Michelangelo's First Painting.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, New York
June 16-September 7, 2009
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was far from subtle in the mini-exhibition it held entitled Michelangelo's First Painting. Given the audacious pronouncement of the title, one might be at first underwhelmed by the exhibit s limited scope. However, whether or not it was intended to do so, the show makes evident some interesting problems about the limits of biography in the determination of authenticity.
The exhibition was composed of a scant three works and considerably more signage showing technical photos as well as details and portions of other works by the master. The centerpiece was the work for which the exhibition was named, the small tempera and oil on panel Torment of Saint Anthony (ca. 1487-88), which was hung alongside a facsimile of Martin Schongauer's Temptation of Saint Anthony engraving (original ca. 1470-75), and Daniele da Volterra s Portrait of Michelangelo (ca. 1545) from the museum s permanent collection. The Torment of Saint Anthony was purchased at a Sotheby s auction in July of 2008 by Adam Williams Fine Art of New York for 937,250 [pounds sterling] (nearly $1.6 million), and then, following its restoration at the Met s laboratories, re-sold to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, for an undisclosed sum. The purchase was announced in May of 2009 by the Kimbell s new director, Dr. Eric McCauley Lee.
The premise of the show hinges on the supposition that the painting on display is in fact the very same one that Michelangelo seems to have made in his youth. The biographical evidence for the existence of such a work is strong. The story is recounted with minor variations by Michelangelo s contemporaries, including Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari, who, while not always perfectly reliable, is more so for those artists whose lives intersected with his own--as did Michelangelo s. According to Condivi, when given a copy of Schongauer s engraving by Francesco Granacci, Michelangelo "copied it on a wooden panel; and, having been provided by Granacci with paints and brushes, he composed it in such a way and with such differentiations that it not only aroused wonder in anyone who saw it, but it also, as some would have it, aroused jealousy in Domenico [Ghirlandaio], the most esteemed painter of that time, as was to be quite obvious later in other ways. To make the work less remarkable, he used to say that it had come from his workshop, as if he had had some part in it." (1) Condivi goes on to tell how Michelangelo studied first-hand the appearance of fish at the market, in order to more accurately reproduce the eyes and scales of the monsters torturing the saint.
The problem, of course, is not in proving that Michelangelo painted such a panel in his youth--this sort of exercise of copying, for either practice or profit, is a recurring theme in Michelangelo s biography--but rather in proving that this picture is the same one discussed in those biographies. Presumably if Michelangelo copied from the Schongauer engraving in Ghirlandaio s possession, then other artists in the workshop did as well, and in fact, at least one other version occasionally attributed to Michelangelo also exists. Keeping this in mind, there are three distinct paths to simultaneously pursue such an investigation: technical evidence, provenance, and style. The exhibition as it was mounted was cursory on all fronts, and Keith Christiansen, the Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings at the Met, presented this as a methodology in and of itself, claiming, "Given what we know, the burden of proof that it is NOT the picture described by Condivi is with those who would deny it." (2) This puts the onus upon the educated viewer to critically consider the proposition put forth by the museum.
In regards to the technical evidence, on the basis of the show alone, nothing is conclusive. While the Metropolitan has stated that they've done sufficient testing on the work to prove its authenticity, those results were said to be forthcoming. Some morsels of evidence were provided in the exhibition wall signage, including x-rays and infrared reflectography, but both of those tools only serve to provide different views of the image which still require interpretation. What had not yet been openly discussed was the dating of the panel itself, though even if it proved conclusively to be from the late 15th century, this still does not rule out one of Michelangelo s contemporaries as the maker of the work.
The provenance has been discussed, even if it is far from conclusive. The sculptor Baron Henri-Joseph-Francois de Triqueti, who was also a painter and much in admiration of Michelangelo, is said to have acquired the work from the Galleria Scorzi in Pisa. (3) The official provenance of the work states that it was in Paris in Triqueti s possession as early as 1837, though the date has alternatively been given as 1841. (4) From Triqueti, it passed to his daughter, and then, after the work failed to sell following her death, it was given to Sir Paul Harvey some time before 1905. The most obvious issue is the location of the work from 1487 or 1488, when it was said to have been painted, until the early 19th century. Michelangelo did not keep the work in his possession as he did the Battle Relief or the Madonna of the Stairs, as neither Condivi nor Vasari, writing at the end of Michelangelo's life, seems to have observed the painting firsthand. While one could posit that Michelangelo passed the work off as a forgery of a Northern painting, thus explaining the uncharacteristic interest in landscape, Condivi's telling of the story suggests it was well-known in Florence, and Ghirlandaio's claim of partial credit for the work further suggests that it was known to have been an Italian production.
