‘Valentin de Boulogne,’ Bright Star in Caravaggio’s Orbit
“The Concert With Eight Figures” (circa 1629-30), in “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit Musée du Louvre, Paris
A canon is not a static list of dead white men. It’s an assertion of who from the past can speak to the present, and its shape is always up for negotiation.“Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” a big Baroque blast of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the first exhibition anywhere devoted to a French painter whose theatrically lit tableaus of musicians, cardsharps and saints now stand in slight obscurity. It is also, quite explicitly, an application for canon membership, a full-throated bid to place Valentin (1591-1632) alongside Jusepe de Ribera and Georges de La Tour as a pioneer of the early 17th century.
Valentin de Boulogne’s “Martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinian” (1629-30). Credit Vatican Museums, Vatican City
With 45 of his 60 extant works, including a whopper of an altarpiece from the Vatican and every single one of his works in the Louvre’s holdings, you have the evidence before you, and you may, especially if Baroque drama is not your thing, find him a mere follower of an earlier genius. Or, like me, you may be overcome by Valentin, and find in his dark vision truths about our own lives, our pleasures and our shortcomings. A Valentin show has been a longtime dream of Keith Christiansen, who leads the Met’s European paintings department and who has organized this exhibition with the French art historian Annick Lemoine. Its subtitle, “Beyond Caravaggio,” may be a marketer’s necessity to win attention for a less famous artist, though it sets the exhibition’s stakes. There is nothing by Caravaggio in this exhibition, but his influence and example permeate the Frenchman’s art, and you’ll need to know something about him and his devotees to fully adjudge Valentin’s invention. (Next week, the National Gallery in London is opening its own show, “Beyond Caravaggio,” which places Valentin among a trans-European tradition of Baroque naturalism.)
“Cardsharps” (circa 1614-15), a genre scene painted by Valentin in Rome. Credit Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
Caravaggio was the leading painter in Rome at the turn of the 17th century. His two grand paintings of St. Matthew, done in 1600 for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, shocked an older generation but made younger artists swoon. When he bailed town in 1606 — he went on the run after murdering a pimp — he left behind a generation of young painters who emulated his tight cropping, bold light and taste for flesh. Three paintings by other Caravaggisti, as his followers were called, open this show, and the best is a scene by Bartolomeo Manfredi (circa 1582-1622), in which Christ wields a cat-o’-nine-tails on slack-mouthed merchants. Continue reading the main storyValentin spent his whole career in Rome. He got there from France no later than 1614, and his early paintings display a Caravaggesque taste for low life in the holy city. Soldiers play dice, cheat at cards. Young men play music while getting drunk and eyeing up Gypsies. A young military man offers his palm to a fortune teller while robbers ply him with wine. The figures’ buttery flesh and midaction positioning make these genre scenes uncannily lifelike, and Valentin’s religious pictures, too, relinquish sacred precision for the realities of the flesh. In “Christ and the Adulteress” (circa 1618-22), Pharisees in contemporary armor look every which way as the accused woman’s bodice droops down, and Jesus kneels in the dirt. A painting of John the Baptist, half-naked beneath a flowing red mantle, is probably a self-portrait of Valentin: young, mustachioed, beautiful and on the make.
Valentin’s “Judith and Holofernes” (circa 1626) tells a biblical story. Credit National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta, Malta
Like Caravaggio, Valentin lived fast and died young, succumbing at 41 to fever after a night of binge drinking that ended in a fountain. He belonged to a hell-raising confraternity of artists known as the Bentvueghels — “birds of a feather” in Dutch — whose motto celebrated the pleasures of “Bacco, tabacco e Venere”: drinking, smoking and sex. Like Caravaggio, too, he refused to make preparatory drawings, relying instead on the innovative practice of painting from live models. You’ll see favorites recur as you work through this show. A man cast as a pensive Joseph in a 1624-26 painting re-emerges later in a grand allegory, sporting a longer beard and a rug of chest hair. The difference from his paragon, especially in the paintings after 1620, is in the darkness. For Caravaggio, chiaroscuro — the contrast of light and dark — was principally a painterly conceit, a means of bringing drama to altarpieces like “The Calling of St. Matthew” (1599-1600) or “Seven Acts of Mercy” (1607). The darkness in Valentin’s mature painting, by moving contrast, is pervaded with a melancholy absent in Caravaggio, a haze of lost love and the certainty of death. At the Met, a single, heart-stopping gallery contains six large paintings with musical motifs, and in all of them the parties ache with a worldly regret. Sitting at tables or castoff blocks of Roman marble, soldiers stare into space as musicians strum lutes or beat tambourines. Two paintings featured depressive violists who look down as they aimlessly bow their instruments. Valentin’s nights out in Rome may have been dissolute, but the nights he painted are suffused with pain.
Valentin’s “Judith With the Head of Holofernes” (circa 1626-27). Credit Musée des Augustins, Toulouse
Rome in the early 17th century was no honeymoon destination. It was a fetid, debauched, wildly unequal metropolis where starving artists hustled for commissions — Valentin got one of his largest from a diamond thief who used art to launder money — and where painterly disputes were settled with rapiers. In this show’s catalog, the art historian Patrizia Cavazzini provides a bulging register of artists brawling in taverns, and even, after Caravaggio’s example, indulging in a little light murder. Valentin’s own roommate, a sculptor, was stabbed to death in 1626. This was not a place suited to the lofty perfection of the High Renaissance, nor even to the moralizing of contemporary Dutch genre painting. Death was everywhere, and that put life on canvas into a more plangent key. Toward the end of his short life Valentin got his most important commission, for an altar of the recently completed St. Peter’s Basilica. He painted a barnstorming composition of the martyrdom of the saints Processus and Martinian, whose nude bodies, splayed on the rack, bisect a deluge of torturers, mourners and angels. Its vertical collision of saints and seraphim strongly echoes Caravaggio’s “Seven Acts of Mercy,” and here, too, the high drama of holy suffering is tinged with the violence of the Roman street. At the time, Valentin’s altarpiece was contrasted unfavorably with one by Poussin, another Frenchman in Rome, whose cleaner finishes and bows to antiquity had come into fashion. The rest is canon formation: Valentin became a mere follower, when he was so much more. The altarpiece is a wildly accomplished work of art, but to modern eyes the most immediate pictures in this momentous exhibition are those melancholy musical paintings, and one in particular. An allegory of the four ages of man, painted around 1628, depicts in a diamond arrangement a boy with a bird cage, a youth with a lute, a grown man with a book, and an elder with a drink. They’re all downcast, reflective, awash in sad thoughts. The man with the book seems skeptical of learning, the boy fiddling with the cage wonders about the meaning of freedom. The mustachioed lutenist plays despite his sorrows, and he looks a lot like John the Baptist in the earlier painting: a lot, that is, like Valentin himself. This world is vanity, but he plays all the same.
“Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio” opens Friday and runs through Jan. 16 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; metmuseum.org.