Caravaggio (1571–1610) plainly belongs to that small group of artists popularly regarded as the greatest, but he has joined more recently than his contemporaries Rembrandt and Velázquez. By “popularly” I mean in circles wide enough to encompass the casual museum-goer. As anecdotal evidence of his current status I offer the man in the National Gallery in Washington who asked a guard whether the museum had any Caravaggios, and his look of incredulous grievance when the guard shrugged his shoulders and politely referred him to the information desk. When visitors ask, as they nearly always do, “Where are the French Impressionists?,” the guards can tell them; Caravaggio has not yet climbed to that stage. (The answer to the man’s question is No, the National Gallery has no Caravaggios. One can normally see a single Caravaggio at the Metropolitan in New York and in some other cities’ major museums, but one needs to go to such unexpected places as Kansas City, Fort Worth, and Hartford to see the most splendid of his paintings in America.)

As anecdotal evidence of the recentness of Caravaggio’s “arrival,” I offer Le Corbusier, whose 1935 tour of America, recorded in When the Cathedrals Were White (1937), included a lecture at Vassar College. While he was having a drink at the house of a faculty member afterward, a student told him she was studying Caravaggio, to his quite reasonable surprise. To be sure, Le Corbusier was an “outsider” in this context. His notion of Caravaggio’s identity, like many people’s, seems to have dwelt on the artist’s bohemian or criminal biography, much as many people’s image of Van Gogh centers on his severed ear. In fact, Le Corbusier had stumbled on a small scholarly avant-garde,

Agnes Rindge, the faculty hostess at Vassar, belonged to the same small group as Everett Austin, the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum who bought the first Caravaggio for an American museum in 1943. Today Austin is most often remembered for his sponsorship of contemporary art, most spectacularly the premiere of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934). His and his group’s avant-garde preferences in painting, however, were not very bold; they liked the more chic and approachable surrealists, like Pavel Tchelitchew, and related romantics like Eugene Berman. They perhaps showed more daring in their taste for the Baroque, a term which, in the Thirties, was just starting to enter middlebrow vocabulary as something other than a term of abuse. Previously, the Baroque had often been condemned for false rhetoric—taking “rhetoric” in both its theatrical and classicizing senses. In the case of artists like Caravaggio, the Baroque had also been condemned for much the same reasons that led to the rejection of Zola: such artists dealt with disagreeably low themes, it was said, and their naturalistic styles did not require great skill. For the Atheneum, quite against the prevailing fashion, Austin made many brilliant purchases of Baroque art, as well as of works by newly rediscovered artists of the same era, such as LeNain.

Austin, Rindge, and their friends were assisted in their probings of the Baroque and of Caravaggio by a single adventurous Fifty-seventh Street dealer, Kirke Askew, and by following the excited and intelligent magazine writings of a few European art historians, notably Roberto Longhi and, later, Denis Mahon. They were also aided at least as much by Walter Friedlaender, a Caravaggio specialist who, exiled from Germany in 1933, taught at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Friedlaender’s very original notion about Caravaggio, which was not published until 1955, was that his naturalism was the vehicle of a religious sensibility, one of greater strength and sincerity than that of his conventional contemporaries doing church work. The Hartford painting, a Saint Francis swooning, accorded very well with this approach, and in general Friedlaender’s thesis made it possible to consider Caravaggio respectable in the same way Rembrandt is. Through readers of Friedlaender’s book—still in paperback and without a rival until Howard Hibbard’s Caravaggio appeared in 1982— this approach remains a major force in Caravaggio studies. The same aspect of the artist is seen in John the Baptist at Kansas City—which, in 1952, became the second American museum acquisition—but not in the third, the Metropolitan’s Four Musicians, purchased in 1952-53. That work is typical of the small paintings Caravaggio did in his early twenties, which have especially fascinated recent taste, but are of a genre he soon abandoned. They are close-ups of youths playing cards, making music, or eating and drinking—scenes that seem to belong to the same tavern and street life as the one then lived by Caravaggio. Yet they are painted with a grandeur and monumentality that have made their references to real life as difficult to pin down as they have made them magnetic. It is their remarkable distinction to make use of allegory and classicism in such a way as to emphasize the heroic value of the ordinary and the vulgar.

