Valentin de Boulogne
Apart from establishing the milieu within which the Death of our inquiry came to fruition, I still have some other important business that requires attention: who is the most likely (caravaggist) artist to have painted our Death? Quite a tricky business, attributions, as I found in my first contacts with Caravaggio and caravaggesque scholars many years ago, when I sent them a good quality image of the painting and asked for their attributions. Even to their trained eye it was difficult to stick a label to who had produced it. The principal French caravaggist, Valentin de Boulogne, was singled out as the most plausible.
Valentin de Boulogne (Coulommiers-en-Brie 1591 – Rome 1632) was profoundly influenced by Caravaggio’s realism and dramatic lighting. His approach was personal, he infused his pictures with melancholy, even sadness. This quality makes it score high as a potential contender to have produced The Death. This also goes for the following insight. Valentin’s type of painting captured the seedy, coarse aspects of life, much of which he probably experienced in the rough melting pot that was Rome. Like Caravaggio, Valentin led a life his biographers found despicable, he associated with drunkards, whores and gamblers. The low culture that was such a dominant element in Valentin’s life is reflected in his art, which is full of tavern scenes depicting a host of soldiers, brigands, fortune-tellers and beggars.
To mark the turbulence of Valentin’s life we may quote the contemporary painter and biographer Giovanni Baglione - we have heard from him before -, who reports that Valentin’s death in 1632 was the tragic consequence of a fever precipitated by a night of wine and tobacco. It ended with the artist plunging into the Fontana del Babuino, near his house. Another report claims it was an orgy that Valentin had been engaged in that night, and that he took a plunge into the fountain to extinguish the fire within him. To put Valentin’s reputation as an artist into perspective we cite a relevant remark from another colleague, the French painter Jean Lemaire, who wrote soon after Valentin’s death: ”We have lost Valentin, who died about three or four weeks ago. His paintings can no longer be found or if one does find them, it is necessary to pay four or more times their value”. We may well qualify Valentin as the spitting image of the protagonist of our inquiry.
Valentin’s Specific Style
In researching Valentin’s manner of painting I was struck by the special features characteristic of the artist’s personal style. He certainly had a preference for semi-nude figures, for an abundance of naked flesh and for flamboyant draperies. In trying to determine if The Death was indeed painted by Valentin I focus on specific features of his technique. Close scrutiny of some of his paintings exhibited during several exhibitions in Rome organized on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, have made me aware of the manner in which he tended to paint the finger nails of his most prominent figures. They are highly pronounced, as if glued loosely to the fingers. The nails are all of a consistent, oval shape, more so than I found in the work of his colleagues. In addition it is remarkable how Valentin used crimson and brown veils draped in such a way that they left the knee exposed. They are all elements that are clearly visible in The Death.
One essential element that may link the works of Valentin and The Death are the dimensions of the canvas, c. 98 x 135 cms, like the two paintings of our inquiry. The artist produced a series of paintings of roughly this size, in particular between 1616-1620. Attributing works to Valentin is often problematic. His modern biographer, Marina Mojana, in her Valentin de Boulogne, identifies 65 autographed works by the painter, twelve others she qualifies as doubtful attributions and eleven that are wrongfully ascribed to Valentin. An interesting biographical insight that emerges from research on Valentin is his first residence in Rome: in 1611 he may be identified as the ‘pittore, Valentino, Francese’, who lived near the San Nicola dei Prefetti church. It was situated in the present Via dei Prefetti and consequently very near the Via di Pallacorda with the tennis court where Caravaggio killed his opponent Ranuccio Tomassoni.
Valentin and Cecco del Caravaggio
As the two Death of Hyacinth paintings have been attributed to both Valentin and Cecco del Caravaggio we need to explore their (early) backgrounds. Gianni Papi in the exhibition catalogue Caravaggio e caravaggeschi a Firenze (2010) briefly mentions the apprenticeship Valentin is supposed to have spent with Cecco. Cecco’s hyperrealistic tone may have influenced the young pupil Valentin in the execution and in the contours he created. Gianni Papi adds an interesting dimension to Cecco’s close association with Caravaggio. He may well have followed his master when Caravaggio was on the run after the 1606 homicide. If so, Cecco must have become particularly aware of the traumatizing effect the event had on Caravaggio, and would for this reason have been a logical choice to produce The Death of Hyacinth.
Jean-Pierre Cuzin in a recent publication on the French caravaggists also addresses the intimate relationship that seems to have existed between Valentin and Cecco. Valentin is described as a painter very close to the mysterious and intriguing Cecco, particularly in the painting Cecco made for the Chiesa Nuova, his San Lorenzo …!. Yes, indeed, San Filippo Neri’s church. Some quick research tells me that there is no record of this commission. Still, an interesting angle that I need to pursue. Was it a gift from an Oratorian, by any chance, and why had he opted for Cecco? Another name that crops up in this context is Gerard Douffet (active in Rome between 1614-1622), with whom Valentin shared a house in 1620. The caravaggesque scholar I have been in touch with most frequently, Arnaud Bréjon de Lavergnée, tends to attribute the Sotheby’s Death to this French caravaggist.