In the present work Valentin provides a development to the standard depiction of bohemians and crooks by portraying the victim of the intrigue, that is the soldier being duped, with his back to us, creating a greater spatial complexity, while the figures facing us are presented in a harmonious and fluid dynamic which underscores their complicity. By almost entirely concealing the soldier’s face, however, the artist further allows us as viewers to identify as this very figure. Not one but two of the thieves look out directly at us, drawing us into the action, particularly by the knowing gesture of the man on the far right who taps his nose with his finger. This figure reappears in several other works executed roughly at the same time as the present work: as the servant in the Return of the Prodigal Son, in the Museo della Venerabile Arciconfraternità della Misericordia, in Florence;1 as the bystander at the far right in the Denial of Saint Peter, in the Fondazione di Studi dell’Arte Roberto Longhi, in Florence;2 as the figure pouring wine in the Fortune-Teller with Soldiers, in the Toledo Museum of Art.3 The youth playing a lute recurs as the soldier at the far left of the Christ and the Adulteress, in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles.4 The inclusion of the chicken, or pollo in Italian, introduces a note of humor and word play, for in Italian pollo also means a dupe.
While the work itself was only rediscovered in 1985, the composition was already known through two copies, one in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, and a more modest copy in a private collection formerly on the London art market. Since the Copenhagen copy has a pendant, which in turn is a copy after Valentin’s Musicians and Soldiers from 1625-27, in the Musées des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg, scholars including Benedict Nicolson assumed that the present work and the Strasbourg painting must have also been pendants.5 As the recent exhibition in New York made quite explicit, however, the two works date from different decades in the artist’s career, and so cannot be considered true pendants. As the exhibition catalogue reasonably suggests, they were likely at one point owned by the same collector who commissioned the copies. The aforementioned other copy in a private collection is also paired with a copy after the Strasbourg Musicians and Soldiers, lending further credence to the idea that the two prototypes must have once hung in the same collection.
1. Valentin de Boulogne, beyond Caravaggio, pp. 114-15, cat. no. 13, reproduced.
2. Ibid., pp. 117-19, cat. no. 14, reproduced.
3. Ibid., pp. 120-22, cat. no. 15, reproduced.
4. Ibid., pp. 122-25, cat. no. 16, reproduced.
5. Ibid., pp. 166-68, cat. no. 32, reproduced.
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