The Famed Caravaggio of Toulouse Finally Arrives at Auction

"The story of this Caravaggio began in Toulouse, and it will end in Toulouse," said Marc Labarbe. After five years of research, a Toulouse auction house will hold the sale of Caravaggio’s ‘Judith and Holofernes’ later this month.

The Famed Caravaggio of Toulouse Finally Arrives at Auction

On April 23, 2014, the auctioneer Marc Labarbe, well-known on the Chinese art market for having discovered an imperial Chinese scroll in 2011 that sold for €22 million, the highest price ever fetched at auction for an Imperial Chinese painting, received a call from one of his clients. The client, emptying his attic, wanted to get an expert opinion on a piece of fabric bleached by dust which had been kept in his attic for years. Surprised by the intensity and brilliance of one of the characters in the centre of the composition, Labarbe saw the work’s potential. He then contacted the expert Eric Turquin, not only an independent expert but also someone well-recognized for his skills and contacts at French and European auction houses. According to Labarbe, Turquin is the most important expert of old paintings.

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (1571-1610), ‘Judith and Holofernes’, c. 1607, picture © The Toulouse Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (1571-1610), ‘Judith and Holofernes’, c. 1607, picture © The Toulouse Caravaggio

For several years, the expert analyzed the work and showed it to other specialists, all of whom recognized it as a major masterpiece. And so the Caravaggio detective trail began. For five years, Labarbe and Turquin traveled all over Europe, comparing paintings exhibited in museums and looking for proof that this composition taking up the ‘Judith and Holofernes’ theme was from the hands of Caravaggio, the master of light. For a four centuries-old painting, the state and conservation of the canvas was exceptional, suggesting that it hadn’t had many owners.

The enthusiasm of the many specialists who were confronted with the painting, such as Jean-Pierre Cuzin, John Gash, Rossella Vodret, David Stone, Guillaume Kientz, Keith Christiansen as well as Nicola Spinosa, only confirmed that the discovery was important.

"For an auctioneer, finding a work like this is fabulous," said Marc Labarbe.

The texts that the research relied on revealed that in 1607 the painting was seen by two different people: Ottavio Gentili, the agent of the Duke of Mantua, as well as the painter and expert Frans Pourbus. According to the writings, two paintings by Caravaggio were in Louis Finson’s possession, a painter active in Naples and France, known for his prolific work as a merchant (he sold nearly 15 Caravaggios). Finson has twice been described in possession of the worksThe Madonna of the Rosary, a large canvas now on display in Vienna, andJudith and Holofernes, a canvas ‘da camera’ (‘for a private room’), with three 'a mezze figure' ('three figures in half-length').

Letter by the painter Frans Pourbus to the Duke of Mantua on 25 September 1607, image © Ministry for Cultural Goods and Activities via The Toulouse Caravaggio
Letter by the painter Frans Pourbus to the Duke of Mantua on 25 September 1607, image © Ministry for Cultural Goods and Activities via The Toulouse Caravaggio

Two other documents, Finson's 1617 will and the inventory from the death of his associate Abraham Vinck, allowed the experts to trace the history of the canvas back to Antwerp in 1619.

The wrinkled face of the servant, at first considered ‘grotesque’, raised some questions about Caravaggio's brush stroke. However, the experts quickly realized that this element was in no way problematic to the canvas, but rather one of the fundamental pillars of the composition: its marked face, placed in counterpoint with that of the beautiful Judith, cannot be, according to John Gash, Professor of Art History at Aberdeen University, "by someone other than Caravaggio".

Scientific analyses have also demonstrated, across several points, techniques specific to the hand of Caravaggio. First, there is the canvas, which is similar to those used by the artist in his works of the Neapolitan era. Then comes the dark brown background of the painting, dotted with large grains of calcium carbonate, a specificity that is observed in David and Goliath and in many of Caravaggio’s paintings. Infrared images have also revealed a ‘black circle’: a large black brush stroke, unique to the artist, affixed around the figures to help build the composition. To the experts' knowledge, Caravaggio was the only artist to build his paintings in this manner.

Infrared Reflectography (detail), Caravaggio positioned Holofernes on the canvas with large black brushstrokes, image © The Toulouse Caravaggio
Infrared Reflectography (detail), Caravaggio positioned Holofernes on the canvas with large black brushstrokes, image © The Toulouse Caravaggio

The incisions found on the hand, the left eyebrow, the forehead and the hair of Judith, as well as on the right arm of Holofernes, add to the striking elements that link the work with Caravaggio. Engraved throughout the preparation, more or less freshly, they are found in fairly long forms until the end of the Roman period, then much shorter thereafter.

Finally, the technique of risparmio, developed by Caravaggio for the Contarelli Chapel, which entails using the dark background left in reserve to create the shadows, can be detected in several places across the composition: on the shadow of the eyes, on Judith's nose and chin, on the hand, beard and moustache of Holofernes, as well as on a detail of the old maid's turban.

"... it is obvious that all the most important characteristics typical of Caravaggio's pictorial technique are present in this painting," said Rossella Vodret.

Judith and Holofernes was painted in Naples in 1607, during the time that Caravaggio was banned from Rome for homicide. His Neapolitan period marks a turning point in his work, announcing the end of his particular style that was characterized by darker works.

Only 65 Caravaggio works are known worldwide, five of which are in private hands. They are mostly in Italy and cannot be exported due to legal restrictions. The discovery of this painting brings the number of works listed to 66, and its arrival on the market represents an incredible opportunity for museums across the world to acquire a masterpiece of such scarcity.

In this detail of Holofernes’ hand, the brown paint is left in reserve to mark the shadows, the to the technique ‘a risparmio’, image © The Toulouse Caravaggio
In this detail of Holofernes’ hand, the brown paint is left in reserve to mark the shadows, the to the technique ‘a risparmio’, image © The Toulouse Caravaggio

The family which owns Judith and Holofernes has been settled in the Toulouse area for several decades, and descends from a Napoleonic officer who campaigned in Spain from 1808 to 1814. The heirs of the family already sold, 40 years ago, another masterpiece of the Spanish Golden Age.

The French Ministry of Culture classified the work a ‘Trésor National’ (national treasure) while the research was still in progress. This status blocked the exit of the work from the territory for thirty months, until December 2018. Now however, the painting, free of circulation, has benefited from a lightening of varnish by the restorer Laurence Baron-Callegari and will be auctioned on 27 June 2019 at the Halle aux Grains in Toulouse.

It is quite unlikely that this masterpiece will ever be visible in China as Chinese collectors are not taking interest in Old Masters painting yet, this area remains exclusive to the greatest European and American museums.

Find more information on the most anticipated sale of the year, as well as the video testimonials of experts and specialists on the site dedicated to the work here: www.thetoulousecaravaggio.com.

To buy the catalogue of the sale (€35 + delivery costs), contact contact@marclabarbe.com.

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