In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, I’ve developed a new self-care routine: I put on a sheet mask, cue up some soothing music, and look at paintings of murderous women. I don’t think I’m alone in this; Renaissance and Baroque depictions of Judith beheading Holofernes, Orpheus being ripped apart by Maenads, and Timoclea tossing her rapist down a well have been popping up on my Instagram and Twitter feeds for weeks. They’ve become memes; recontextualized and captioned, they give voice to women’s rage at the injustices of the present.
In her book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Rebecca Traister challenges her readers to Google the name of any powerful woman in politics—particularly those who challenge white male power and authority—to find a cache of images of that woman yelling angrily. “The best way to discredit these women, to make them look unattractive, is to capture an image of them screaming,” she writes. “The act of a woman opening her mouth with volume and assured force, often in complaint, is coded in our minds as ugly.” It’s not surprising that angry women, when they do appear in Western art history, often take the form of goddesses or monsters: harpies and witches, Medusa and the Sphinx.
Traister’s book argues that female rage has often been the catalyst for political and social change. And yet, we know that when women express their anger, they risk being seen as hysterical, overly emotional, and unserious, even if the reasons for their fury are entirely legitimate. While I’m not suggesting we throw men down a well, I would argue that when justice seems elusive, images of angry women can be cathartic, even inspiring. What follows are seven works from art history that show the beauty and power of female rage.
Elisabetta Sirani, Timoclea Killing Her Rapist (1659)
Elisabetta Sirani, Timoclea Killing Her Rapist, 1659. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Italian Baroque artist Elisabetta Sirani championed both female painters and female subjects during her short life (she died somewhat mysteriously at 27). She opened a painting school where she trained many women, including her younger sisters, and in her own work, she often chose themes that foreground female fortitude.
Timoclea Killing Her Rapist depicts a popular tale described in Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great. During Alexander’s invasion of Thebes, a captain in his army rapes the titular Timoclea. Following the assault, the captain asks where her money is hidden. Timoclea leads him to her garden well; as he peers into it, she pushes him in, dropping heavy rocks down the well until he dies.
The painting turns the story on its head, inverting the hierarchy quite literally: The rapist is shown upside down and helpless, feet flailing in the air, as she stands resolutely above him. Sirani, like many Baroque painters, had a flair for drama, but it’s worth noting that most depictions of this story show the aftermath of the violent event: Timoclea standing before Alexander to accept his judgment, usually flanked by her children. Sirani daringly chose to show Timoclea’s justice, rather than Alexander’s mercy.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes (ca. 1620)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1620. Courtesy of The Uffizi.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes offers another dramatic scene of an ordinary woman overpowering a high-ranking man. Gentileschi’s painting is muscular: The Biblical Judith and her maidservant bear down on their victim, the invading Assyrian general Holofernes, as Judith saws at his neck with a sword. Blood spatters in long, ropy arcs, spraying Judith’s chest and neck. Holofernes’s tortured expression and copious amounts of blood are also present in Caravaggio’s earlier version of this subject (ca. 1599), from which Gentileschi is said to have drawn inspiration. Yet in his rendition, Judith looks rather removed, her face wrinkled in disgust rather than set in determination.
It’s arguable that Gentileschi’s own experiences with sexual violence shaped her approach to depicting this brutal story. At age 18, she was raped by her painting teacher, the artist Agostino Tassi. Unusually for the 17th century, Gentileschi testified in court against her attacker. Tassi was set free following his conviction due to an intercession by the pope, while Gentileschi was made to endure the public shame of the trial—at which she was forced to testify while being tortured with thumbscrews. Gentileschi’s Judith may have been a portrayal of the justice that she herself was denied.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind (1896)
Jean Léon Gérôme, Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, 1896. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Academic French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme’s take on the allegorical figure of Truth (specifically, the philosopher Democritus’s aphorism: “Of truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well”) differs from contemporary interpretations in a number of ways. A beautiful nude woman emerges from a well, an open-mouthed shout of anger on her face and a whip in her hand, rather than the usual mirror. Although she is nude (a blunt reference to “the naked truth”), she looks ready to charge straight for the viewer in a full-throated battle cry.
Apparently, Gérôme intended the piece as a commentary on the positive impact of photography on painting, a fairly limited metaphor. (“It has opened our eyes and forced us to see that which previously we have not seen,” he wrote.) Yet today, the painting has become a popular meme, due both to its unusually vivid depiction of female anger and its overall weirdness. Truth’s nudity reads here as power and moral purity rather than sexual availability; her fury makes her dangerous…………….