I am sorry but it is all too good to be true. The owners of an old house near Toulouse ventured into their attic and found a large dusty painting. When a local antiques dealer gave it a gentle clean, he recognised it as a painting by — or closely associated with — none other than the great Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Well, the theme is typically Caravaggio, and it is painted in a luridly Caravaggio style. Holofernes, her victim, looks up in horror and tries to raise his body with his last bit of energy even as his blood pours out.
Judith seems to have paused in her task to stare pensively towards us. Her wizened old servant is urging her to get on with it. Caravaggio did paint Judith and Holofernes.
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The painting can be seen in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. In this version, Holofernes also raises up his torso with his arm. His open eyes are full of the horrific knowledge of what is happening to him. Judith is intent on her terrible work. Erotic images of fake beheadings is a good woman who must do a cruel thing — assassinate this enemy of the Israelites.
She is resolved and unflinching, even as the blood and those angry eyes fill her with revulsion. Compared with this, the Toulouse painting is hopeless. It certainly has the shine and colour of a Caravaggio, the cinematic light effects he is so famous for.
But it has none of his psychological intensity. The Barberini painting is the visual equivalent of a Shakespearean tragedy: Caravaggio never posed people as vacantly as this.
It is the precision of his emotional dramas that makes them electrifying.
The Toulouse painting is dramatically incompetent. Erotic images of fake beheadings Barberini Caravaggio conveys the sheer physical hard work of beheading a man, the sense of murder as hard work. Artemisia Gentileschi, the great 17th-century female artist who was influenced by him, painted two versions of Judith and Holofernes that go even further in stressing the physicality of the assassination.
Quite apart from any feminist implications, she sees how Caravaggio captures what slaughtering a fearsome male warrior means — and entails — for a young woman.
So where are the 17th-century copies of the painting from Toulouse? Was it a bad Caravaggio that got forgotten — or is it a fake? Identifying real Caravaggios is complicated because of his strange place in art history.
He was famous — and notorious — in the 17th century and his potent style inspired many imitators, from Gentileschi to Dutch artists such as Gerrit van Honthorst. Yet he was also hated and condemned.
Classical painters such as Poussin were seen as more serious. By the 18th century, Caravaggio was forgotten. He has only been rediscovered and revered anew since about One possible explanation for the Toulouse picture is that it was painted by a northern follower of Carravagio, as some French experts appear to think.
Painters who emulated Caravaggio did not pastiche him so directly.
They used his innovative light effects, violent sensuality and acute realism in imaginative, individual ways. The red draperies in the Toulouse painting, the pose of Holofernes — these say classic Caravaggio. Yet the poses are too lame, too unreal, too flaccid, too confused, to be the work of this great psychological realist.
There is a fundamental lack of energy. The result is odd and ugly. Small details are often the crucial clues.
Look at the hands of Holofernes in the Toulouse picture. They are brown and dirty.
Yet this artist has overdone it. Soiled fingernails yes, but mucky hands? Little signs of coarseness like this permeate the entire painting.