This unpublished picture is a version of what was to judge from the number of extant copies one of the most successful early works of Caravaggio. The composition was profoundly innovative, and marks the first phase of the artistic revolution of which the artist was at once the initiator and the defining exponent. The boy is shown concentrating as he peels a green Seville or Bergamot orange, selected evidently from the white peaches, nectarines and cherries before him.
The son of a minor courtier, Fermo Merisi, who was in the service of Francesco Sforza, Marchese di Caravaggio, Caravaggio became in 1584 an apprentice to Simone Peterzano, himself the heir to a strongly realistic Lombard tradition who could be inventive in his use of nocturnal light. Caravaggio reached Rome in 1592, working apparently first for a priest, Monsignor Pandolfo Pucci. In 1593, he settled in the establishment of the painter most admired by the recently elected Pope Clement VIII, Giuseppe Cesari, il Cavaliere d’Arpino and his brother, Bernardino Cesari. Perhaps a couple of years later he joined the household of the influential Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549-1626), and was still there in November 1600. The cardinal’s patronage had a decisive influence on the artist’s career and led to a series of major Roman commissions. It is clear that the artist’s meteoric rise owed much to the impact of his early genre pieces, like A Boy peeling fruit, which is generally dated about 1592- 3 and widely considered to be the first of Caravaggio’s compositions of the kind.
What is almost certainly the prototype of this composition is the imperfectly preserved canvas in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court (see, most recently, L. Whitaker in the exhibition catalogue, The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection, Renaissance & Baroque, London, 2007, pp. 262-4, no. 91). While other versions have been accepted as autograph by some art historians, none has found general acceptance. In such details as the fruit this would appear to be the picture that comes closest to that at Hampton Court, and, like the Hampton Court picture but unlike some of the other versions that have surfaced and been compared with this, it is on a relatively rough canvas.
The Hampton Court picture, which is first recorded in the Royal Collection in 1688, may well be the artist’s earliest surviving picture. Caravaggio’s first biographer, Giulio Mancini in his Considerazioni sulla pittura of 1617-21 mentions a picture of ‘un putto che mondava una pera con il coltello’ (‘a boy peeling a pear with a knife’), stating that it had been painted for sale. In one of the manuscripts of Mancini’s work the fruit is described as an apple, and an unattributed picture of the subject in which the fruit is identified as an apple (‘un putto in tavola con un pomo in mano’) was seized from the Arpino workshop in 1607 and presented by Pope Paul V to his grasping collector of a nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. What was evidently a different picture given presumably reliably to Caravaggio—in which the fruit was stated to be a peach—in the rather distinguished collection of the Perugian lawyer and historian, Cesare Crispolti (1563-1608) who had recently died, is mentioned in a letter of 1608 to the Cardinal from Lorenzo Sarego, the papal Governor of Perugia. It is thus likely that there were two pictures of the composition in 1608, Caravaggio’s original and a replica, perhaps painted or at least authorised by him.
The number of versions of the subject testifies both to the success of the composition and to a fashion for his work among early collectors, although it should be emphasised that some of the pictures in question may well not be strictly contemporary with the artist. There is no explicit evidence that Caravaggio himself painted more than one picture of the type, although it is believed by some that he supplied multiple versions of certain other compositions, most relevantly the early Boy bitten by a Lizard, represented by the autograph canvas in the National Gallery, London and by the picture in the Fondazione Longhi, Florence, which some have found less convincing in quality. The extent to which Caravaggio’s work may have been copied by other artists in the Arpino workshop, by independent painters or by artists working in direct association with him, is unclear, but in the case of the picture under discussion the calibre of the fruit and of the better preserved passages of the flesh and the white shirt suggest an intimate familiarity with the artist himself.
Other versions have been considered in the literature on the artist. In the recent monograph by R. Vodret (Caravaggio, L’ opera completa, Milan, 2009, p. 68, fig. 46), that in a Roman collection is illustrated as the best extant version of a lost prototype. This had previously been published by M. Marini (Caravaggio, Rome, 1987, no. 4) as the original and by H. Hibbard (Caravaggio, London, 1983, p. 16, fig.3) as a copy: it was exhibited at Düsseldorf, Caravaggio, 2006-7, no. 28 (entry by F. Gasparrini). The canvas first recorded in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds and offered at Christie’s, New York, 23 January 2015, lot 16 has been widely exhibited and published: this has been accepted as a work by Caravaggio himself by, among many others, Luigi Salerno and Mina Gregori, and was regarded as the best known version by B.L. Brown, but was regarded as a copy by others, including most recently John Spike. A picture formerly with Dickinson, London, is published by Whitaker (op. cit., p. 262, fig. 115) as attributed to Caravaggio and was exhibited as by Caravaggio at Düsseldorf, Caravaggio, 2006-7, no. 27.