Arts & Culture

Going for Baroque

Last summer, Canada’s National Gallery sparked international debate by displaying a “new” Caravaggio

Image courtesy of Whitfield Fine ArtWhitfield Fine Art

In reproductions, Saint Augustine looks like a sleep-deprived student, eyelids drooping and beard brushing against his chest as he gazes at the book under his left hand. When you stand in front of the painting, though, warm light slants in from the left side, illuminating a face that’s ruddy and youthful. The philosopher-bishop’s downcast eyes study the book intently, and there’s a spidery energy to his left hand, the fingers arching up to reveal the tension in the shadowy underside of the palm. The scholar sits at a table pushed right against the frame of the painting, and a book by the front edge projects into the viewer’s space, as though it might tumble out onto the gallery floor. Even with its intimate intensity, the painting, dated to 1600, has a stillness that’s difficult to reconcile with the artist’s name on the wall: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

The identity of the artist is in fact much more contentious than the wall label suggests. The National Gallery of Canada ignited global buzz this summer when it quietly slipped Saint Augustine into its marquee show, Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, making it the first institution in the world to exhibit the newly discovered work. For a Canadian museum that has been punching above its weight internationally, being the first to exhibit the painting was a tantalizing opportunity to make a high-profile attribution. The same holds true for the two men behind the exhibition: Sebastian Schütze, the German-born Caravaggio expert who chose to make Ottawa the stage for Saint Augustine’s world debut; and his friend and colleague David Franklin, the Canadian co-curator who spent ten long years putting together the difficult Caravaggio show.

Schütze first heard about the painting in 2010. He had just moved to the University of Vienna to become chair of its art history department, after six years at Queen’s University. Initially, he was skeptical. “This is such a hot topic,” he said later. “There are many proposals that are totally unreasonable, so you want to be extra careful.” Still, the painting represented an irresistible opportunity. When an expert like Schütze confronts an unknown work by an artist he has spent decades studying, the jolt of recognition is like seeing a loved one’s face in the crowd. Being the first to call Saint Augustine a Caravaggio would offer Schütze and Franklin the chance to write a new chapter in the understanding of an art history superstar. If they are wrong, though, and the attribution is discredited, the episode will be relegated to a cautionary footnote.

The announcement of a new Caravaggio can resemble an absurdly hopeful sweepstakes, in part because the supply is so scant: there is not a single Caravaggio in a public collection in Canada, and only about seventy known works by the artist in the world. Often called the first modern painter, he has inspired more books, catalogues, and research papers than even Michelangelo over the past fifty years, leading one expert to diagnose the art world with a collective case of “Caravaggiomania.” Only some of the artist’s paintings mentioned in historical documents have ever been found, and each time a purportedly “new Caravaggio” is uncovered in an attic, the story splashes across front pages. Most of these discoveries turn out to be false alarms, like another “new Caravaggio” that made the front page of the Vatican’s newspaper in July 2010. L’Osservatore Romano briefly garnered worldwide headlines when it announced the work; a week later, it retracted the claim when experts sniffed at the painting’s shoddy quality. It hasn’t been spoken of since, except with a snicker.

The National Gallery’s cautious championing of the apparently unknown Caravaggio has been met with more interest than the usual eye rolling, in part because of the ambitious exhibitions Franklin mounted in his decade as chief curator. By including Saint Augustine in the summer exhibit, the curators took a carefully calculated gamble, one that could earn Canada’s foremost gallery even more credibility alongside institutions with longer histories, deeper pockets, and bigger collections.

Saint Augustine’s journey to the National Gallery of Canada began in a dimly lit back office in London’s tony Mayfair district, during the summer of 2010. The unknown portrait had surfaced in a private collection a few months earlier, and Clovis Whitfield, an Old Master dealer and a serious scholar, asked Schütze to help him sort out the artist’s identity. Since the publication of his hefty 2009 book, Caravaggio: The Complete Works, Schütze has been bombarded by requests to verify wildly optimistic attributions. He always asks for photographs before he even agrees to view a picture.

