In Focus: How a painting discovered in a rural French kitchen came to sell for £20 million

The discovery — and subsequent auction — of a painting by Cimabue hit the headlines recently, but who is this little-known Italian painter? And why was this painting deemed quite so important? Country Life's art expert Huon Mallalieu explains.

Although only 10 works are firmly attributed to him, Cenni di Pepo, or Cimabue, is regarded as the seminal artist of Western European painting. This is because he was among the first to move beyond the statuesque traditions of Byzantine icon painting, giving life and movement to his figures and even a modicum of true perspective to architectural elements.

He was born in Florence between 1240 and 1250, and died in Pisa in 1302; traditionally, he was said to have discovered and trained Giotto and to have influenced Duccio. Probably his best-known work is the painted Crucifixion in S Croce, Florence.

Both the names by which he is known are, in fact, nicknames, as Cenni di Pepo is a shortening of Bencivieni (Benvenuto in modern Italian) di Giuseppe, and Cimabue means ‘bull-headed’, for his pride and bluntness. He was highly revered by contemporaries until fashion left him behind. As Dante put it: ‘In painting Cimabue thought he held the field, But now it’s Giotto has the cry, so that the other’s fame is dimmed.’

The latest Old Master discovery in France has added another panel to Cimabue’s oeuvre and made it the eighth most expensive Old Master sold at auction — although some might rather describe the number one on that list, the controversial Salvator Mundi, as ‘Old Masterish’.

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The 9½in by 7¾in panel, The Mocking of Christ , was found during a valuation in a house near Compiègne by staff from the auction consortium Actéon, headed by Dominique Le Coënt. The owners thought that it was a comparatively inconsequential gold-ground icon, but, once the Old Master expert Eric Turquin had been brought in, it was established beyond doubt that it was one of eight scenes that had been painted on two panels as a diptych by Cimabue in about 1280.

At some point in the 19th century, the scenes were sawn apart, presumably by a dealer who could sell eight more profitably than one. Certainty is possible because two others survive — an enthroned Madonna and Child in the National Gallery and a Flagellation in the Frick Collection. The Madonna must have been above The Mocking, as a woodworm trail runs down from the back of one to the other.

The back of Cimabue's 'Le Christ moqué' shows woodworm which helped confirm its provenance.

The back of Cimabue’s ‘Le Christ moqué’ shows woodworm which helped confirm its provenance.

Interestingly, the Frick acquired its scene only in 1950 and the National Gallery received the Madonna in 2000, in lieu of death duties, so it is quite possible that some or all of the remaining five may yet turn up.

Monsieur Turquin will certainly be on the look-out. It was he who was responsible for the sale of the similarly discovered Caravaggio Judith Beheading Holofernes earlier this year. It is well worth keeping an eye out, as, last month, Actéon sold The Mocking of Christ for €24,180,000 — equivalent to £20,837,115 — to an anonymous buyer in northern France.

We’d hazard a guess that, this time round, it won’t be hanging in the kitchen…

In Focus: The wartime masterpieces of Alfred Munnings

Huon Mallalieu welcomes the opportunity to see a significant body of wartime paintings alongside other works by Munnings in his