Attributed to Caravaggio

Caravaggio Blog

The Death of Hyacinth Painting

In early May 1831 the mayor of Cherbourg received an anonymous letter. To his great surprise a total of thirty paintings were to be offered as a gift to the city. In the course of the years the number of works of art to be donated to the museum increased dramatically; by 1835 the city had come into the possession of 160 paintings, one of which being the Death of Hyacinth. This donation would make it possible for Cherbourg to realize its long-standing cultural ambition and found a regional museum. The identity of the Maecenas had meanwhile been exposed: Thomas Henry (1766-1836), from Cherbourg, an art dealer, and since 1816 the expert in charge of the Royal Collection of the Louvre Museum, a post he was to hold until his death in 1836. As a tribute to its main benefactor the Cherbourg museum was named Musée d’Art Thomas Henry when it was opened in 1835.

A First Description

The Courrier de l’Art of 1888 provides an insight into the principal pictures Thomas Henry had acquired. In the journal’s Chronique des Musées section on the Cherbourg Museum the author Durand-Gréville singles out The Death of Hyacinth, dedicating a long paragraph to the painting. He starts on a critical note. “The representation possesses none of the noblesse the great Florentines were renowned for. We see two figures, neither young nor beautiful, the legs of the reclining Hyacinth painted in a configuration that can hardly be called graceful. The latter’s torso is supported by the knee of Apollo, depicted in a relatively vulgaire manner. The drapery used as the clothing of the two figures is deep red, as well as green. However, with all its defects, the work is superb and fits appropriately in the collection of any museum, including the Louvre. Caravaggio has supplied his figures with wonderful souplesse, painted with a marvellous sense of nature …”.. I beg your pardon, Caravaggio, the Genius of Rome himself, you say …!!!???

A Message from Cherbourg

It is in early 2005 that I receive a letter with enclosures from the director of the Musée d’Art Thomas Henry. The two-page enclosure contains the following text: “CARAVAGGIO (attribué à),” with underneath the text: “Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, ou Merisio, ou aussi par erreur Merigi, Morigi, Amerigi, Amerighi, dit Il ”. The enclosure ends with a bibliographical reference “Benezit 1999, T.3, p. 219,” with the addition “source vérifiée”. This Identification paper appears to be a formal document, the text of which has been verified and validated. My initial reaction is one of amazement and confusion: I must admit it had entered my mind that it may have been Caravaggio himself who had produced the Death of Hyacinth, but I had soon realized how unlikely my assumption was. How is it possible that all the experts missed this picture? The painting cannot be found in any of Caravaggio’s biographies, I find. The biographical reference in the enclosure, Benezit 1999, does not immediately ring a bell, but it must be regarded as the source where evidence of the museum’s attribution can be found. There is no clue as to the provenance of the ‘Mort d’Hyacinthe’ portrait in the letter and enclosures from Cherbourg.

Emmanuel Benezit’s three volume Dictionnaire critique des peintres, sculpteurs, desinateurs et graveurs was first published between 1911 and 1924. Nothing with Apollo or Hyacinth in the first edition. I have more luck with the second 1948-1955. There it is, in Volume 1, under Caravaggio: Cherbourg, ‘Mort d’Hyacinthe’. I find exactly the same entry in Volume III of the 1999 Benezit, on page 219, as indicated in the enclosures from Cherbourg. How am I to interpret Benezit’s formal attribution of the Death of Hyacinth in the Cherbourg museum in a publication that is obviously so authoritative? Benezit’s Dictionnaire critique is considered to be the book of first (and last!) resort in tracking down biographical information, according to ChoiceArt. The Library Journal is just as enthusiastic: “Bottom line: This authoritative and useful work is the standard biographical listing of artists, outdoing similar resources in both size and scope”. My conclusion is that Benezit’s attributions should not be neglected.

On Attributions

Caution needs to be observed in assessing the work of Caravaggio. As David Carrier notes in his (Principles of Art History Writing, 1974), Caravaggio’s art developed as radically as his life, and it is impossible to speak of the ‘unity of his oeuvre’. In his ‘Caravaggio, The Construction of an Artistic Personality’ essay Carrier argues that “if we only had the artist’s earliest and latest paintings, it would be absurd to maintain that they were by the same hand”. Here Carrier obviously alludes to the dramatic shift Caravaggio went through after the fatal tennis match. My initial investigation into the world of attribution shows that the subject is a delicate one. It is a major activity in art history and in museum life. Changes in attributing masterpieces can lead to enormous variations in value, and critical reviews in art publications. It can enhance, but also ruin, the reputation of attributors. Ascribing a work of art to a specific artist is a complex matter, based on the recognition of elements that can only be detected by the eye of the learned viewer.

Not within my comfort zone, really, the tricky world of attributions.

Back On Earth

I soon find that Thomas Henry’s attribution to Caravaggio needs to be viewed with apprehension, as can be concluded from the introduction to the Musée d’art Thomas Henry catalogue (2003). The editors only make a brief reference to the Death of Hyacinth, in which the authors attach the qualification “Anonyme” to the painting, so contrary to the view of the Thomas Henry museum’s director expressed in the same year. They make mention of Thomas Henry’s attribution of the painting to Caravaggio, but ascribe this to his inexperience in interpreting Italian art, the Italian school being less favoured among collectors at the time. In this light Henry cannot be blamed for attributing the Death of Hyacinth to Caravaggio, rather than to his school, the authors of the catalogue conclude.

I need to delve deeper into the early-nineteenth century art market in France, Paris in particular. What was Thomas Henry’s role and how had he acquired the painting of our inquiry?