Object of the Month: July 2014
The Mocking of Christ, c. 1620–30
Oil on canvas
Unknown French or Dutch (follower of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio)
Active 17th century
The attribution of unsigned paintings is a tricky business and can stump even the most well-respected scholars. Sometimes documentary evidence can help to attribute firmly an author to a painting, and at other times attribution can be securely made by an expert’s trained eye through an analysis and comparison of the artist’s style and technique. The present painting illustrates the difficulty of determining attribution for an unsigned painting several hundred years old due to two complications: a dearth of documentary evidence and the artist’s using a popular style/technique (which limits unique identifying elements to an artist’s individual style).
The starting point for comparison of this work originates with the revolutionary Italian artist, Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio. The dramatic lighting effects and use of ordinary people for models are some of the hallmarks of his style. These same characteristics are carried through in this painting: the shaft of light streaming down from the top center to the lower right and the variety of rugged-looking characters surrounding Christ.
The painting bears a striking similarity to the same paintings of this subject produced by Caravaggio, especially his Crowning of Thorns in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna. The characters of an armored man with a plumed hat and a torturer wearing a gaping, white shirt are found in both paintings. Even the “V” shape made by the bamboo reeds above Christ’s head are echoed in each composition. Furthermore, several of the figure types reflect similar models in some of Caravaggio’s paintings. For example, the Spanish-looking man with the reed (at the far left) resembles the man holding the ropes (at the far right) in Caravaggio’s Flagellation in the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rouen. The boy in the feathered hat in the upper right also is a stock character found in a number of Caravaggio’s early genre paintings, including the Cardsharps at the Kimbell Museum of Art.
Comparisons such as these may seem like a good indication for an attribution to Caravaggio. However, his style became extremely popular and widely mimicked—making the task of assigning authorship difficult. Artists from all parts of Europe—France, Spain, Flanders, Holland, and Germany—flocked to Rome in the early 1600s and tried their hand at experimenting with his new style. Artists who incorporated Caravaggio’s style often retained some of their own nuances that made their work unique and more readily identifiable.
Paintings that bear a strong resemblance to Caravaggio’s paintings are often attributed to Bartolomeo Manfredi, his closest Italian follower. The similarity of Manfredi’s style to Caravaggio’s is compelling, making Manfredi a potential part of the equation with the present painting. However, scholars at Sotheby’s have isolated features unlike Manfredi’s style such as the metallic coloring, handling of the drapery, facial features (especially the figure to the far right) to point to an attribution to a Northern artist working in Rome.
The present painting seems to have the closest affinity to artists from France who were working in Rome during the 1620s—namely Nicolas Régnier, Valentin de Boulogne, and Nicolas Tournier. Of these three, the strongest possibility for an attribution for this painting is Tournier, who used similar expressive figure types, compositional arrangement, and handling of paint and drapery, as seen in his Merry Company in the St. Louis Art Museum. The facial type of Christ and handling of drapery are especially close to Tournier’s The Fiasco Drinker in the Galleria Estense, Modena.
Until further research, comparisons, and additional expert opinions support a specific attribution (such as Nicolas Tournier), the painting will continue to carry its current, more general designation as an Unknown French or Dutch Follower of Caravaggio.
John M. Nolan, Curator
Published in 2014