For some twenty years after 1953, no more Caravaggios came to America.

For some twenty years after 1953, no more Caravaggios came to America. Unknown works by him did continue to be discovered, however—hardly surprising for an artist of rising fame, whose rising prices tend to draw hidden works from their hiding places. Museums in Italy, which benefited from the country’s strengthening economy, legal bars to the exportation of national treasures, and intelligent and energetic curators, and the National Gallery of London, which had only the latter, were able to get them. And, in the 1970s, Cleveland and Detroit were able to acquire works by Caravaggio. It does not diminish the accomplishment of these American museums to observe that the condition of the paintings did not seem to be ideal and that their subject matter was not immediately evocative to modern consciousness.

In 1987, however, the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth bought an unquestioned masterpiece, one of the pictures of youths in a tavern, The Card Sharps. Of the early Caravaggios, it is the least allegorical and most dramatic, and its purchase was a great coup. The picture had been well known from old photographs, and was given significant treatment in all books on the artist, but had not been seen since 1900. As with many Caravaggios, there were many early copies of the picture, and from time to time in the intervening decades one of those would be brought forth with a claim to be the original. But they all faded rapidly until the Fort Worth painting appeared. Not only did it win the nod of every connoisseur, but—in a truly Holmesian moment—the removal of an old lining, i.e., a second reinforcing canvas glued to the back by a restorer long ago, revealed the stamp of Cardinal Del Monte, Caravaggio’s best patron in those early years and the known owner of the original. It was an elegant confirmation of the judgment to which the Kimbell’s director, Edmund Pillsbury, and many leading Caravaggio specialists had already committed themselves. The museum has since been generous—proud too, of course—in shipping its painting on loan to New York several times, and the approval of its genuineness and of its unique brilliance continues in full.

That sort of crescendo and excitement demanded an encore, and the Metropolitan offered it recently with a small exhibition called “A Caravaggio Rediscovered: ‘The Lute Player.’” It was installed with admirable modesty and sobriety, noted by many as a welcome relief from blockbusters. The crowds that packed the exhibition supported the claim that museums may not need blockbusters, just appropriate occasions for combining the temporary with the excellent. In one room were hung the new Caravaggio and four other closely related early works by the artist. It was an admirable installation for forming one’s own opinion about how this new Caravaggio fits with the ones known before. In the other rooms the focus shifted to music; on view were handsome original instruments from around 1600 of the kinds seen in Caravaggio’s pictures, and other artists’ musical paintings and prints. The display of these items, and the Metropolitan’s related symposium on Baroque music, seemed to mark a digression from the raison d’être of the project.

It was a considerable exaggeration for the Metropolitan to call this Lute Player a “rediscovery”; one may attribute that either to public relations or, more generously, to the need for a brief title for the exhibition. The museum’s director, Philippe de Montebello, tells us more accurately in his foreword to the catalogue that “few” modern scholars have discussed the work, that it has been inaccessible, and that they have called it one of the copies of an undoubted Caravaggio in the Hermitage. Now, however, it is “beyond any doubt” that this painting is by him, recently published documentation having also established its provenance, or history of ownership.

Until recently, most specialists held the view that Caravaggio did not repeat himself; that is, he did not produce near duplicates of his paintings upon request by his patrons. (Denis Mahon was among the rare dissenters on this point.) The continuing inspection of second versions that, after brief hopes, invariably turned out not to be by Caravaggio, served only to reinforce this view. It has been challenged, however, by two recent developments. One is the rich new documentation of provenance already mentioned. While it has long been known that certain of Caravaggio’s clients commissioned lesser artists to make copies of his paintings, the newly found documentation indicates that two patrons had, in several cases, two paintings by him of the same composition. It must be mentioned, however, that since these documents are mostly in inventories compiled after the patrons’ deaths, the attributions they contain cannot be considered foolproof.

Until recently, most specialists held the view that Caravaggio did not repeat himself.

