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Tag Archives: French art

Object of the Month: April 2018

The Ascension

Oil on canvas, 1883

Gustave Doré

French, 1832–1883

Louis Auguste Gustave Doré (1832-1883) is justly known as the greatest illustrator ever. His genius was recognized when he was a child, and his photographic memory allowed him to include minor details often overlooked by others. 

He began his prolific professional career at the age of 15 as an illustrator for the humorous magazine Journal pour Rire. During his relatively short life, he produced at least 8,000 wood engravings, 1,000 lithographs, 700 zinc engravings, 100 steel engravings, 50 etchings, 400 oil paintings, 500 watercolors, 800 mixed-media sketches, and 30 major works of sculpture.

While many admire Doré’s work, few people actually recognize his art, even having grown up seeing his pictures. His New and Old Testament illustrations became the most widely used and familiar images in twentieth-century Bible literature. He also created several large series of engravings for classics including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, Perrault’s Fairy Tales, The Divine Comedy and more.

Historically, illustrators have received little recognition for their artistic careers compared to their “fine art” counterparts. Doré was equally productive in creating oil paintings and sculpture, and his greatest ambition was to be respected primarily for his painting career; however, he is best remembered as an illustrator. 

M&G’s Collection has two of his most important religious paintings—The Ascension and Christ Leaving the Praetorium, both completed in 1883. 

As is typical of many artists, Doré created multiple versions of his works. His first version of The Ascension was completed in 1879 and measures almost twice the size of M&G’s painting, which is an imposing 11’ 11” tall by 7’ 8” wide!  The original Ascension hung with other religious works in the German Gallery of London (later called the Doré Gallery) where the great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon frequented and encouraged his congregation to visit. 

Sketches that Doré made while riding the newly invented hot-air balloon with his photographer friend, Felix Nadar, probably inspired The Ascension’s aerial perspective—the viewer is on the plane of the ascending Christ with the disciples small and distant standing on the ground. The rich greens and golds in Doré’s thick brushstrokes create excitement and energy at the end of Christ’s earthly ministry and the beginning of His heavenly role. The angels’ response in Acts 1:11 voices the painting’s story, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?  This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” 

John Good, Docent and Security Manager

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published in 2018

Object of the Month: November 2017

Christ on the Sea of Galilee

Oil on canvas

Unknown French

France, active 17th century

Click on links for additional reference information.
This dynamic seascape by a seventeenth-century French painter bears a striking similarity to a work done by a renowned Dutch master of the same period, Rembrandt van Rijn. Until the modern concepts of copyright and intellectual property, most artists of the past eagerly learned from the creative ideas and innovative troubleshooting of both those before them and their contemporaries. Part of an artist’s training involved painting copies of famous works of art or that of their master (the teacher they were apprenticed to or worked under).  The diagonal composition, dramatic lighting, textures, and even to some degree, the figures in this M&G work are clearly reminiscent of Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (below).

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was born in the Netherlands, “a land of winds and water.” Located on the North Sea, twenty-five percent of the land is at or below sea level with the highest point (Vaalserberg) only 1053 feet above. Over the centuries, this geography has shaped both the nation’s history and the temperament of its people. For example, during the seventeenth century raging sea storms and lowland flooding often threatened life and livelihood, but Dutch ingenuity and resilience turned these formidable obstacles into valuable resources.  (For more detailed exploration download the National Gallery of Art’s informative resource Painting in the Dutch Golden Age.)

In light of Rembrandt’s birthplace, it’s interesting that he painted only one seascape. Regardless, the dynamic composition and nuanced atmospheric beauty of his Storm on the Sea of Galilee reflects an intimate knowledge of storm-tossed seas. Rembrandt was only 27 when he painted this work, and art historians have speculated that the choice of subject indicates a youthful preference for action-packed scenes. Whatever his motivation, the scene clearly adumbrates the dramatic chiaroscuro and nuanced visual texture that would become a hallmark of his work.

