such as those of Jan Brueghel the Elder, colorful foregrounds are filled with detail—bushes, ponds, flowers, brilliantly colored birds, lush trees, and creatures of all sorts and sizes (3). Dark and light registers alternate; in Brueghel’s Paradise Landscape with the Animals Entering Noah’s Ark, a darkened foreground both frames and contrasts the light middle-ground, which then recedes into a slightly darker background. Teniers employs this alternation in Judith in reverse. The light foreground juxtaposes a darkened middle-ground, which is illuminated by the moonlit background. Though the schematic lighting of Judith echoes a Late Mannerist style, the painting is thoroughly Baroque in its dramatic modeling of light and dark, the drama of the subject heightened by their contrast.
The Mannerist landscape of Brueghel divides the three registers into three areas of color: a brown foreground, green middle-ground, and blue background. The details of the brown foreground contrast the hazy bluish-white background; the vivacity of Brueghel’s Mannerist painting and the artwork’s fantastical style capture the spacious, radiant charm of the landscape. Three base colors structurally organize the recession into space in Paradise Landscape; in Teniers’ Judith, however, the second and third color zones are almost indistinguishable from each other. The limited tonal range thus posits the foreground as the primary focus of the painting and fosters a greater naturalism in the landscape’s representation.
Teniers’ representation of light in Judith, however, is inconsistent and not naturalistic. Though light appears to shine brightly upon Judith in the foreground from her right side, Teniers paints the source of moonlight in the distance, behind the tent. It illuminates the clouded sky and fortress in the background, and the brightness of the foreground cannot be attributed to the same source of light; Judith’s sword reflects light from yet another direction, but the same light does not affect Teniers’ depiction of Holofernes’ head just behind the glinting blade. Teniers is also not concerned with the accurate rendering of space; Holofernes’ decapitated body appears much too large to fit within the diameter of the tent. A single pillow occupies almost half of the tent’s interior. Holofernes’ body simultaneously seems much too small. Though the tent and its platform are both in the foreground with Judith and her handmaiden, Holofernes’ body looks absurdly diminutive in scale compared to the size of the female protagonist. Teniers seems to prioritize the drama of the scene over painterly realism.
Painted in the Flemish Baroque style, the composition of Teniers’ Judith resembles those of Peter Paul Rubens’ High Baroque paintings from the early seventeenth century. The diagonal angle of Judith’s sword draws the eye towards Holofernes’ disembodied head; the opposite diagonal of the tent brings the eye further upwards, bringing attention to the darkened details past the foreground (the sky, the fortress). The handmaiden gazes to her right, and her line of sight merges with Holofernes’s lifeless arm. This diagonal composition and the effects of strong, albeit inexplicable, light echo the Baroque style popularized by Rubens in Antwerp a few decades before Teniers painted Judith and firmly place Judith within the Baroque tradition.
(1) Liedtke, Walter. "Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641): Paintings." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
(2) Meagher, Jennifer. "Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." Genre Painting in Northern Europe.
(3) Liedtke, Walter. "Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." Landscape Painting in the Netherlands.