There are other works from Michelangelo's youth which have fallen through the cracks of history, such as a head of a faun, a sleeping cupid, a standing cupid, a Hercules, a wooden Crucifix, and an infant Saint John. All of these, based on their discussion in the early biographies, have been sought after, and occasionally "found." While the Santo Spirito Crucifix, discovered in 1962, has made some inroads into the canon, most of these attempts at locating the originals have enjoyed no longevity in the Michelangelo scholarship. The last two major finds, the so-called "Fifth Avenue Cupid" from the Cultural Services Building of the French Embassy in New York (now on loan to the Met) and the small wooden crucifix recently purchased by the Italian government for 3,250,000 [euro], have been less than universally accepted and are likely to go the way of a long tradition of discoveries that fade into obscurity, notwithstanding the occasional revival. (5) As in the case of the Cupid, the Kimbell painting has undergone repeated failed attempts to claim Michelangelo as its author: the Saint Anthony twice went unsold when presented as one of his works, first in 1886, then again in 1960. (6)
With the first and second paths inconclusive, there is only one way to prove or disprove the declaration that the small and somewhat depressing work hung on the center of the gallery wall is in fact the first painting by one of the greatest masters in all of the history of art, and that is to consider the visual evidence and a comparison of style. This is made first problematic, and almost purposefully so, by the now commonplace rediscovery of an artist's early work, for which nearly any stylistic discrepancy can be explained away by the artist's immaturity. This particular stylistic analysis is made even more challenging because of the dearth of comparable works in Michelangelo's oeuvre. If one is generous, one can discern only three other works on panel; if one is critical, there is only a single work, which is the Doni Tondo in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Interestingly, the museum in its not entirely convincing comparative analysis of the Kimbell painting only used the London Entombment and Manchester Madonna, both of which are themselves problematic in terms of their authorship. If the Kimbell panel most closely resembles the techniques employed in those two works, then it is possible that all three works are by the same hand, though it is absolutely not certain that the hand belongs to Michelangelo.
With all of this uncertainty, there is still the very unusual recent history to discuss. Not much was thought of the Torment of Saint Anthony when it first came up for auction, yet Everett Fahy, the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at the Met, has been touted as particularly supportive of the attribution, not just recently, but for decades; and Fahy is undeniably expert on Ghirlandaio's workshop. This leads to a very interesting question: If the Metropolitan was even moderately certain that this very reasonably priced painting could be the lost work of Michelangelo, why didn't they buy it? Any efforts on the part of the Met to dismiss their failure to act as a purely financial decision are specious. After all, in 2004, the Metropolitan spent an exorbitant amount on a work with a similarly sparse provenance simply because they perceived an opportunity to own a Duccio, very few of which are likely to ever be on the market again. But panel paintings by Michelangelo are even more rare and, in terms of the history of art, at least as precious, if not more so. It is therefore difficult to argue that the museum would take an estimated $45 million gamble in 2004, but not be willing to risk a fraction of that cost in 2009. While the economic crisis has impacted the Met's endowment and thus budgetary concerns could be cited as an inhibiting factor, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, James R. Houghton, in his economic letter of February 2009, assured that "the institution remains committed, where and when possible, to the judicious acquisition of works of art that fill gaps in the permanent collection." (7) What greater way to fill a gap than to acquire what would be the only painting by Michelangelo in an American institution? The Met's involvement in the restoration and in hosting the painting's inaugural exhibition, as well as the museum's previous involvement with the Kimbell Art Museum--they organized the recent exhibition Art and Love in Renaissance Italy together--raise further questions about the agreement that must have been reached regarding the Saint Anthony painting.
In terms of the overall merits of the show, its value was largely based on its audience. For the non-specialist viewer, the declarative nature of the exhibition's title--almost desperately so--was terribly misleading. For the viewer well-versed in art history and Renaissance art in particular, the show was an opportunity to flex one's muscles in the old-fashioned discipline of connoisseurship even if, in the end, the panel can lay no claim to being touched by Michelangelo's brush. If the painting had been presented as the problematic work that it is, in need of much discussion and critical scholarship, the experience would have been much more rewarding for all.
Denise M. Budd
Bergen Community College
(1.) Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, ed. Hellmut Wohl, trans. Alice Sedgwick Wohl, 2nd ed. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 9.
(2.) Metropolitan Museum of Art, press release, 15 June 2009 (accessed 6 August 2009).
(3.) The full provenance is given in the catalogue entry for the work (no. 45) by Letizia Treves in Giovinezza di Michelangelo, ed. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, et al. (Florence and Milan: Artificio Skira, 1999), 329.
(4.) Franz Kugler, Handbuch der kunstgeschichte (Stuttgart : Ebner & Seubert, 1872), 418.
(5.) For the Cupid, see the exhibition catalogue Giovinezza di Michelangelo, ed. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, et al. (Florence and Milan: Artificio Skira, 1999). For the crucifix, see the catalogue Proposta per Michelangelo Giovane: Un Crocifisso in legno di tiglio, ed. Giancarlo Gentilini (Florence: Museo Horne, 2004).
(6.) From the Sotheby's catalogue for Lot 69, Sale L08033: Old Master Paintings Evening Sale, www.sothebys.com (accessed 6 August 2009).
(7.) http://www.metmuseum.org/now_at_the_met/ Chairmans_Economic_Letter.pdf (accessed 6 August 2009).