Examining the work up close is the only test that matters for an expert like Schütze, who has an intimate knowledge of Caravaggio’s precise colour preferences and how delicately or aggressively he might apply his paint. “It’s always exciting to look at something new, and if that something is supposedly a Caravaggio painting it’s even more exciting,” he says. “But you also approach it very carefully, just to look at details typical of the artist and try, in your mind, to compare it to the many Caravaggio works you have seen before.”

Whitfield had already gathered a trail of circumstantial evidence to present to Schütze when he arrived for the private viewing. There was a label tucked into the back of the painting, identifying it as the property of the nineteenth-century ancestor who inherited the Giustiniani collection, an important Roman art collection assembled by two brothers, one of whom was a leading Caravaggio patron. Scholars had an inventory of the collection from 1638, which listed a Saint Augustine by Caravaggio exactly the same size as the one sitting on the easel in Whitfield’s office. Many Old Master pictures aren’t signed or documented in any way, so a paper trail stretching back to known Caravaggio patrons is about as definite as it can get in terms of provenance.

Caravaggio’s current star status marks an abrupt change in the artist’s fortunes. The same qualities that have made him popular today—his groundbreaking technique, his tempestuous life—are what buried him in obscurity after his death. Born in Milan in 1571 and found dead in a Tuscan beach town in 1610, he spent his life spilling paint onto canvases and brawling in the streets. A pioneer of the intense lighting, action, and emotion of the baroque movement that was taking shape around him, he created cinematic canvases lit with the blazing highlights and inky shadows of his signature chiaroscuro. He modelled his portraits of saints and martyrs on the people he met in the streets, rather than depicting them as idealized heroes straight from the clouds; and he reportedly scandalized an order of nuns when he depicted a drowned, green-fleshed prostitute as a dead Madonna. Shortly before his own death, he duelled with and killed a man and fled Rome.

Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Caravaggio fell out of fashion with collectors. “He was thought to have followed nature too closely, and he was associated with all the wild excesses of some of his followers,” says Whitfield. “You can’t imagine the deep oblivion into which he was cast.” In 1831, the artist’s The Supper at Emmaus—now among the jewels of the National Gallery in London—went up on Christie’s auction block for the equivalent of about $14,000 but failed to find a buyer. By contrast, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, paid a rumoured $15 million when The Cardsharps surfaced in a private collection in 1987.

Whitfield and Schütze bypassed the elegant private galleries of Whitfield Fine Art and headed for a private office crammed with books, where Saint Augustine perched on an easel under a spotlight. Schütze stood before the painting, flipping through his mental catalogue of Caravaggio and comparing it with what he saw in front of him. Immediately, he reacted to the “slightly strange movement” of the expressive left hand perched on the book. Augustine’s face was exactly what he expected of Caravaggio: a portrait so realistic and specific that the face would leap out in a crowd. Not so typical were the detailed bookshelves behind the saint; the artist usually spent little time or effort on backgrounds, preferring to fade the world around his figures into moody darkness. The work also lacked the overt drama usually associated with the painter, but Schütze knew there were other examples of this quieter Caravaggio, who would have been well established in Rome and working mostly according to his patrons’ specifications and tastes around 1600, when the picture is thought to have been painted.

Schütze spent two hours in Whitfield’s office, examining the portrait from every angle and weighing it against the Caravaggio he knew. “At a certain point, you just want to look at it and get used to this new picture and try to make sense of it,” he says. The next day, he returned to visit the painting again. Everything in the evidence and Schütze’s experience pointed to Caravaggio.

After a second look, he sifted through his files and discussed the painting at length with Franklin, then chief curator and deputy director of the National Gallery and the driving force behind the Caravaggio show. (He has since left the National Gallery to head up a $350-million expansion as director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.) Franklin is a Renaissance expert, so he deferred to Schütze on the finer points of Caravaggio’s style. What he could offer was his own experience in making successful attributions: in 2005, he landed the gallery a major coup when another London dealer asked him to look at a luminous sixteenth-century painting that had surfaced in a private collection. When Franklin recognized it as the work of the Mannerist master Francesco Salviati, he put the painting on reserve, ensuring the gallery would have first right of refusal on it. By the time other experts had backed up his attribution, the museum swooped in and bought the painting for half of its $8-million asking price. It remains one of the National Gallery’s most important acquisitions.

“It’s a tremendous shock, because you’ve memorized every work by an artist,” says Franklin. “It’s like discovering a child you didn’t know you had who’s already an adult. On a human level, you’re very hopeful, but as a scholar you’re also exceedingly skeptical: how could it take until 2011 for this painting to finally be discovered? ”

Aside from the new painting, Franklin borrowed eleven Caravaggios for the exhibition. Each room in the gallery was arranged to contrast one of those works with similar compositions by the imitators it inspired. Schütze thought it was “the perfect stage” to test Saint Augustine, allowing art experts and the public to stroll through the show and sort out whether the new picture fit best with the master or with one of his “Caravaggesque” followers.

Franklin didn’t view Saint Augustine in person until it was hanging in the National Gallery, but after seeing photos of the painting undergoing restoration he considered it promising enough to encourage his colleague to continue sleuthing. Art attribution hovers between highly technical connoisseurship and impulsive emotion. “You have a reaction that’s very visceral, a kind of love at first sight… then you just know,” he says, laughing almost sheepishly at the sentiment. “It’s an extraordinary paradox: you spend all your time reading books and dry-as-dust archives, but at the same time the field of art history is so instinctive. Even with this inventory, that painting is not by Caravaggio unless you really feel that it is.”

Schütze and Franklin hoped to keep the new attribution quiet so it wouldn’t overshadow the exhibition before other experts saw the picture in person, but before the show opened, the media on both sides of the Atlantic pounced on the new addition. An Italian newspaper ran a 900-word article by an expert who laid out the clues that led to the Caravaggio attribution and described the painter’s lost works as an “obsession” for scholars. Within days, other experts fired back a dismissal of the new work, despite the fact that almost none of them had seen it up close.

The debate sparked by the National Gallery’s exhibition has played out on front pages around the world and has divided husbands and wives in Italy with a ferocity North Americans generally reserve for sports rivalries. “Particularly in Italy, artists like Caravaggio have scholarly armies that battle each other,” explains Franklin. Saint Augustine is especially thorny, because it suggests a serene side to art history’s rebellious rock star. “For whatever reason, Caravaggio produced a work that doesn’t fit with the rebel we want to see,” says Franklin. “It’s arrogant to think everything we do know is all that ever happened.”

Schütze knew that by including the newly discovered work in its blockbuster summer show, the National Gallery would be starting the conversation, not getting the last word. “It’s not unusual for a new attribution to take several years, even decades, before a majority of scholars finally agree,” he says. After their summer visit in Ottawa, most of the pictures in the Caravaggio exhibition moved to the Kimbell Art Museum, the partner institution hosting the show until January 8. Saint Augustine, though, was immediately returned to Italy to face the art-loving armies who have been clashing over it for months. It will be one of the stars of an exhibition entitled Rome in the Age of Caravaggio, running at Rome’s Palazzo Venezia until February 5, and a focal point of a scholarly symposium in late November. The painting is not for sale, and even the owners’ nationality remains secret, so for now the controversy centres on what the newly unearthed work means for understanding Caravaggio, rather than for what it might fetch on the auction block.

Before the show closed in Ottawa on September 11, Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome had drawn 108,508 visitors, making it the gallery’s most popular exhibition since a Renoir blockbuster in 2007. Saint Augustine hung in a small room at the heart of the exhibition with five other close-cropped portraits of saints poring over texts, giving the impression that the small gallery was ringed with windows opening onto their private studies.

The curator’s notes made a brief a nod to the disconnect between the peaceful composition and the tempestuous artist credited with painting it. “Caravaggio is here experimenting, and so the picture is initially difficult to place in relation to his other works,” the text said. “We invite visitors to compare it with the other paintings seen here.” Elsewhere in the exhibition, crowds gathered magnetically in front of Caravaggio’s high-drama paintings. But here, most paused for just a brief moment to look at the quiet theologian before moving on.

This appeared in the December 2011 issue.

Shannon Proudfoot works as a staff writer at Sportsnet magazine, and was a 2009 fellow at the New York Times’s Age Boom Academy.