Is there a €120m Caravaggio in your roof?

April 13 2016

Video: AFP

Zut alors! Imagine going to fix a leak in the roof of your house, and finding a lost Caravaggio instead. That apparently is what happened to a French family in Toulouse two years ago. The picture, below, Judith and Holofernes, has been researched by the French art expert and auctioneer Eric Turquin, and he has assembled a number of art historians who have pronounced the picture genuine.

The discovery was being kept under wraps, but the story was broken last week by the sharp-eyed French blogger Didier Rykner, after he spotted that the picture had been temporarily listed as a 'National Treasure' by the French government. The picture is now being analysed by the Louvre, who will pronounce on its authenticity. The figure of €120m has been attached to it.

Is the picture 'right'? Well, so far what are the known facts? The most pertinent ones are outlined in the video above by M. Turquin. I've attempted to go into the matter in a little more detail. But bear with me here, because I am not a Caravaggio scholar, and there is very little information available so far. I'm also rather busy today, so the thoughts below might be a little jumbled up.

  • First, we know Caravaggio painted a Judith and Holofernes in about 1598/9. That painting (below) is in Rome. Here's a high res photo of it. Naturally, it's very good. 
  • The claim is that Caravaggio painted another version of the subject at about the same time, and the Toulouse picture is it. An AHN reader in Paris has kindly sent some high res photos of details of the new discovery - and it is very good.
  • We apparently know that Caravaggio painted another version of Judith and Holofernes because Caravaggio's contemporary, Louis Finson (a Flemish painter), paints a copy of it when he has the original in his studio in Naples 1607.
  • The Finson copy (below) belongs to the Banco di Napoli, and is on display in Naples. Here is a decent photo of it. It is evidently quite copy-ish. But we await categorical proof that this picture is by Finson.
  • How do we know Finson painted a copy of Caravaggio's second Judith and Holofernes? The artist Frans Pourbus the Younger saw, we are told, Caravaggio's second Judith in Finson's studio, and wrote about it. 
  • This last piece of evidence is key, and as far as I can make out the letter is published here in French. But if this is the source, then Pourbus' description is in fact quite vague, for he just mentions a Caravaggio Judith and Holofernes that is for sale, and doesn't describe the composition in any detail at all.
  • Nevertheless, it is thought that Pourbus couldn't be referring (in Naples) to Caravaggio's first version of Judith and Holofernes (the one now in Rome), because that painting was believed to have been painted for Ottavio Costa, a banker in Rome, and it is listed in his posthumous inventory of 1639. In other words, the first Judith is thought always to have been in Rome.
  • Finson apparently owned Caravaggio's other version of the Judith and Holofernes along with another Caravaggio, The Madonna of the Rosary, for both pictures are recorded in his will in 1617. So that's two documentary sources (Pourbus in Naples in 1607 and a will in Amsterdam in 1617) that seem to attest to the existence of another Judtih by Caravaggio.
  • Therefore, it is likely (but not certain) that Pourbus was indeed referring to another version of the Judith subject by Caravaggio, that this picture was taken back to Amsterdam by Finson, who made a copy of it. 
  • As ever, there are already disputes over the attribution, billed by The Guardian here as 'splits in the art world'. Caravaggio scholar Mina Gregori has said it is not by Caravaggio. (She also said, regular readers will remember, than the late Sir Denis Mahon's Cardsharps was by Caravaggio, though it is not - just go give you an idea of how difficult Caravaggio connoisseurship can be). The Tribune de l'Art reports that many other experts agree with the attribution to Caravaggio, but few are willing to go on the record.
  • A key part of any argument in favour of the painting will be to demonstrate evidence of the artist's creative process; that is, any changes (pentimenti) to show that this is the first attempt at that composition, and not another copy by someone else. 
Update - Jonathan Jones in The Guardian declares it a modern fake.

Update II - here's a video from M. Turquin about the discovery (in French). He says that there is a pentimenti in the hand, where you can see an extra finger (which would be very helpful in proving the picture is not a copy). I've taken a screen grab of the area below. But I see no extra finger - it's just a brush stroke.

Update III - Justin Davies of the Jordaens and Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project (about which more soon) has very kindly shared this snippet of research with us:

I am researching the collection of the engraver Alexander Voet I, who owned a considerable number of Van Dyck and Jordaens panels. In the posthumous inventory of his house in Antwerp, the Golden Arrow, in 1689 is, as the first painting in a huge collection:

"Een stuck schilderije wesende een Judith van Michiel Angelo de Caravasio".

The references are Duverger Kunstinventarissen, Vol. XI, p. 531 and p. 569. 

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