Sadly, we are limited to experiencing the work through reproductions.  On the night of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, bound the museum’s security guards, and made off with thirteen of the gallery’s prized masterworks, including Rembrandt’s famous seascape. 

Artists today are still honing their skills by studying and copying such masterworks. As contemporary artist Lisa Marder acknowledges, it is “one of the tried and true techniques of classical art training.”

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education



Published in 2017

Object of the Month: June 2017



Spanish, 17th century


Reliquary Head of a Monk


French, 14th century

figure 1: Reliquary Head of a Monk

Click on links for additional reference information.

While the Museum & Gallery is best known for its large collection of European Old Master paintings, the museum also contains around 2,000 objects, ranging from medieval tapestries to Renaissance furniture to ancient Egyptian artifacts.  Among these diverse and unique items, two reliquaries provide an interesting look at sacred art in object form.

Reliquaries are containers that were designed to hold relics, the remains of a saint or an object closely associated with the honored individual.  In their day, these relics varied from supposed fragments of the cross to the finger bones of saints.  Beginning with the reign of Charlemagne, every medieval church owned some kind of a relic, and it was common practice for people to venerate relics deemed particularly significant.  Literature from the medieval era, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, whose characters are on a journey (a pilgrimage) to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, reveals the integral role relics once filled in religious life.

figure 2: Reliquary

The first of M&G’s reliquaries is Spanish, dating from the seventeenth century (figure 2).  It is made of giltwood and has a small openings in the side of it, possibly designed to allow the worshipper to glimpse the relic within.  What that relic was, is unknown, and compared to M&G’s Reliquary Head of a Monk, (figure 1) this reliquary is simple in design and style.

On the subject of reliquaries, Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, writes that “these complex containers in the form of parts of the body, usually mimicking the relics they enshrined, are one of the most remarkable art forms created in the Middle Ages for the precious remains of saints.” It is quite likely then, that M&G’s beautiful French reliquary designed to look like a face, once held the fragments of a skull—whose skull, remains a mystery.  Other reliquaries, more ornate but reminiscent in style, can be seen at the Aachen Cathedral in Germany.

As part of Roman Catholicism, the cult of relics had an interesting connection to the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.  In 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the church door of Wittenberg, Germany.  Frederick the Wise of Saxony, ruler of that region, had a collection of over 17,000 relics on display at the Church of Wittenberg.  M&G’s painting, Wittenberg, October 31, 1517, depicts a pilgrim, pictured towards the bottom far right with a shell on the outside of his cloak, coming into Wittenberg to venerate the relics at the church.

While M&G’s reliquaries no longer house the elements for which they were once designed, they provide a unique window into historical religious practices, serving as a lasting testament of the spiritual devotion of those who once venerated them.

Katie Neal, former M&G staff member and docent



Published in 2017

Object of the Month: January 2017

Mille-Fleurs Tapestry

Franco-Flemish, c. 1480

Gift of Z.E. Marguerite Pick in memory of Misty

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Mille fleurs tapestries are those with a myriad of small flowering plants sprinkled across a dark blue or red or sometimes dark brown background.  Mille-fleurs is French, literally translated “thousand flowers.”

Tapestries have been around for centuries, and their use was not merely decorative as we might assume in today’s culture. These incredible textiles are constructed from a considerable amount of wool threads with varying amounts of silk, silver, and gilt yarns for beauty and richness. Their size and material provided insulation in the drafty, cold interiors of medieval castles and homes, and they could easily be rolled or folded and transported, which was a great advantage to those living back then.

However, the subject matter of tapestries varied significantly focusing on scenes from history, allegory, mythology, Scripture, and romance with coats of arms and decorative elements included too.  The mille fleurs decoration, however, wasn’t necessarily linked to any specific subject, but sometimes might be; instead, as one writer describes, the flowering background is more of “an expression of the universal human love of fresh flowers and the wish to have bouquets of fields of them covering the walls”—especially in the barren winter months.

