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The Kimbell’s New Michelangelo

medium-temptation

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The image is of St. Anthony being tormented by eight flying demons. The painting is on a wooden panel, 18 inches tall. And some scholars are now convinced that Michelangelo Buonarotti completed it in 1487-88 — when he was 12 or 13 years old.

Eric McCauley Lee is the new director of the Kimbell:

LEE:“The rarity of this work is extraordinary. It’s absolutely unbelievable to me that the Kimbell has been able to acquire a painting by Michelangelo.”

It’s rare because it’s only one of four easel paintings the artist made, and now the only one in an American museum. Normally, when he painted, Michelangelo painted frescoes like those in the Sistine Chapel.

Historians have known that when he was young, the Italian Renaissance master painted a St. Anthony — they’ve known it ever since 1550, when critic and art historian Giorgio Vasari reported it in his famous book, Lives of the Artists. Michelangelo’s biographer and former student, Ascanio Condivi, also wrote about it. As recently as the 1960s, Everett Fahy, a noted expert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, believed the panel was authentic.

But since the 19th century, scholars had come to discount it. Some haven’t even mentioned it in their works on Michelangelo. For much of the 20th century, it was owned by a British collector and remained unseen by the public.

LEE: “As with so many works of art, it was so discolored by overpaint and dirt and darkened varnish that it became unrecognizable as a Michelangelo.”

The painting is based on an engraving by Martin Schongauer. Young artists often copy master works as a student exercise. But in 1487, Michelangelo chose not an Italian artist but a German one, and he chose to paint his version, so he could outdo Schongauer’s black and white image. According to Condivi’s account, Michelangelo even visited a fish market so he could copy the fish scales correctly that he wanted to add to a demon. According to Vasari, the painting (and his youth) won Michelangelo a lot of attention.

The painting is not without its doubters. It has most often been attributed to the “workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio,” where Michelangelo later apprenticed. And that’s how it was listed at an auction last July, when New York art dealer Adam Williams bought the panel for $2 million. He turned it over to the Met for cleaning and tests, including digital infrared reflectography (which is useful for revealing the “under drawings” of paintings). These treatments revealed not a copy but a work, dated to the late 15th century, done by an artist clearly experimenting with different painting techniques and changing Schongauer’s original as he went – pretty much just as Vasari and Condivi wrote.

The Kimbell bought The Torment of St. Anthony from Williams but would not reveal the price. The New York Times is saying that experts peg it at more than $6 million. Gaile Robinson in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram puts the figure much higher. The painting will be on display at the Met beginning in June. And this fall, the Michelangelo will come to the Kimbell in Fort Worth.

[A note on the title: Like many works in this tradition, the Schongauer engraving is often called “The Temptation of St. Anthony.” But St. Anthony the Egyptian, the founder of Christian monasticism, was a third-century hermit whose temptations were many — including laziness and various phantom women. But here, he’s literally bedeviled, which, according to the account by Athanasius of Alexandria, is what Satan resorted to only when the temptations failed to do the job.

The confusion seems to have evolved over the years because famous treatments of the theme, like the ones by Hieronymous Bosch and Jan Brueghel, conflate Anthony’s entire life into one image or triptych with demons, women, animals, etc. Such works would more properly be called The Temptations of St. Anthony.

Hence, the Kimbell’s wish to distinguish its Michelangelo painting with the the more specific title, The Torment of St. Anthony. Presumably, the “torture” of St. Anthony would be deemed too topical or political.]

  • Jennifer

    How very exciting! I can’t wait to see this work at the Kimball. And I’d love to know more of the behind-the-scenes stories about how the Kimball acquired it…

  • Carlo

    Wow!

  • ROLF

    It would be interesting to read how scholars manage to narrow down a painting’s year when it was completed centuries ago. How do they become “convinced” that it was painted while Buonarotti was a pre-teen?

    • http://www.artandseek.org Jerome Weeks

      The scientific tests did not “narrow it down” to a specific year; that’s not what the article says. It says the tests determined it was a “late 15th century painting.” Sorry if that wasn’t clear. That, apparently, is as close as they can get.

      What narrows it to 1487-88 is our knowledge of Michelangelo’s biography — this was before he joined Ghirlandaio’s workshop and this was when we know he painted such a work.

      The experts were convinced by a number of combined factors. First, there was the scientific dating, which means it can’t be a more recent fabrication. Second, there’s the detail from Condivi’s account about Michelangelo adding the fish scales — which you can see very clearly in the top left demon. They’re not in the Schongauer original. Third, the painting techniques are mixed. That is, they’re not consistent — not like a forger making a copy and trying to convince everyone it’s by a master, nor like a more experienced painter, sure of what he’s doing. More like a young artist trying things out. Fourth, the color palette does resemble what Michelangelo used later with his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, with its earth tones, greens, browns and reds backed by a blue-grey. Fifth, the pentimenti, the underdrawings, show how Michelangelo changed things. We know that Michelangelo didn’t copy the Schongauer precisely (the painting is actually notably larger than the engraving), but we didn’t really know what those changes might be. The most significant addition is the landscape beneath St. Anthony and the demons, which resembles Italian Renaissance scenery.

      That’s what I know now about what went into the attribution. No doubt, there will be more details to come.

  • http://musea.us Tom Hendricks

    The best little museum in the world has done it again. Well done Kimbell, and what a fine early work for any painter let alone one so celebrated.

  • D. B. Wilson

    The Kimbell Art Museum scored a real coup of fine art collecting with the purchase. The Kimbell could score a second coup, probably for a fraction of the cost of the Michelangelo, if they could purchase the engraving by Martin Schongauer. By doing so, the engraving could be displayed side-by-side with “The Torment of St. Anthony,” and visitors to the permanent collection would be able to compare and contrast the inspiration of Michelangelo’s painting with Michalangelo’s actual painting. This would be an execellent example of how the genius of Michelangelo was developing in his youth.

    • http://www.artandseek.org Jerome Weeks

      Actually, it would be the easiest thing to get a copy of the Schongauer for display/comparison purposes. I mean, anyone can buy a poster copy at Art.com.

      To get an original copy is another matter. It’s a copperplate engraving, and there are seven plates still in existence. Whether they’re even up for sale is one issue, another is the current quality of the plate.

      One copy, ironically enough, is at the Met in New York. So the Met may very well have the same idea you did: Display them both.

  • Marty

    Do you know when the painting will be on display at the Kimbell? We would like to make a trip from OK to see it.

    Congratulations to the Kimbell and its new young director upon this acquisition.

    • http://www.artandseek.org Jerome Weeks

      The Michelangelo will be on display at the Met through the early part of September. Mr. Lee told me in our interview that he expects the painting will be at the Kimbell beginning in late September. That’s the best I can offer now, and it’s obviously not definite.

  • http://Yahoo Crystal

    Well the story is good but the guy needs too read a little faster for i could understand a little bit because i like when it read fast so yea thanks