Sunday, January 22, 2017

Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) is not a name that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  Why? Possibly because your art history course in school was all about the Italian Renaissance and not what was going on North of the Alps in France.  Valentin was French and thought of as an interloper in Italy and his career was cut short by a fatal bout of influenza at age 42.

“Valentin de Boulogne” Beyond Caravaggio” which I just saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest ever, monographic exhibition devoted to the artist’s work.  It shows 45 of Valentin’s 60 extant works.   The show was curated by Keith Christiansen, the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at The Met, and Annick Lemoine, author of an authoritative book on Valentin’s contemporary Nicholas R├ęgnier.  It was co-organized by the Met and the Louvre which lent all of it’s extensive collection of paintings by the artist.

The point of the exhibition is to show, of course, the importance of this little known artist in his aspiration to take the chiaroscuro masterpieces of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) one step further.  He wanted to add a psychological depth and dimension to those dramatic images.  He would leave out the boarders in order to bring the viewer into his paintings, making them bear witness to what is going on.  While Caravaggio was first to dramatize with chiaroscuro technique Valentin used shadow more subtly to show the psychologies of his characters.  The artist is compared so often with Caravaggio and his influence that it makes you want to see a Caravaggio to make your own comparisons but alas none are included in this exhibition. 

By the time Valentin arrived in Rome, Caravaggio had already fled leaving behind a challenge to any would-be successors, but if Valentin was anything, he was extremely ambitious.  Caravaggio had introduced the very radical view that an artist should work directly from the model and not bother with the difficult and time-consuming process of composing sketches and making detailed studies and a finished compositional cartoon before getting on with it.  In this way he broke away from the heretofore great masters, Raphael and Michelangelo.  In other words he thought that to convey reality you had to work from life!  Valentin wanted his compositions to be set up in a more life like manner.  He often worked with the same models probably because as they got to know each other better the artist learned how to shape them to his best advantage.

For the scholar this exhibition was a major event saving thousands of miles in travel just to be able to see such a major percentage of an artist’s work.  One could watch the development of the artist’s style from Caravaggio imitations to mature works where he brings the feeling of a living human being who can show emotion.

“The Cardsharps” 1614-15, from the Old Master Paintings Gallery in Dresden is a rather early work of Valentin and I think you can see even in reproduction that it does not have the verve of the  Caravaggio, in the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth.


From his later work I chose the “Crowning with Thorns” 1627-28 from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Valentin takes a theme he worked on before but, in this case, the torturers seem to have a realization of what they are doing, or, as the label puts it, they have “gained a sense of psychological complexity”.

There are two paintings that I particularly liked, both were set in the walls in Versailles and were shown here just cleaned and without frames, making them especially vibrant.  They are of St. Matthew and St. Mark.  Here is an image of the St. Mark.

Valentin though lost for a long time was extremely popular in his own time.  His biggest client probably was Francesco Barberini (nephew of Pope Urban VIII) and many of his works were kept in the Barberini family for generations making them less accessible to the public.  Other major clients were Cardinal Mazarin and even Louis XIV himself.

My wife Penelope Hunter-Stiebel did an exhibition some years ago, “The triumph of French painting: 17th century masterpieces from the museums of FRAME” for the Portland Art Museum.  In the show she had a painting by Valentin she particularly admired of Judith with the head of Holofernes from Toulouse so I said I would share it with my readers.  In my search, however, I found another picture of Judith that I could not resist, this one is from the National Museum of Art, Valetta, Malta dating 1627-1629.  Here the emotions of all are brought to the foreand what cool customer Judith turns out to be!

By the time you read this the exhibition will have closed at the Metropolitan but it will be on view at the Louvre February 22 to May 22, 2017. It will be quite a long time, if ever, that one will be able to see such a percentage of  this 17th century artist’s work together again. 

1 comment:

  1. Nice. I just now happen to be reading CARAVAGGIO by Helen Langdon. Missives From the Art World is a great blog - a contribution to & resource for art lovers.