Although as symbols, mille fleurs particularly lend themselves to allegorical and romantic themes “furnishing a slight subject for tapestries entirely sprinkled over with sprightly growing plants” with the “now and then active dogs, strange beasts or an occasional human figure [who] claimed a space.”

M&G’s tapestry certainly meets this composition depicting the imaginary animal, the unicorn, with various birds (perhaps a falcon on the right) against the mille-fleurs background.  The upper portion reveals a landscape of mountains and hills with tall grasses, trees, various buildings, towers, and castles—including one with a moat full of wavy, active water.

The unicorn has quite a history—through second-hand accounts, of course. This mysterious animal is described in classical references as having goat-like features, hence the cloven hooves and beard; he hunts in the mountains and is a very strong, fast animal that no one could capture.  He is depicted on cylinder seals as far back as Babylon and Assyria and referenced in the fifth-century Greek writings by Artaxerxes’ physician, Ctesias.  Other references of the unicorn appear in the old bestiaries.

Philippe de Montebello, former director at the MET, explains the interest in animals both real and imagined, “During the Christian era, the expressive power of animals perhaps reached its height in the Latin bestiaries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These books, labored over by the monks who copied them over and over again, combined factual, realistic observations of animal life with legend and served as allegorical texts for teaching clergy and laymen alike. Animals in their amazing diversity yielded illustrations and promulgations of desired behavior as well as warnings against misbehavior or evil.”

Of all the beasts, the unicorn (sometimes called the Monoceros) has become legendary. He symbolizes purity, and since the unicorn could only be captured by a virgin because of his attraction to her love of chastity, the hunt for the unicorn became an allegory of the incarnation of Christ as well as an allegory of romance and marriage.  Thus, the unicorn appears in both secular and religious art—even on some vestments worn by priests.

It is said that the horn of the unicorn possessed the virtue of detecting poison as well as the power to render the poison harmless. According to legend the animals of the forest would not drink from a pool until the unicorn had first purified it with his horn.  This story is depicted in one of the great unicorn tapestries in the collection at the Cloisters in New York.

The unicorn is often depicted in a place of colorful and abundant fauna, referencing Paradise—sometimes in connection with scenes of Creation and the Fall. He usually stands in the middle or off to the edge, alone or distant from the other animals, and sometimes near a body of water, perhaps immersing his horn.

For the gardeners and lovers of flowers, some of the plants possibly depicted include: foxglove, day lilies, rowan, and the daffodil.  Look closely to identify these symbolic plants:

  • Cuckoo Flower, which Pliny claims can repel snakes and “drive away melancholy and makes people happy in their hearts.”
  • Blue Bell blossoms, which supposedly when a bluebell is suspended above the threshold, “all evil things will flee therefrom.”
  • Wild Pansy, a symbol of remembrance and meditation
  • English Daisies, which signify the joy of Easter, and in medieval Germany these were called massliebe or “measure of love” suggesting that even then girls plucked the petals saying, “He loves me, he loves me not.”

Without knowing more about the designer, weavers and past owners, it’s difficult to know the intention of the tapestry; however, its symbolism provides insight for both the secular and spiritual just as it did in its original home.  The concept of appreciating nature and learning from our observation of it wasn’t new in the old bestiaries or even Aesop’s fables. King Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, exhorts the reader in his wisdom writings of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to observe God’s creation and find its parallels for application and improvement in our own daily living—a good start for a New Year.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published in 2017

Object of the Month: April 2016

The Mocking of Christ

Oil on canvas, c. 1620–30

Unknown French or Dutch (follower of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio)

Active 17th century

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

One of the most important (and revolutionary) painters in history was the Italian artist, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He broke free from mannerist conventions and stylistic artifice in the late 1500s and set a new path for artistic expression. At first, Caravaggio experimented in such genres as still life and scenes of common people including musicians and gamblers. These subjects were not depicted in mainstream art and neither was his conception of them.

