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Keith CHRISTIANSEN

John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Report written by Keith CHRISTIANSEN

From the first time I saw the picture in May, 2015 and became convinced of its authorship, I also recognized that this was one of those pictures that would not achieve a consensus among specialists.

We all like to think that our views will prevail, but I think that deep down, we know this is not the case. I was personally taken aback to discover that the portrait of Maffeo Barberini in the Corsini collection in Florence—a picture the Corsini family inherited from the Barberini collection and that could be traced back to the early seventeenth century—was not instantly embraced as a significant addition to Caravaggio’s oeuvre when it was included in an exhibition of Caravaggesque painting in Florence (I wrote the entry). To me, it seemed what I would call a “no brainer”: a picture the attribution of which seemed so obvious and could be situated so conspicuously to a specific moment in his career, that there would be no discussion—once one got over Roberto Longhi’s mistake in having rejected it in a famous article written in 1963. Instead, there has been significant reluctance. So I am not in the least surprised that a far more difficult picture—the Toulouse Judith—has met with such skepticism.  

To my way of thinking, art history and art connoisseurship (the two are not the same, though they are interconnected) are different from science. In so many cases empirical proof for an attribution is lacking.  Which is why technical information has assumed a sometimes overly important place. It is well to remember that for years the Crowning with Thorns in Vienna was viewed with skepticism (this was still so when it was shown in The Age of Caravaggio in 1986). Even among those who did accept it, the rather abbreviated style (which some found coarse) led to a wide range in dating. But we now know it is the painting from the Giustiniani collection and everyone accepts it and considers it a Roman—not a Neapolitan--picture. Similarly, if you look at the earlier “authoritative” literature discussing the Odescalchi Conversion of Saint Paul—Caravaggio’s first version for the decoration of the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo—you will find that at certain points it was rejected by Roberto Longhi, Denis Mahon and Walter Friedlander, who in his 1955 monograph described it as follows: “There are decidedly Caravaggesque elements in the work, such as the face of the angel supporting Christ, which greatly resembles that of the Amor Victorious, or of the Isaac in the Sacrifice of Isaac. However, the whole composition is crowded and composed in crossing diagonals, somewhat in the manner of Central Italian painters such as Federico Barocci. […] Whether or not this is really the first version by Caravaggio for the chapel is extremely difficult to deicide.” No one today would agree with any of this and, instead, consider it one of the most astonishing masterworks of the artist. The questions now turn to the motive for the replacement and the date that separates the two versions (the documentary evidence now suggests they were probably not painted back to back). Finally, I am reminded that despite the fact that a well-known picture in Genoa—the Ecce Homo—is accepted in just about every book on the artist, it has long seemed to me a work the attribution of which cannot be defended either on stylistic or technical grounds; nor on the basis of documents. Its acceptance is merely the consequence of the weight of past consensus that seems to have blocked a truly critical revaluation. Of course, the foregoing observations do not mean that those who reject Caravaggio’s authorship of the Toulouse picture are wrong. Time will tell where the predominant opinion goes. But it does remind us that this is an artist who cannot be put in a box and whose work constantly demands fresh looking. 

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