Who Painted Our Death of Hyacinth?

Caravaggio Blog

I increasingly feel like a detective confronted with a completely new suspect in a crime investigation. At first the investigating inspector loses his bearings, but then he relaxes, gets his second wind as he gradually sees the rope tightening around the suspect’s neck. My suspect is no criminal, however, I consider him my saviour. He is a painter, born in Liège in 1594.

From The Holy Year 1600 Rome became the European cultural capital, filled with thousands (!!) of artists from Italy, but also from Spain, France, Germany, Flanders and the Low Countries. A unique breeding-ground was being created where artists from different backgrounds and cultures worked side by side. They exchanged technical expertise, ideas, experiences and iconographical models. Through the activities of these artists the stereotypes of Late Mannerism were swept away, replaced by the most remarkable artistic renaissance of the Eternal City. One man was mainly responsible for this renaissance, Caravaggio, whose art revolutionized the artistic climate of the capital. For many of the artists who worked in Rome, the careers and works still need to be pieced together. One of them is Gérard Douffet.

The Caravaggio and Northern European Painting Conference

Today I attended an international symposium, entitled Caravaggio and Northern European Painting. There were eight speakers. Special attention was devoted to the specific contexts in which Northern painters responded to the Italian master’s innovations. The mechanisms of migration, the history of collecting and working relationships between artists received due attention. The conference anticipates some of the central themes of the upcoming exhibition Caravaggio and the Painters from the North exhibition, scheduled to take place in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid (21 June – 25 September 2016). There was one paper that I was particularly looking forward to: Gérard Douffet and Italy, by John Gash, of the University of Aberdeen.

I had contacted John Gash just over two years ago, looking for feedback on the findings of my research into the Death painting. John responded by telling me that he was preparing an essay on the painting. I subsequently sent him what I had discovered regarding the Via di Pallacorda tennis court, about its owners, the two tennis professionals, and whether the pallacorda court could be identified as the original Palazzo Firenze tennis court that was built for Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici in 1570. After that I received one more e-mail from Gash, telling me that he agreed with my perception that the production of the painting was inspired by Caravaggio’s famous tennis match. In the light of the title of his paper today I was wondering if he would include the Death painting in his presentation on the painter Douffet (1594-1660). In the PowerPoint presentation Gash started by showing a number of paintings attributed to Douffet that were unknown to me. Then suddenly there it was, an image of The Death of Hyacinth in its full glory. The next showed the two versions, the Cherbourg flanked by the Sotheby picture. Gash told his audience that he had visited Cherbourg to see the Death of Hyacinth in situ.

Gash entitled his paper ‘Gérard Douffet and Italy’ and not ‘in Italy’ because very little is known of the artist’s activities in Italy, Rome in particular. Douffet is said to have been active there from 1614 - 1621/ 1622. In his presentation Gash made an effort to point out ‘paragone’ (comparisons) between our Death painting and other paintings ascribed to Douffet. Of particular significance was Gash’s information that he had contacted the scholar who previously had made a concerted effort to link the two Death paintings to a specific artist: Gianni Papi. This seasoned Italian art scholar attributed the paintings to an enigmatic artist who may be identified as Jean Ducamps, from Cambrai, northern France. Gash had got in touch with Papi and had apparently convinced his Italian colleague that the Cherbourg version was by Douffet, viewed this Death as the original, the Sotheby as a copy. Gash kept the most intriguing element in his findings for last: one of Douffet’s principal patrons in Rome was the ‘Cardinal de’ Medici’. In his view we may identify him with either Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici, who spent brief spells in Rome from 1615, or Cardinal del Monte, the Medici family’s cultural agent in the capital. An exciting prospect for me to try to disentangle this intricate web of names.

Gérard Douffet

Douffet’s name cropped up before in my research, but the few paintings by him I had seen seemed far removed in style and composition from our Death picture. Thrilling to find now that the artist’s Roman contact appears to fit perfectly with the Medici thread I am pursuing. I need to get to the bottom of Gash’s source for Douffet’s mysterious ‘Cardinal de Medici’. The author of Douffet’s biography turns out to be Louis Abry, painter and chronicler (1643-1720), in his Les hommes illustres de la nation liégeoise (1744). A rough translation of the text reads:

‘In 1614 Douffeit (sic) left for Italy, not yet having reached the age of twenty. In Rome he admired the ancient monuments, and the beauties preserved in the “superbe Galerie de Medicis” in particular. Here he was so fortunate as to make the acquaintance of ‘le Peintre du Cardinal de ce nom’. In the first conversation Douffeit had with him, he clearly showed his great judgement and profound knowledge of art, so that ‘le Peintre de Medicis’ could only show his respects. He subsequently gave Douffeit the first artistic exercises, provided employment and accompanied him to places where the most renowned artists came together (the San Luca academy, I wonder?) to engage in the perfection of their art. The greatest advantage he received from these contacts was his special taste for the ‘Belles Lettres’ and for Science, which he had neglected before, not having realized what use they might be. The study of Poetry, Philosophy and History occupied most of his time, while the rest he dedicated to making copies of the best originals, or making portraits, in which art he excelled. This unique talent brought him extensive praise and acclaim and enabled him to lead a life of prosperity and abundance (…). Having lived in Rome for seven years Douffeit decided to leave the city and set out for Naples, only just surviving a shipwreck. He subsequently boarded a ship to Malta. Having spent some weeks on this island, he decided to return to Rome, where he finished some works he had left unfinished …’.

Gérard Douffet (1594-1660?), Self Portrait, c. 1650, Bayern Museum, Munich.

Louis Abry’s text shows that Gérard Douffet visited the Medici Gallery - Ferdinando de’ Medici’s impressive collection of ancient paintings and sculptures at Rome’s Villa Medici - and made the acquaintance of ‘le Peintre du Cardinal’ of that name. No word about Douffet’s relationship with this cardinal, I’m afraid, but intriguing to read that the painter paid visits to Naples and Malta. Any link we can establish with Caravaggio’s exile between 1606-1610 when he spent some time in these places? No source given in the text for all these crucial references, unfortunately. Abry may have been in touch with Douffet himself, certainly with his artist colleagues in Liège, but had probably forgotten to bring a pencil to make notes when he spoke to them about their memories of Douffet.

I fully realize that I am testing your patience to the limits, but the rewards will be worth every second of your time. I am confident to have settled the identity of the artist who made our Death, although the attribution is not yet conclusive. As we saw, at least two (Gash and Bréjon de Lavergnée), maybe even three (Gianni Papi), established caravaggist scholars ascribed the painting recently to the painter from Liège. So gratifying, also, to see the Liège art biographers singing Douffet’s praises. I will keep following the painter’s footsteps closely and expect him to make a decisive move soon, entering Rome’s San Luca Academy, Palazzo di Firenze, perhaps, a commission related to Cardinal del Monte or the Medici, any experience that may have triggered him to produce our Death picture.