As he earned commissions, he applied this personal vision to familiar Biblical themes. However, Caravaggio’s interpretation of these narratives was anything but traditional. The heightened realism, use of ordinary people as models (whom he presented without an idealistic lens), and novel, masterful compositions attracted many Romans to his genius.

The most influential and singularly astounding element of his style is his dramatic use of light that illuminated his figures as if they emerged from deep shadows; this contrast of light and dark is known as chiaroscuro, a technique also used by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt van Rijn.

Not only the Romans turned their attention to Caravaggio, but soon other artists and patrons around Europe began to take note. As the artistic capital of Italy, Rome was viewed as the final experience for artists seeking to complete their training; many painters visiting from Spain, France, Germany, Flanders and Holland found inspiration in Caravaggio’s fresh approach—including one of the favorites of M&G’s guests, Gerrit van Honthorst.

The unknown French or Dutch author of the present painting likely saw Caravaggio’s paintings first-hand in Rome and sought to emulate his style. He may very well have seen the artist’s conception of this same subject, The Crowning of Thorns, now housed in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

The same characters, a man wearing armor and plumed hat and a torturer with 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 in this painting are similar to models in some of Caravaggio’s paintings.

While M&G cannot claim to have an autograph Caravaggio painting (there are only a handful in America), this painting is the closest we have to the master’s style and is clearly by the hand of an accomplished artist who sought to emulate not only one of the greatest artists of his time, but of all time.

John M. Nolan, Curator


Published in 2016

Object of the Month: September 2015

Christ and the Samaritan Woman 

Oil on canvas

François de Troy

French, 1645–1730

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Born in 1645 in Toulouse, France, François de Troy eagerly embraced the artistic tradition established by his father, Nicolas de Troy. François and his brother Jean trained together in their father’s Toulouse workshop. (Interestingly, François is often confused with his son, Jean-François de Troy, who he trained to continue the family’s artistic legacy). Sometime after age 17, Francois re-located to Paris where he refined and improved his talents under the tutelage of artists such as Claude Lefèbvre and  Nicolas-Pierre Loir. It was here in Paris that he officially began his career as a portraitist.

In 1671, Francois applied to the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture. However, it wasn’t until three years later, at age 29, that the Académie accepted him. This sparked a longtime affiliation with the Académie as he served in many roles: elected as an adjunct professor in 1692, a full-time professor one year later, the coveted position of Director from 1708–1711, and adjunct rector in 1722.

The key to his success as a portraitist came in 1679 when he was selected by King Louis XIV, the Sun King, to paint an engagement portrait of Duchess Maria Anna Victoria of Bavaria (who was to marry his son and heir, Louis, the Grand Dauphin). This critical commission launched his career as he became one of the leading portrait artists during the reign of Louis XIV and the most sought after French portraitist of his time. From that point forward, he would continue to work for Louis XIV, Madame de Montespan (one of the King’s many mistresses), and their descendants (including Louis XV). His fame even brought him many commissions from the exiled King James II of England, his family, and loyal followers who were residing in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

De Troy’s style evidences the influence of Flemish portraiture and artists such as Rubens and van Dyck. Many of his portraits showcase the warm coloring and dynamic compositions often seen in the Golden Age of Dutch portrait painting. Exhibited at the Salon of 1704, the Museum & Gallery’s Christ and the Samaritan Woman, while not a portrait, beautifully highlights the skill and qualities that epitomize de Troy’s style and career. Compare M&G’s work with de Troy’s Astronomy Lesson of the Duchesse du Maine completed sometime in 1702–1704. Both exhibit the rich, warm colors of de Troy’s style as well as a central placement of the primary figures.

