A rather depressing article appeared recently in the New York Times concerning a steep and sudden decline in the market for old master paintings. “At a time when contemporary art is all the rage among collectors, viewers, and donors,” Robin Pogrebin wrote, “many experts are questioning whether old master artwork—once the most coveted—can stay relevant at auction houses, galleries, and museums.” There can be a no more thunderous rebuttal to the notion that old masters are irrelevant than the new exhibition of Valentin de Boulogne at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It may be that the curators, Keith Christiansen and Annick Lemoine, are fighting a rear-guard action and have not yet gotten the news. But I suspect they would not care in any case, and neither should you.
The second most spectacular fact about this new, full-dress retrospective is that most American viewers, and perhaps most French viewers as well, will never have heard of the painter in question. That the Met and the Louvre (to which the show will move in February) should have allocated so much curatorial talent and so much real estate and treasure to mount this tribute to a largely unknown artist, dead these four hundred years, represents an almost defiant assertion of institutional integrity, as well as cultural seriousness.
But the most spectacular fact about the exhibition is that Valentin de Boulogne fully merits this treatment. There is a privileged group of old masters, from different lands and different ages, who, it seems to me, share a curious virtue: though almost entirely unknown to the general mass of museumgoers, they are, wherever they appear, quite clearly the best painters in the room. Among these rare artists I would include Jacopo Bassano, Bernardo Strozzi, Michiel Sweerts, and Valentin de Boulogne. In seventeenth-century Rome, a place teeming with great artists, Valentin was easily the equal of any of them.
The most obvious thing about Valentin is that he was a follower of Caravaggio. With his darkened backgrounds and his painting dal naturale, he is so clearly a disciple of the master that, to superficial inspection, there would seem to be little left to say: Valentin expertly imitated Caravaggio’s style, themes, and compositional formulae. But a closer reading reveals that Valentin was entirely his own man and an artist of rare power and penetration. Despite obvious similarities between them, Valentin could not have painted Caravaggio’s works and Caravaggio could not have painted his. To elaborate on that fact, as I shall try to do, would go far in explaining the qualities of both men.
Valentin was born in 1591 in the northern French town of Coulommiers, where both his father and his uncle were painters. Little is known about his artistic formation before he arrived in Rome, where he is documented possibly as early as 1609, according to the catalogue. By this point, Caravaggio, whom he never met and who died one year later, had gone south, never to return. In due course, Valentin’s paintings would hang in the loftiest collections in Rome, those of the Barberini and the Mattei, among others: but early in his career, he, like the young Caravaggio and so many other aspiring artists, was compelled to churn out genre scenes for the Roman market. He associated with a group of mostly Dutch, Flemish, and French artists known as the Bentveughels, or Birds of a Feather. A boisterous bohemian confraternity famous for overindulgence of every sort, it was seen as a rebellious retort to the prestigious and established Accademia di San Luca, which Valentin would join only much later. But in his personal comportment, Valentin seems never to have lost that bohemian marginality: it was after a bout of debauchery, according to his biographer Giovanni Baglione, that Valentin, burning with fever one night in August 1632, threw himself into the gelid waters of the Fontana del Babuino, near his home in the Via Margutta. This only exacerbated his condition and within a few days he was dead.
As explained in the exhibition’s unusually illuminating catalogue, Valentin’s earliest surviving works, dating to 1613 or soon thereafter, reveal the influence of Caravaggio as filtered through such followers as Bartolomeo Manfredi, Cecco del Caravaggio, and Jusepe de Ribera. Especially from the last of them, Valentin acquired, in depictions of John the Baptist (possibly also a selfportrait) and the martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, his understanding of the human form. He shares with Ribera and with fellow northerners a certain discomfort with the human body, something that is rarely if ever evident in the painters of Italy. In contrast to the open carnality of Caravaggio, Valentin’s figures are not so much nude as naked: they seem to have just taken off their clothes and now stand exposed to the elements and to the unwelcome gaze of the world. Valentin includes these bodies because such were the ineluctable dictates of the culture in which he chose to live. Consider, for example, the personification of the Tiber in his late masterpiece, The Allegory of Italy (Fig. 4). From the figure’s veiny hands to his knotted brow and shaggy chest, this older man is a tour de force of naturalism. But an inextinguishable sense of physical awkwardness remains, even extending to the two putti at his side.
An essential part of Caravaggio’s aesthetic revolution was painting dal naturale, from live models as opposed to those abstract notions of human form evident in the works of earlier painters like Raphael and such contemporaries as Annibale Carracci. The effect of this revolution was to tear away those mediating veils, to dispel those lovely mists, that had stood between the viewer and reality in all earlier art. And yet, as T. S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, “Human kind / Cannot stand very much reality.” And so, in the work of Valentin, a certain mythological fog begins to reassert itself, even though it in no way diminishes the unflinching intensity of his observation.
If there is an instantaneity to the art of Caravaggio, an insistent hereness and nowness to his martyrdoms of Saint Matthew and Saint Peter, in the works of Valentin a dreamlike barrier arises between the viewer and the art. His Judgment of Solomon (Fig. 5) feels as ancient as the Old Testament and his Martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinian (Fig. 3) seems as near and as far away as a dream. In this subtle estrangement from reality one senses the languor of northern lands, those darkened regions of mist and rain, so different from the heat and openness of the South.
That difference in tone had important formal consequences. Caravaggio’s realism, his insistence on painting dal naturale, often ran into difficulties when he tried to arrange his figures within such complex compositions as his Seven Works of Mercy, a late painting. But the mythological tint that Valentin imparts to his art enables him to invent compositions that have all the simplicity and hieratic abstraction of fables. These qualities are magnificently deployed in the majestic symmetry of The Allegory of Italy, in the wavelike energy that spills across Christ Driving the Money Changers Out of the Temple (Fig. 7), and in the shallow, staged theatricality of his Judgment of Solomon.
As regards that theatricality, it is interesting that Valentin’s active years were stretched over two decades, from around the time when Shakespeare was writing his final masterpieces, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest, to the creation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s great early play, La Vida Es Sueño (Life is a Dream). And like those moody works, the art of Valentin de Boulogne is “rounded with a sleep.” This dreamlike quality is at once the defining element of Valentin’s art and one of the most beautiful developments in the culture of the early seventeenth century.
Valetin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 16, 2017.