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Is this really a missing Caravaggio?

June 23, 2019

Photograph ©Nord Wennerstrom, 2019.

Judith and Holofernes, c.1607.
Oil on canvas: 56 11/16 x 68 5/16 in.

“You’re here to see the Caravaggio?” said the guard at Adam Williams Fine Art, a private art gallery on East 80th Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side one block from the treasure-filled Metropolitan Museum of Art. Billed as one of the greatest Old Master painting discoveries in decades, one would have expected a line out the door to see the Judith and Holofernes by the famous 17th-century Italian artist, known for his revolutionary painting style and tempestuous personal life, which had been found in an attic in Toulouse, France on April 23, 2014, by the Toulouse-based auctioneer Marc Labarbe. It was publicly unveiled two years later.

However, during my visit on the final day of the picture’s public viewing in New York (part of a multi-city media campaign), I was often the only person in the light-filled second floor room devoid of furniture save for a small writing desk and chair at one end and “the painting” at the other.

I was glad for the luxury of having one-on-one time with this dramatic, gory and compelling composition rather than having to jostle with a scrum of noisy observers loudly opining about whether this is a real Caravaggio.

Eric Turquin, a representative for the firm handling the forthcoming June 27, 2019 auction in France of the painting, where it could sell for more than €150 million, indicated both surprise and disappointment with the lack of attendance. He lamented the absence of visits by museum curators, specifically mentioning the National Gallery of Art, a museum that he praised as one of the world’s best, but one he noted that lacked a Caravaggio.

For the past five years, since announcing the discovery of the painting, Turquin has been actively promoting the work as a “great original by Caravaggio,” as he says in a video on the website The Toulouse Caravaggio. The website includes testimonials from various experts about the painting’s veracity, though in his “report” about the picture, the Metropolitan’s Keith Christiansen opens with the following observation: “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.”

The authorship of the work has been actively debated as attested to by dozens of media reports. Turquin has supporters who see the work as “autograph” in art world parlance, some have argued that this Judith is by the late 16th/early 17th-century Baroque Flemish painter/dealer Louis Finson who worked in France, while another school of thought holds that the work may be by Caravaggio and a contemporaneous or subsequent collaborator.

The downloadable 168-page auction catalogue, which covers everything from the iconography of the Israelite widow who decapitates the Assyrian general to technical specifications and the written evidence circumstantially linked to the work, makes a compelling case and is a worthy addition to any library of Italian Baroque painting, especially one focused on Caravaggio and those influenced by the painter.

On Thursday, June 27, 2019, the painting will be auctioned in Toulouse; the event will be live-streamed on The Toulouse Caravaggio website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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