Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610) is one of the most debated, researched, and beloved baroque painters, so the possibility of a new canvas being recently discovered is making waves.
It’s a familiar story, though one that many art lovers can only dream of: Covered in dust and maybe underneath an aged bedsheet in an attic lay a priceless work of artistic genius. This is what experts believe happened in Toulouse, France, just last week. Adding even more intrigue — if that were possible — is the suspicion that the painting just might be a long-lost Caravaggio original.
Michelangelo Caravaggio, “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” circa 1599, oil on canvas, 57 x 77 in.
(c) Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome 2016
The painting is a gorgeous representation of the Jewish princess Judith beheading Holofernes, a general of Nebuchadnezzar’s army, which has besieged her city. Executed with strong tenebrist light, a black background, and blood-red sheets dramatically draped above, the piece is undeniably in the style of Caravaggio. Eric Turquin believes every element of the piece aligns with the baroque master, including “the light, the energy typical of Caravaggio, without mistakes, done with a sure hand and a pictorial style that makes it authentic.” If the work is proven to be an original by Caravaggio, its value could easily top $178 million.
A direct comparison of the two reveals both similarities and differences.
However, not everyone is convinced the work is by Caravaggio — including this author. The subject of the painting was a familiar one to both Caravaggio and his contemporaries. In fact, a known painting of the same subject survives in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica — one of Caravaggio’s most dynamic and celebrated pictures. A comparison of the two reveals a number of compositional and stylistic similarities. However, the recently discovered work does not appear to be executed with the same level of naturalism or skill. In particular, the contorted body of Holofernes is awkwardly placed in the composition and the lack of foreshortening in his right arm seems oddly erroneous. Further, Caravaggio’s influence among his immediate and proceeding contemporaries is well documented, so the possibility of the work’s being a beautiful copy seems likely. As exciting as this may be, perhaps the art world is exhibiting some wishful thinking.
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