« Charon ne deust recevoir pour voiture
Nostre Caron ainsi vivant le chérir,
Si l’air plus vif de sa docte peinture
L’honneur françois empêche de mourir1».
Did Thomas de Leu have in mind our Last Judgment painting when he wrote these verses under his father-in-law’s portrait? A certain tradition would like to see the features of a young Caron under those of Charon guiding the doleful souls to the right of our composition. The resemblance of the physiognomies is not evident between the engraving and our painting, but the play of the mischievous word of a painter "Caron" represented as "Charon" could be in the clever spirit of one of the last French Mannerist artists. It is true that a muscular and beardless Charon is a surprise in the classic iconography of the traveller whereas he is more likely presented as aged and exhausted from his journeys. Finally, if Charon is not immediately assimilated to the known portrait of Caron, Anatole de Montaiglon prompts us that if the engraving by de Leu was dated 1599, it had certainly been realized in 16002 after the painter’s death and would hence be more of an homage than an artwork of observation.
Finally, that our painting contains a portrait of the painter in addition to its impressive creativity, is almost anecdotal in regards to the extraordinary discovery that shaped the artist’s career.
Caron's religious paintings are indeed rare today. The painter created some at the beginning of his career for his hometown of Beauvais, especially drawings of stained-glass windows3. However, he also realized an Annunciation altarpiece, lost today, and unveiling the portraits of his father and his mother on each wing. Due to its impressive format, this panel would be the most important confirmed religious painting by Caron4 known to this day. The absence of similar religious works by the master obliges us to compare our present painting with the painter’s remaining artistic output. If no other representations of the Last Judgment by him is known, the preparatory drawings he realized to illustrate the series of mural hangings about the life of Artemisia in the year 1562 also displayed some examples of twisted and tortured scenes, akin to our panel. The scene representing the incineration of a soldier5 offers likewise a composition articulated around an angel blowing dramatically on a sinuous crowd.
Furthermore, a curious drawing from the Deutsches Theatermuseum in Munich, called the Oiseleur6 (fig. 1), and not related to a painted work of Caron, reveals a half-man and half-bird being extremely spiritually close to the anthropomorphic chimeras populating the hells of our stupefying painting!
In brief, the painter of the famous massacres and tangled and mysterious compositions permeates with his biting stroke onto this savory format with medieval echoes.
It appears that our painting has certainly suffered damage, along the upper board, shortly after its completion. It required help from a real artist to restore it in its integrity. Its top part thus appears to have been repaired barely later by another hand, since one perceives on this painted band an underlying drawing from a more Northern Europe culture than that used by Caron in the rest of the composition. Slightly subsequent, this method was extremely widespread during the early 17th century, in France as in Flanders. The non-homogeneous pigments on this section also have aged in a different way, becoming today a slightly more visible rupture than it was at the time.
The now visible restoration had in any case been executed by a person or a studio, adapting via contemporary means a work that is slightly older. Uneven in its chromatic scale nowadays, it is however an integral part of the history of the artwork, and explains an aspect of 17th century painting which saw Art as an evolving material on which it was then allowed to intervene, provided that it respects, if not perfectly, the sentiment of its predecessors.
However, despite this "restoration of the era", Caron's Last Judgment, with its delicate aspects from an enduring Italian Mannerism and by the Flanders-inspired realism projected onto his figures, remains quintessential of art from the School of Fontainebleau, to an extremely rare state of completion on the market of Old Master paintings.
1. One multiple is found in the British museum, Thomas de Leu, Antonius Caron, bellovacus pictor eximius vixit A. 78, British museum, inv. 1894,0122,199.
2. A. de Montaiglon, Caron de Beauvais, peintre du XVIe siècle, Paris, 1850, p. 5.
3. J. Ehrmann, Antoine Caron Peintre des fêtes et des massacres, Paris, 1986, p. 17
4. J. Leegenhoek, Maîtres anciens du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle (Ancient masters from the 16th to the 18th century), exh. cat. Galerie Labatut, Paris, 1992, p. 7
5. Incineration, France’s national library, Reserve of the Cabinet of prints, manuscript, book II, chap.9.
6. Antoine Caron, L’Oiseleur, reproduced in J. Ehrman, op. cit., fig. 209.
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