John 4 records the tender encounter at the well between Christ and this Samaritan woman. Christ and his disciples had to pass through the region of Samaria on their way back to Galilee. This would have been particularly distasteful to any traveling Jew because of the longstanding hatred between the Jews and Samaritans.

While the disciples go into the city to purchase food, Christ chooses to rest at the well, where a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. Christ does the unthinkable and engages the Samaritan woman in conversation asking her, “Will you give me a drink?” Because the Jews and Samaritans would not associate with one another, the woman understandably states, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” As He gently leans in to close the physical gap between them, de Troy’s Christ removes the barriers built by their conflicting cultures and offers her the “living water” that only He can provide.  His knowledge of her past and present sins combined with his kindness and loving offer, motivates her to seek this “living water” and share it with the people in her town who curiously come to see this prophet. Remarkably, Christ remains in Samaria for two days at the invitation of the townspeople, and many come to believe in Him as they tell the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

Rebekah Cobb, Guest Relations Manager & Docent


Published in 2015

Object of the Month: May 2015

The Hiding of Moses 

Oil on canvas

Sébastien Bourdon

French, 1616–1671


Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.


Born in 1616, Sébastien Bourdon was part of the bourgeoning French Baroque movement of the seventeenth century. Embroiled in intense and divisive political upheavals throughout much of the fifteenth century, French painters took a decided second place to the painters of the Italian Renaissance; however, during the sixteenth century, French artists began to reestablish their international prestige, with many French artists traveling to Rome to increase their artistic knowledge and abilities. Within this group, Bourdon deserves special attention for the wide range of artists he imitated and the immense stylistic variety he cultivated within his paintings.

History and Influences:

Born in Montpellier to a strict Calvinist family, Bourdon visited Rome in 1636, where he would study the styles of famed artists ranging from Dutch Golden Age painter Pieter van Laer (Il Bamboccio) to fellow-Frenchman Nicolas Poussin. The latter artist would have a particularly profound influence on Bourdon, with his emphasis on classical landscapes, carefully-ordered lines, and Platonic ideals, characteristics all present in Bourdon’s The Hiding of Moses. Unfortunately, Bourdon’s stay in Rome was cut short in 1638, as he was “forced to flee the Eternal City…after being denounced by the Catholic Inquisition as a heretic.” Upon returning to France, Bourdon would become a court painter to King Louis XIV and play a pivotal role in the 1648 founding of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.

The Painting:

Acquired in 1955, The Hiding of Moses reflects Bourdon’s strong Poussinist influence. Classic architectural elements dominate the landscape, with the arches of bridges, the statute of a horse, an obelisk, and a dais with a sphere placed on it all work together to recreate an environment from antiquity. Taken together, these “elements combine to form an urban scene of man-made constructs,” through which the painter “was undoubtedly trying to give this landscape a Roman mood.”

Paintings of Moses being discovered and pulled from the Nile are quite common among Baroque subjects, but Bourdon’s visual narrative is highly unique in that Moses is actually being placed into his basket by his birth-mother, as his grieving father looks on. As M&G curator John Nolan notes, this depiction “is much rarer than the typical scene of Pharaoh’s daughter finding Moses.” It is possible that Bourdon’s unique portrayal of Moses contained a deeply personal meaning for the painter, as his own flight from persecution in 1638 would have formed a vivid part of his personal history.

Bourdon’s outstanding portrayal of The Hiding of Moses is part of the collection at the Museum & Gallery.

Blaine Welgraven, Grant Specialist


Published in 2015

Object of the Month: April 2015

Christ in the House of the Pharisee 

Oil on canvas

Pierre Hubert Subleyras

French, active in Italy, 1699–1749

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

As one of the eighteenth-century’s foremost French painters of portraits and religious works, Pierre Hubert Subleyras is considered a remarkable artist and rarely seen in American collections.

