Beneath the Surface
Question: if you don’t know how a picture was painted, how is it possible to give it an attribution? Because beyond the factors of style and themes, what is most idiosyncratic about an artist is his or her approach to the creative process. The surface of a picture can be imitated, but the creative process is something that, for the most part, is hidden beneath the surface of a picture. Which is why working in an institution like The Metropolitan Museum, with the possibility of collaborating with the members of its exceptional conservation and scientific staff, can be such an enriching experience. It’s something from which I have benefited during the four decades I have spent here.
For this occasion, I have chosen a particular issue that has fascinated me ever since I worked on the 1985 exhibition, The Age of Caravaggio. As the loans arrived and were unpacked that January, I had the opportunity to examine them up close as condition reports were written up. It was the first large, international exhibition that I had been charged with, and it was in an area in which I could not claim to have any scholarly credentials. Yet I had read enough to know that the thing that had struck Caravaggio’s contemporaries so strongly was his practice—so it was said—of painting directly from the posed model, evidently jettisoning the conventional practice of working out the composition through the medium of drawings from which a full scale cartoon might be generated. A number of scholars had observed incisions in the paint surface in some of his Roman paintings and, not unreasonably, they supposed these to be related to an alternative way of laying in the basic compositional design or recording the placement of a model.
I have always been fascinated by painter’s techniques, and so on Mondays when the museum was closed to the public (which is no longer the case), I started to examine the pictures, first by myself and then, as I realized the complexity of the visual evidence, with a conservator, Dorothy Mahon. Using a portable retouching lamp that permitted us to examine each painting in raking light, we began to map out the incisions that could be made out. We further supplemented this with the evidence of a portable infrared reflectography camera (IRR) that was able to penetrate the surface of some of the pictures. I suppose the most sensational revelation was that in Caravaggio’s famous painting of Judith beheading Holofernes—painted for the Genoese banker Ottavio Costa in the years around 1600—the head of the Philistine commander had been shifted from its initial position, which we could clearly make out from the artist’s brushstrokes laying in the placement of the eyes, nose, and mouth.
As Dorothy Mahon, George Bisacca, and I contemplated the shifting of the head to the right, George insightfully remarked that, working from a posed model, the head had naturally been shown initially in proper anatomical relationship to the torso. The shift would have come about as a consequence of Caravaggio wanting to show Judith, her left hand grasping Holofernes’s hair, pulling his head away from the body as she sliced through his neck. That action required a repositioning of the head, possibly obtained with a second “sitting.” It was this comment that provided solid evidence of the artist’s insistence on working from posed models, and the adjustments that had, in the course of painting, to be made to achieve both a powerful effect of physical presence as well as respond to the critical requisite of narrative verisimilitude. It was the sort of shared observations with colleagues that opened new observations and, I trust, understandings. Eventually I wrote an article putting together the material we had garnered—it was the first comprehensive examination of a large body of work by the artist—and attempting at the same time to suggest the ways in which the techniques employed were adapted from existing workshop practice. To my surprise, the article not only attracted a good deal of attention, both popular and scholarly (it was translated into French), but became the catalyst of further studies and was the catalyst for two exhibitions—one held in Florence in 1991 and another in Milan in 2017 (the latter brought together a rich harvest of information based on a thorough technical examination, including x-rays, IRR, pigment analysis, and cross sections of a significant number of Caravaggio’s paintings).
During my many years at The Metropolitan, I had three further occasions to expand this interest and explore the ways in which Caravaggio and his followers resolved the issue of painting from posed models without sacrificing a quality of observing an unfolding drama rather than a stilled tableau vivant. There was a contingent question: how did artists who adopted this practice go about making variant compositions, such as Caravaggio himself did on at least one occasion? The first opportunity to explore these issues was provided by an exhibition devoted to Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi that was held at The Metropolitan Museum in 2001. Unlike Caravaggio, Orazio often replicated his most successful compositions, and as I traveled to negotiate loans, I carried with me a tracing on Mylar of what I deemed to be the prime version, so that I could better understand the way in which the variants were created. This naturally required the collaboration of conservators in various museums, and the ensuing discussions were crucial to reaching some sort of understanding of the processes involved. Orazio, who had had a conventional training and practice before his conversion to the Caravaggesque practice of working from a model. In other words, elaborate drawings and cartoons had been part and parcel of his working method. From that practice it was not a big step to retaining a tracing of his initial composition—regardless of whether or not it had been painted from a posed model. This tracing he could use, either in part or in whole, shifting its elements around, to generate further versions. After the close of the exhibition at The Metropolitan, I was able to obtain permission from a number of lending institutions to make x-rays of a number of Artemisia’s paintings, and these resulted in some surprising revelations about her working practice. Working with Charlotte Hale of the conservation staff at The Metropolitan, I used the results of those examinations and x-rays as the basis of an article outlining her independent career in Florence and her interaction with Florentine artists.
The pattern was set, and in 2015, when I undertook together with my French colleague, Annick Lemoine, to organize an exhibition on Valentin de Boulogne, the remarkable French follower of Caravaggio, I once again set about to examine these issues, making copious notes and sitting down with colleagues in the conservation laboratories of lending institutions. In a catalogue essay titled “Painting from Life: Valentin and the Legacy of Caravaggio,” I attempted to bring together the information I had accumulated over the years, following this up with yet another essay, “Caravaggio e la pittura ‘dal naturale’” for an exhibition at the Palazzo Reale in Milan devoted to enlarging our understanding of Caravaggio’s creative process. It was an essay that could not have been done without the experience I had been privileged to share with conservators in institutions throughout the United States and Europe who shared technical information with me and discussed their own ideas about how that information might be interpreted. It is the kind of exchange that would not be possible outside institutions with an outstanding staff of conservators.