Could a painting at Cleveland Museum of Art help solve the art world’s Caravaggio dilemma?

Submitted by Jason Schafer on

The Ingalls Library receives an astounding 1,200 periodical titles many of which feature articles about the museum and its collections, history, and activities as well as articles written by museum staff. This ongoing series gives you a glimpse into the varied and interesting topics that can be found in the serials collection.

An article in the most recent edition of IFAR Journal (the print publication of the International Foundation for Art Research) entitled “A Long-Lost Caravaggio? Not So Fast Doubters Say” includes a discussion about a masterpiece at the Cleveland Museum of Art and its relationship with a newly-discovered painting that has presented the art world with a conundrum regarding the authenticity of what could turn out to be one of the most important art discoveries in recent times.   

In April of 2016, it was announced that a 57 x 69 inch painting, previously sealed away in an attic in Toulouse, France, had been discovered a few years earlier by a property owner. The work had suffered some damage from leaking water and years of neglect, but after the owner took the painting to a local auctioneer for appraisal and then consulted with Parisian art dealer, Eric Turquin, it became clear that the work could be something extraordinarily rare. Turquin believed that the painting might be a lost masterpiece by the celebrated Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio.

The newly discovered painting depicts a gruesome scene of Judith beheading Assyrian General Holofernes as her maid, an older women, observes. Caravaggio painted a version of this scene of biblical origin in 1598 and the acclaimed work currently hangs at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome, but the Italian master is believed to have painted a grisly second depiction of Judith in the act of decapitation around 1606.  After restoration and significant technical analysis, several scholars feel according to the article, that the Toulouse painting hidden for all those years in the attic is that second depiction. The article states that if the painting does prove to be an authentic Caravaggio, its estimated value would be somewhere close to $120 million.

Other scholars are not so sure though, and are citing differences in technique that they see in other paintings by Caravaggio to substantiate their argument that the Toulouse work should not necessarily be attributed to the Italian master. One such painting used for comparison happens to reside at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The IFAR Journal’s article shows Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Andrew (1606-1607), a work that was just recently returned to gallery 217 at the museum after an extensive rennovation. The masterpiece was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1976 and, significantly, the painting is the only altarpiece by the artist in America.

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Caravaggio portrays quite different subject matter from the newly discovered painting, showing the death by crucifixion of Saint Andrew bathed in an otherworldly light as he accepts his martyrdom through punishment for missionary activity in Greece. However, Cleveland’s The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew appears in the article because, like in the new-found work, the crucifixion scene shows an elderly lady observing the action. The article sites similarities in the goiters on the necks of both women as one possible indication that the paintings were each the work of Caravaggio.

The IFAR Journal article indicates that some scholars beg to differ. Richard Spear, author of the 1971 monograph, Caravaggio and His Followers finds it hard to accept that the Toulouse painting was indeed the work of Caravaggio. He points to the CMA painting and the depictions of the elderly women in both images not to show similarities but differences in style between the two works of art.  The article quotes Spear as saying:

"The structure of the face and the facial wrinkles in the Cleveland painting…are “beautiful and naturalistic,” what you would expect from Caravaggio, but the structure of the maid’s face in the Toulouse painting – notably the spaghetti-like highlights – “doesn’t follow any logic of anatomy or age.”

What do you think? Click here to see a close-up of the recently discovered Judith Beheading Holofernes provided by The Guardian in an article from April 13, 2016. Now compare that with the old lady onlooker at the bottom left of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s painting here .