The other recent development has to do with cleaning and restoration. The notable instance seen in the show is The Gypsy Fortune Teller. Of the two canvases with this composition, one in the Louvre, the other in the Pinacoteca Capitolina in Rome, only the latter was shown, but it was much to the point since it was the one owned by Del Monte and the one that, until recently, was commonly regarded as the copy. Typifying current opinion, the catalogue observes that the painting’s autograph status has been confirmed by the discovery of the same Del Monte seal on the back (that doesn’t absolutely do it, however, because of the problem with posthumous inventories just noted) and by “the cleaning undertaken in 1984.” Museums do not show the public works in what is called their “stripped state,” where the genuinely surviving parts are, as the term connotes, naked and shameful. This is followed by “inpainting” and other cosmetic aids, which, it is argued, make the public more likely to respond favorably to them. Thus in the Metropolitan’s Four Musicians, which was hung in the same room, the vivid motif of the curling paper is new, as was made clear in a wall label several years ago. This detail was derived from an old copy or copies of the painting, and here in the original fills in what was a lost section. What results is sure to be attractive, if only because it documents a combination of the art of Caravaggio with the way his art seems to our eyes today. In that respect, it is analogous to temporarily successful forgeries. Past restorers expressed the certainty that they had at last done it right. Whether modern restorers have better reason for such a conviction is open to doubt.

As it happened, hundreds of art historians visited New York for the annual meeting of the College Art Association in mid-February, and at the Caravaggio exhibition one naturally encountered specialists. The majority opinion about the new Caravaggio was not favorable. That only means it doesn’t look nice, not that it is inauthentic. Marked by cutting contour lines, it possesses a dry stiffness that is very different from the Leningrad version. Such conspicuous contours can sometimes result from one kind of poor preservation, the loss of top surface, which makes the underlying bones of the composition more emphatic. It can also be the product of “overcleaning,” the result of a wish to make a picture more appealing by making the colors brighter. Whatever techniques were used on this Lute Player, it is immediately apparent that the painting has been restored. One fellow viewer, sharing the unhappy judgment of others about the picture, said it had looked better in the stripped state. What indeed looked very much better was the Leningrad version, whose beauty perhaps was brought out all the more by the comparison. It had not been cleaned at all, and its varnish was obviously dirty, but the circumstances seemed to induce a general reaction that this was quite all right, and that nothing should be done. That consensus may prove to be one of the more important results of the exhibition.

The new Lute Player, when X-rayed, showed that in an early state it had included a still life of fruit on the table, identical with that in the Leningrad version; this was painted out and an additional instrument substituted. The deduction was made that this new version is later, having been begun as a straight repetition of the Leningrad version, then modified. That is surely the simplest explanation. Yet another conclusion would follow if one were to assume that the new painting, in its early “fruit-on-the-table” state, was the original version, but that the patron, Del Monte, requested that the musical motif receive stronger emphasis. (Del Monte, a collector of musical instruments and an amateur guitarist, was apparently more fond of music than of painting; indeed, many of the canvases he owned are of little aesthetic value, and seem to have been purchased more as illustrations of his various interests than for their artistic merit.) In this scenario, when Caravaggio came to paint the later Leningrad version, he would have reverted to his preferred motif of a still life.

One attractive result of this alternative approach to the new Lute Player is that it allows one to consider the painting an early work and thus to view it less negatively. The painting’s linearity links it to the Metropolitan’s Four Musicians, which in this exhibition hung on its right. It also contrasts with the painting that hung on its left, the Leningrad Lute Player, a work which on this view represented a more mature assurance. Colleagues to whom I offered this view indeed all found that the new picture fitted an earlier moment better, both in stylistic terms and as a means for making the painting’s awkward elements more understandable. In this case, too, the life situations of artist and patron would make it less likely that the work was a copy by somebody else. Del Monte seems not to have paid his young artist highly, and he was in any case not rich, at least not in comparison with other cardinals. Seen this way, the new Lute Player would constitute a rich record of the emergence of a great painter, itself surely something worth devoting an exhibition to.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 9, on page 58
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