Yes, this is a woman hammering a nail in the head of a sleeping man. It is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Jael and Sisera and not only is it a bizarre subject – at least for those who haven’t memorized the Old Testament – but the artist is a woman, which is blatantly uncommon for 1620 when it was painted.
Mind your head
It is a scene drawn from the Book of Judges (IV, 17-24). Sisera, the sleeping nail-ee, was a long-time enemy of the Israelites. After having lost a battle he fled the scene, seeking refuge in the house of Jael, the nail-er. She opened her tent to him, offered him milk, he fell asleep so she killed him and thus revenged her people.
Just like Artemisia’s Judith beheading Holofernes, also inspired by the Old Testament, the painting displays a strong woman carrying out rightful revenge after careful plotting. Furthermore, they both end in severe injuries to the head.
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian painter who worked for some of the most influential people of her time, even if social and institutional structures were not working in women’s favor. Unfortunately, the assault she suffered when she was young (she was raped by her teacher and had to go through a gruesome trial to prove her … innocence) has served as a pretext for a distorting over-interpretation of her work.
But to end on a happy note, here’s a painting showing the Academicians of the Royal (British) Academy in 1771-1772. It reminds us that only 150 years after Artemisia’s painting two women, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, were founding members of this select institution. The only twist is that they show up as portraits on the wall, since, among other reasons, a respectable woman couldn’t appear in the company of naked male models.