MASTER of the Hartford Still-life
(active c. 1600 in Rome)
Flowers, Fruit, Vegetables and Two Lizardsbefore 1607
Oil on canvas, 105 x 184 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome
On a broad shelf, whose colour is almost indistinguishable from that of the back wall of a room lit from a light source in the top left-hand corner, a display of objects is elegantly laid out: a majolica vase of flowers, a basket of fruit, some fruit and vegetables scattered about and two lizards, one of them green. This painting is the pendant to another (Galleria Borghese, Rome) whose subject is a multi-level display of dead birds. The two were listed in the 1607 inventory of the works sequestered from Cavaliere d'Arpino's studio. At one time it was suggested that these two paintings as well as A Table Laden with Flowers and Fruit marked Caravaggio's début in the field of still-life painting. Few scholars maintain this theory today, but more recent proposals attributing the Borghese paintings to Tommaso Salini, Francesco Zucchi or Frans Snyders have not fared any better.
Doubt has rightly been cast on the homogeneity of the Master of the Hartford Still-life group, and the resulting confusion has prevented agreement on the dating of the paintings. When they were attributed to Caravaggio it was assumed that they were painted about 1593, soon after the artist's arrival in Rome. The likelihood that the Borghese pendants are by another painter, albeit one close to Cavaliere d'Arpino, from whose studio they definitely come, makes it possible to hypothesise a date any time before the fateful year 1607. The execution of the individual elements, such as the onion, Savoy cabbage, cardoon, apple and pear, demonstrates the artist's direct observation of nature, but the episodic spatial arrangement of the painting makes it almost impossible to imagine that it could have been painted by Caravaggio, who at this same date was painting Boy with a Basket of Fruit. The imaginary ambience, which embraces the subjects in Caravaggio's early works, is here a mere background.
The impressive size of the two Borghese canvases suggests that they may have been painted for a particular client with a specific location in mind.