It is not often that eight Caravaggios are exhibited together at an American art museum. It provides opportunity: To study the paintings themselves, to compare them to each other, to see what the Caravaggisti borrowed from the master and to see what they merely tried to borrow. Sometimes, as in the case of LACMA’s “Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy,” we can even use the Caravaggios on loan as a kind of baseline in an effort to help us understand whether or not a nearby painting might be a ‘new’ or ‘re-discovered’ Caravaggio.
(The LACMA show, which is on view through Feb. 10, 2013 and will travel to the Wadsworth Atheneum, is the fraternal twin of “Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome,” last year’s show at the Kimbell Art Museum and the National Gallery of Canada: Same idea, different checklists. The Kimbell show claimed ten Caravaggios, the National Gallery of Canada’s three more. That prompted Richard Spear to take to Burlington Magazine to argue that the two additional works shown at NGC weren’t Caravaggios and that a third NGC-exhibited ‘attributed to’ painting, weren’t either. This section of the post was updated after I learned the citation in the LACMA catalogue is a bit loose.)
About 125 miles down Interstate 5 the San Diego Museum of Art has long had in its collection the above painting by an unknown Italian artist. While recently in southern California I made sure I saw LACMA’s Caravaggio & Co. show both before and after visits to San Diego. I wanted to compare SDMA’s painting to what I saw in the show. I’m no Caravaggio expert, but I do love a bit of art historical fun.
As you can see in the image above, the face is quite Caravaggio-esque. The LACMA show includes one of the two Caravaggio portraits that are notably similar: a portrait of Maffeo Barberini (ca. 1596-97, below left). A Caravaggio painting of Fillide Melandroni (ca. 1597, below right), a courtesan who was a regular in the artist’s circle and art, was destroyed in Berlin in the wake of World War II.
As it so happens, the portrait of Barberini has not always been attributed to Caravaggio: In the catalogue “Caravaggio and His Legacy,” Gianni Papi notes that in the 1940s Roberto Longhi “categorically rejected” it as a Caravaggio, but a recent cleaning revealed details (such as Caravaggio’s outlining of figures by ‘drawing’ them in drypoint) led more recent scholars to re-consider it. In 2010 Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Keith Christiansen and Papi agreed (in print) that it was a Caravaggio, an attribution that seems to be sticking.
The faces in both the portrait of Maffeo Barberini and Fillide Melandroni and the San Diego painting, particularly the treatment of the eyes, seem quite similar. But the paintings of Barberini and Fillide seem more bewtixt breaths, an effect that moves LACMA curator J. Patrice Marandel to call Caravaggio “a painter of the moment.” That element is lacking in the San Diego painting.
So I emailed John Marciari, the San Diego Museum of Art’s curator of Italian and Spanish painting and its head of provenance research. (Though little-known, SDMA’s collection is quite strong in Old Master painting.) Furthermore, Marciari has been expansive when it comes to considering and discussing authorship questions: In 2010 Marciari made news for assigning this previously little considered Yale University Art Gallery painting to Diego Velazquez. Here’s what Marciari had to say about SDMA’s painting. (The images of the SDMA painting come from the museum; I added all the links.)
“It was once upon a time attributed to Sofonisba Anguissola (just a generic Lombard ca. 1600 attribution, I think), but when it came to the market in the ’20s, Hermann Voss called it Caravaggio, and it was bought as such for San Diego, although without too much fanfare because that was before the Caravaggio craze began. The attribution has generally been rejected since then, although primarily by people who have not actually seen the painting in person. Maurizio Calvesi called it Ottavio Leoni, but that is just a not-by-Caravaggio attribution, and it doesn’t look like anything else by Leoni.
The picture actually grows in my estimation as I look further at it, in large part because I have with time been more easily able to see two different hands at work: one rather wooden painter who laid in the dress, hands, and breast of the woman and another who painted the face — in person, there is a notable difference in the treatment of the flesh even from the face to the neck and bust of the woman. [Image below: A detail of the San Diego painting. Click to expand.]
The x-ray, upon closer examination, confirms this — the bust is thickly painted with a lot of opaque lead white, but the face is an entirely different technique. It is not a copy. The dress might be copied from something else, or might be done by some sort of mass-production portrait workshop, but I don’t think the painting as a whole can be a copy, given the different techniques of face and dress — a copyist would just have worked in one technique.
Another thing that I’ve come to think about: this is so much less spirited than most Caravaggio paintings, but how much less animated is it than his portraits? Remember, this was first attributed to Caravaggio by [Hermann] Voss, who knew the now-lost Fillide in Berlin well. And that Paul V portrait, if you believe it, isn’t exactly lively. (To which I’d now add the Maffeo Barberini.) Ultimately, one would want to put the San Diego picture alongside those and other supposed portraits from the early Roman years, because they are the fairest comparison. [Ed.: Caravaggio arrived in Rome in about 1592.]
Nonetheless, the face of the woman has a whole lot to do with the faces of the Met Musicians (ca. 1595) and some of the other related early paintings. If you block out the dress and look only at the face, it does look an awful lot like Caravaggio.
Finally, it is a re-used canvas. There is a triple male portrait underneath (visible in x-ray) that is more a Lombard than Roman type of picture. [Ed.: Caravaggio served an apprenticeship with Simone Petrerzano in Milan, the Lombard seat, from 1584-88 and seems likely to have moved between Milan and nearby Caravaggio until 1592.] Caravaggio re-used canvases -– although so did other people. Yet, we know that Caravaggio worked as a portraitist in Milan for a few years before coming to Rome, although we don’t have any other pictures that can be linked to this period. Could this be the sort of thing that he did in Milan in the early 1590s? I’m increasingly inclined to put it forward — however tentatively — as such. [Capodimonte Museum Naples director] Nicola Spinosa was here recently and encouraged me to do so, and I believe that Franco Moro is going to include it as a Caravaggio in a book about the painter’s first years, although Moro’s book will be the subject of much contention, I am sure.
So, the painting is ‘Anonymous Lombard’ and the whole discussion is about Caravaggio. For my collection catalogue, I am inclined to give it the top-line attribution of “Caravaggio (?)” although my catalogue won’t be complete and published until 2014, so I have time to change my mind.”
Related: Caravaggio biographer Helen Langdon is the lead guest on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast, on which she discusses her new book about the Kimbell’s Cardsharps. Download the show, subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, RSS. See images of art discussed on this week’s program.