On ViewThe Metropolitan Museum Of Art
October 7 – January 16, 2017
Black first became stylish in western art in Rome in the beginning of the 17th century through the paintings of an artist from near Milan, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He employed tenebrism in his challenging pictures, heightening drama and amplifying expressiveness through spotlit figures with realistic faces emerging from dark backgrounds. The Caravaggio look rippled throughout Catholic Europe, and continues in artistic circles to this day—this emotional tenebrism permeates Paolo Sorrentino’s films, Cindy Sherman’s photographs, Carrie Mae Weems’s art, Ivo van Hove’s plays, and Bill Viola’s videos. But the content is where true affinities to the present lie.
The Met Museum’s comprehensive exhibition of French-born Valentin de Boulogne (1591 – 1632) opens with three pictures by important progenitors of Caravaggism: Cecco del Caravaggio, Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Jusepe de Ribera. Valentin adopted the style in Rome from Carravaggio’s pictures and contact with such artists who knew him. His early works in the subsequent gallery feature seedy, moralizing scenes of tavern gambling, fortune telling and music making, tortured saints, and one grippingly accusatory image of David with the Head of Goliath (ca. 1615 – 16), which is nicely displayed with period rapiers from the museum’s arms collection.
For Met curator Keith Christiansen, who co-organized this convincingly argued show together with Annick Lemoine, the critical innovation was painting dal naturale, directly from posed models onto the canvas without preparatory sketches or canvas underdrawing. The oils are remarkably naturalistic, with figures freed from the artifice of Renaissance idealization, and convey a radical authenticity commensurate to that of Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti using non-actors in their velvety black-and-white postwar neorealist films. This, in combination with using contemporary clothing and props in scenes of saints or Old Testament heroes, produced a brazen immediacy very much on show in Valentin’s art—his characters come fully alive through their expressive faces, animated hands, engaged postures, and, especially, wonderfully realized eyes.
Subsequent beautifully installed and deeply colored rooms display large subject pictures painted for important Roman families and their palazzos—familiar tales enhanced by the artist’s dramatic intensity of vision. The fifth gallery is devoted to concert pictures from the last decade of his life, with increasingly complicated compositions and numerous figures, helpfully shown adjacent to eight period instruments in cases. Valentin did not repeat himself often, but he produced variations for an avid and growing art market. The pictures are individually entrancing and deftly painted, with convincingly mimetic details and depictions of children unparalleled in their sensitivity, but there is a tinge of monotony in his oeuvre.
This is dispelled in the final room, which shows the artist peaking in the final years of his truncated life. The grand Allegory of Italy (1628 – 29) and astounding Martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinian (1629 – 30) reveal a painter no longer content with genre and historical portraiture, but who instead took advantage of important commissions, challenging himself, and in the process developing a new art. As Christiansen notes in the excellent catalogue, “He has aspired to—and achieved—a Caravaggesque interpretation of classicism, and in this lies his legacy for French painting.” The rising heraldic drama of the Allegory of Italy forms a kind of missing link between classical statues of Athena Promachos or Roma and the Napoleonic triumphalism of Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The Martyrdom, painted for an important transept altar in St. Peter’s Basilica, comprehensively delivers, with its intertwined horizontal, vertical, and diagonal axes formed by two martyrs on the rack, the torquing torturer standing at right, and the lurching angel above who comes to bestow the martyr’s palm. There are at least thirteen figures and a statue of Jupiter painted into this tall but narrow composition, and every one presses out of the composition to confront the viewer. It completely eclipses any other altarpiece of the period. Here, at last, is a Valentin suffused with Caravaggio’s feeling for deeper mysteries. But just two years later, in August of 1632, a heavily inebriated and sickly Valentin would dunk himself into an icy fountain seeking relief; this exacerbated his illness and he died, penniless, at
Caravaggio well fills the role of a great artist who spawns a movement. As with Michelangelo’s muscular religiosity, Vermeer’s quietly awesome interiors, Millais’s glittering Pre-Raphaelite precision, Monet’s fragmented naturalism, or Picasso’s faceted figurative cubism, subsequent artists tried to match his radical achievements, but none measured up. Along with Jusepe de Ribera, Valentin is the best of the hardcore Caravaggisti, with a gift for draftsmanship sometimes lacking in rival acolytes. But what is missing is that feeling of sheer astonishment that comes with turning a corner and seeing an unfamiliar and unforgettable Caravaggio, or discovering the eye-popping chapel cycles in Santa Maria del Popolo or San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. These are experiences of art infrequently matched. Besides the late Allegory and Martyrdom, few Valentin works elicit such astonishment. He is too safe in his compositions, too somber in facial expressions, too balanced and planar in his designs. Yet, perhaps it is unfair to measure him by the productions of Caravaggio. His works are intensely poetic, beautifully painted, impeccably drawn (without drawing!), and few artists could more convincingly tell a story.
Yet Valentin’s art perfectly suited its moment: in the heady spirituality of Counter-Reformation Rome, a free-wheeling realm of religious dominance, outrageous wealth, oppressive poverty, disease, and lawlessness, Caravaggio assumed the role of rootless gunslinger in a frontier town. Valentin is the cautious foreigner, and his art, so black in tone and theme, so saturated in menace and violence whether divinely meted out or senselessly enacted, reveled in this Roman culture and reflected the predilections of its well-heeled patrons and low-born consumers. Our own populist taste for safely accessible gore, ranging from engagement in shooter video games to a passive delectation for morality tales and social disquisition (as in The Sopranos, Ray Donovan, Stranger Things, The Night Of, Luke Cage, The Hunger Games, or Westworld) are not so far removed from Valentin’s realist/historical/allegorical world of inky, nocturnal horror, of knife-wielding Abrahams, the tortured Savior, and butchered saints. Artistic preference, as it turns out, has not changed so very much from that of Baroque Rome and Valentin’s Caravaggist Catholic noir.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail.