When I see an exhibition of an artist I’m unfamiliar with, I always ask: Why do I like or dislike his work? And are there any of his works that I’d like to have on my wall?
In the case of Valentin de Boulogne, of whom the Metropolitan Museum is having a major retrospective (“Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” through January 16, 2017), the answer is: I love being in a room full of Valentin de Boulogne’s paintings, but I’ve yet to see one that I’d want on my wall. To be specific, I’m not in tune with his choice of subjects or his sense of life, but I’m impressed by his use of color, his ability to show psychological nuance, and his skill at composition. Given the current state of painting, I’m always happy to be reminded that it is possible to show superlative skill at all of those.
As I said in a post last week, Caravaggio drastically reduced the number of figures in his paintings and zoomed in on them, thus giving their emotions and gestures more impact. He also chose to show highly dramatic scenes, depicted ordinary rather than idealized figures, and limited his palette to a narrow set of colors in order to set a somber, dramatic mood.
There would be no Valentin de Boulogne without Caravaggio: the influence is obvious in the somber colors, the highly individualized figures, the zoomed-in view, and the dramatic scenes. So what did Valentin do that makes him more than a mere imitator of Caravaggio?
Valentin continues Caravaggio’s practice of painting from live models rather than detailed preparatory sketches, but he takes it further. He does his best to make scenes from the Bible seem to be appearing before our eyes, by pulling us into the space of the picture. How? He crops the figures and yanks them close to the picture plane. (If the picture were scene through a window, the picture plane would be the glass.) Valentin sometimes leaves a gap for us at the front of the scene, sometimes places a figure with its back turned there, as a surrogate for us. He uses lush detail. His paintings remind me of the best kind of historical fiction, where the author presents the details so vividly that I feel as if I’ve been transported to that time and place.
Here’s Caravaggio’s Denial of St. Peter.
Here’s Valentin’s. St. Peter is at the far left.
Valentin is also fond of showing a story or event not with a single interpretation, but with several. Valentin’s David with the Head of Goliath shows three different attitudes toward the death of the giant. See an image here: use of the photo is restricted by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
One of my recurring questions as I revamp my Innovators in Painting walking tour of the Metropolitan Museum is: Is this particular new technique or stylistic choice important enough to be qualified as a “major innovation”? Is it so valuable that almost every artist will add it to his toolbox, because it will help make people stop, look, and think about his artworks? I’d say Valentin de Boulogne is not a major innovator. But he does adopt Caravaggio’s innovations and elaborate on them in a way that Caravaggio did not. So in that sense, yes, he’s beyond Caravaggio.
For any number of reasons from the colors to the subjects, this exhibition might not be your cup of tea. Personally, I’m always interested in seeing artists of high technical skill, and I often find there’s at least one aspect of their work that I can enjoy. In Valentin’s case, it’s one of his frequent subjects: paintings of concerts, such as The Musical Party. (Permission to use the photo is restricted by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.) This is a common subject for the period, and I’ve fallen for it before, as in the Gerrit van Honthorst Concert (Dutch, ca. 1623) at the National Gallery in Washington.
The night before I saw this exhibition, I watched and heard a violin, viola, and cello play Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The live music performances that I attend are usually operas, in which the orchestra is out of sight. Watching the string trio perform was a revelation – it was much easier to follow the Variations, and I was fascinated by the interplay of melodies and instruments, and by watching the eye contact and gestures of the musicians. Having that performance in mind made Valentin’s concert paintings seem like stills from a movie – I could almost hear the music. (The MMA exhibition includes a few cases of 17th-c. musical instruments, which are lovely to see next to the paintings.)
Another of my favorites was Valentin’s St Matthew, purely for the young winged boy at his side. I keep thinking I’ve seen him somewhere before … Yet again, permission to use the photo is restricted by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. See it here. (All my favorites at are at the Thyssen! I apparently have baronial taste on a bibliographic researcher’s budget.)