Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura)’, about 1638-9.

By Honor Vincent

There is a pigeon in the studio. It is the same one that has been here each morning since your grandfather arrived in Florence, and the same one that will be here tomorrow if he leaves the windows open again tonight. He insists that night air makes paint remain pliant, but the only difference I have noticed is that my daily preparations now include picking feathers out of the linseed oil before I begin to paint.

The pigeon hides under the velvet and satin on my study table, rustling and cooing quietly. Perhaps it’s nesting? It could be a nice pet for you, Zia. I’m tempted to leave it on the table and see what it does, but we’ve done this dance before. Yesterday I had to chase it through the easels and the cover cloths while it made its odd laughing, ooh-ooh-hooo, shitting everywhere.

Do you see its little tail poking out of the pile of cloth? I will put you down for a moment, so I can pick it up while it doesn’t suspect me. Here we are! It is stronger than it looks. It would be easy for me to squeeze it hard enough to kill it. But I have a sense for you already, Zia, and I know you’ll be an angry child if I make you party to such a murder. I wish that I could see it and feel it at once, this bird: I wish I could see how it twitched as I held it, I wish there was a way to record in paint such a complicated set of movements.

What do you think? Do we include this bird in the new painting? What if, instead of the head of a man, Holofernes has the head of a bird?

No, you’re right, too much. We can do it in a small way. A feather escaped from the bed near the pooling blood. What about a string of dead birds drying behind Judith’s maid? It will be difficult to adjust the work after I have already decided on the structure. I believe there is only room for shadow around and between the women, but there’s nothing to say I can’t find a place for the birds if I look. People will wonder why I put them there, and what they mean, and only you and I will know.

When I went to Cristofano Allori’s studio last week, he showed me the version of Judith beheading Holofernes he is now finishing. I was darkly surprised to see how thoroughly he has flattened his Judith, and with only a few days before his customers are sending someone to pick up the painting. He’s brightened her face to a whiteness so absurd it makes the composition inconsequential.

Cristo’s problem is the same one he’s always had. He overpaints and overworks. And he used his lover as Judith’s model, losing the painting for good. In a joke with himself—perhaps this is why your grandfather insisted we meet, because I have the same inclinations—Cristo painted his face on Holofernes’ severed head, and gave Judith the eyebrows of his gentle mistress. He painted only the hilt of Judith’s blade, leaving out her sword entirely, in favor of focusing on her brow! Most unforgivably, there is no blood. As if you could remove a man’s head without a mess.

I saw these things in the first few moments of looking at the painting because I’ve come to know Cristo well. I spent a long while looking and considering what I could say for the same reason. I did not ask him why he covered competent work with such a poor job of mimicry. Or what the point of painting such a story is, if he insists on painting it this way. I have learned better. I nodded, approved of his use of yellow, and returned home.

That night I worked for a very long time. I muted the yellow of my Judith’s dress, deepened the shadows over her shoulders and her brow, added another spray of blood. Since that visit I have often had to stop myself from making the piece too much an argument against Cristo’s. To me, to center of this painting must be the brightest part; the heart of the work remain the blade and the forearms of Judith.

Can you hear the bird shaking and shrieking in my hands now? We are just outside your grandfather’s room, and still he hears nothing. He refuses to close the windows after days of my reports that they’ve been spitting birds into my studio; well, maybe he’ll close them if it means birds in his bed when he wakes up. Let’s leave the poor pigeon on his bedroom floor and close them in together. We’ll see how long grandfather sleeps.

Though I complain, I am the strange one in this house for being awake so early. I assume you’ll be a lady of the morning too, given your restlessness. There are servants beginning to rustle in the outer corners of the house, but our family will not come alive for several hours. They are heavy sleepers and light workers. At noon either your father or your grandfather will wander in and wonder aloud at how my painting is going, poke at their own for an hour or so, and wander away again, taking you along with them for the afternoon. While you’re all gone I like to stand in the back corner of the studio and watch how the sun moves along everyone’s work. You have to be able to see the image in all the many lights in which it might be seen when it’s done and hanging somewhere without you.

Beyond quiet and early sunlight, I enjoy these hours because they’re the only time I have to talk to you alone. I am not skilled at talking to people, and I do not believe you can hear my thoughts, so otherwise, if I don’t practice now, I will be unprepared for you when you do have the sense to hear me.

It’s past time to start. The pigeon left little footprints tracking red across my palette board, and splats of gray and blue on the table where it flopped through yesterday’s paint. I’ll have to clean up before the new model gets here in the afternoon, but first I will reacquaint myself with the work…

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