Pierre was introduced to the craft from his artist father, Matthieu Subleyras, and by age seventeen was signing his own works.  In 1717, he joined the workshop of Antoine Rivalz, a history painter in Toulouse a few days journey west of his hometown, Saint-Gilles-du-Gard.  Subleyras excelled under Rivalz’s training even earning the responsibility of executing his teacher’s designs and achieving an independent commission to decorate the ceiling of the chapel of the Pénitents Blancs in Toulouse, France.

At age 27, Subleyras moved to Paris, where he was awarded the Prix de Rome for his Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Musée des Beaux Arts, Nimes). This scholarship program initiated by King Louis XIV was given to the most promising French artists (painters, sculptors and architects) to study in Rome for a three to five year period.

Pierre left for Rome in 1728 to begin studies in the fall at the Académie de France, a branch of the Paris Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture where “pensioners” or students studied anatomy, life drawing, and classical antiquity as well as absorbed and participated in Rome’s thriving contemporary art scene. Subleyras stayed seven years—somewhat longer than the more standard 4-year term.

At the end of his Académie training in 1735 at age 36, he became engaged to the miniaturist and respected artist in her own right, Maria Felice Tibaldi; the two artists married four years later, which helped to anchor the Frenchman in Rome’s society, where he couldn’t be lured away from the city even by a deathbed request from his former teacher Rivalz or appealing mediations with the Saxon Court in Dresden nor the Spanish Court in Madrid.

Subleyras’ artistic reputation was earned primarily through religious commissions beginning with Roman churches and moving to religious orders, but he was also highly regarded and widely recognized for his portraits.  Through his intellect and skilled work he became a central figure in the artistic and intellectual circles of Rome as evidenced by his varied commissions, election in 1743 to membership of the Accademia di San Luca, and acceptance into the Accademia dell’ Arcadia, an eighteenth-century Italian literary society.

His best known works include a formal portrait of Prince Frederick Christian of Saxony, portraits of Pope Benedict XIV (which were repeatedly reproduced), the Mass of St. Basil, and the monumental Supper in the House of Simon (nearly 7’x23’) commissioned by the Canons Regular of the Lateran for the refectory of their monastery of Santa Maria Nuova at Asti, Piedmont (and currently resides in the Louvre).

Since Subleyras’ workshop practice is yet uncertain, with questions about his making multiple, smaller copies of his large-scale masterpieces, it’s difficult to ascertain his reasons for repeating these works as well as if he or someone else, like his wife, participated in creating the variations.  The Louvre painting is one of a number of his own works that he made his own prints and an engraving; like this present painting at M&G, variations also exist in the Pinacoteca Capitolina Museum in Rome, Boston College Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Periodically, Christ in the House of the Pharisee is featured in the annual Living Gallery, an Upstate Easter program. The original painting in M&G’s Collection, is relatively small—about 2½’x4’. However, the life-size Living Gallery reproduction, scaled for live models, is approximately 12’ high by 25’ wide—closer to the dimensions of the Louvre’s version. The life-size stage tableau was created by local artist, Kevin Isgett, who relates his experience with Subleyras’ work:

“There is a baroque sense of overabundance—a sense of frenetic activity, servants running to and fro, guests interacting, and (almost lost in the chaos) the key part of the narrative: the woman anointing Christ’s feet.  In analyzing the work, however, I wonder if that is not part of what Subleyras is trying to communicate. Unlike the disciples at the Last Supper who knew and loved Christ as the Messiah, the Pharisees viewed Him as a mere dinner guest. Thus, losing sight of Him amidst elegantly dressed characters and lavish gold and silver plates may be the most accurate interpretation of the scene.”

Subleyras died at a young 50 years, supposedly from overwork. Well-loved and well-known during his lifetime, he spent his entire career in Rome. He is not as familiar as his French contemporaries, but is still highly regarded today for his painterly style and refined, artistic sensibility.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published in 2015

Object of the Month: July 2014

The Mocking of Christ

Oil on canvas, c. 1620–30

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