Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Saint, Demons and a Leap of Imagination

Art Review: 'Michelangelo’s First Painting'

The New York Times
June 19, 2009

Every supernova starts as a modest spark. Even Michelangelo began his career with less than Sistine-worthy work. What, exactly, was he doing? According to the 16th-century art-stargazer Giorgio Vasari, the master’s virgin effort was a smallish, slightly customized painted copy of a German print.

Kimbell Art Museum

Michelangelo’s First Painting This picture, which many believe to be Michelangelo’s first, is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The print, an engraving by Martin Schongauer called “St. Anthony Tormented by Demons,” was in wide circulation when Michelangelo began his art apprenticeship in Florence in 1488. It was at this time, according to Vasari, that he produced the painting. He would have been 12 or 13. It was only later that he turned his attention to sculpture.

Long out of sight, this early picture, or one now identified as such, has resurfaced. Recently bought by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, it has been conserved and examined at the Metropolitan Museum, where it is making its American debut in a tiny gallery display titled “Michelangelo’s First Painting.” If the picture is indeed the real thing, it’s quite a catch, being one of only four known easel paintings by Michelangelo, and the only one in an American collection.

The display, organized by Keith Christiansen, curator of European paintings at the Met, makes an active case for authenticity. It sets the painting and the Schongauer print side by side and flanks them with text panels spelling out some of the thinking that went into the attribution: a combination of historical research and stylistic analysis propelled by what Mr. Christiansen calls a “leap of the imagination.”

The historical record is complicated. Vasari calls the painting an apprentice piece, done under the tutelage of Domenico Ghirlandaio after Michelangelo had entered Ghirlandaio’s Florentine studio in 1488. Another biographer, Ascanio Condivi, says no, the painting is slightly earlier, done maybe in 1487, before Michelangelo’s apprenticeship. Michelangelo was given the Schongauer print by an artist friend and, self-starter that he was, tackled copying it on his own, no help required.

Further research suggests a compromise narrative. It turns out that Michelangelo was on Ghirlandaio’s payroll, as an assistant on an altarpiece job, before officially beginning his apprenticeship. So the self-starter image remains pretty much intact, but the possibility of guidance and influence, even if indirect, could also be part of the story.

Moving ahead in time, Mr. Christiansen notes that while the St. Anthony painting never entirely disappeared over the centuries, it led an oddly retiring life, forgotten if not ignored. Either a connection with Michelangelo was simply not made, or was made only to be dismissed on the grounds that the picture had no connection to anything else in his career. Mr. Christiansen argues otherwise.

Librado Romero/The New York Times

The picture attributed to Michelangelo, left, next to Martin Schongauer’s engraving, which the painting is based on.

We know that the young Michelangelo copied the work of other artists, customizing his versions with personal touches. We have his drawings of figures from Giotto and Masaccio. If the Schongauer image was a somewhat unusual choice, it might also have represented a gesture of independence, a way for the precocious adolescent to separate himself from the workshop herd. And it worked. Ghirlandaio was apparently unnerved by the newcomer’s show of skill.

In any case, the image of the hermit-saint, locked in a midair tangle of straining, pulsating figures, created a template that Michelangelo would repeat in sculpture and painting for the rest of his life. It’s there in the knotted nudes of the early marble relief “Battle of the Centaurs,” from around 1490 and it’s still there decades later in the images of frantic sinners and doom-trumpeting angels in the “Last Judgment.”

And even in Michelangelo’s first version of this theme, Mr. Christiansen finds promising inventiveness. He points out that Michelangelo doesn’t merely replicate Schongauer’s composition in paint; he bulks it up, makes it denser and more monumental. He introduces Renaissance naturalism to Gothic fantasy: Vasari reports that the young Michelangelo shopped for fish in Florentine markets to get the scales on the bodies of his demons right.

And Michelangelo makes adventurous use of color. The recent cleaning done by the Met conservator Michael Gallagher removed layers of darkening varnish. And in both the individual colors and combinations revealed, Mr. Christiansen discerns a forecast of the palette that would later be used on the Sistine ceiling.

In the end, Mr. Christiansen concludes, if you do the math — add documentation to style and to physical evidence — the Michelangelo attribution is all but conclusive, though we shouldn’t forget the contribution made by the imaginative leap.

For some reason — many reasons — we need to have our superstars, our so-called geniuses, and we need them complete, every detail of their lives and works, however minor, accounted for, fitted into place, given significance. That is how traditional art history works, and “Michelangelo’s First Painting” feels like a classic exercise in that tradition, equal parts science project, forensic document and romantic quest.

“Michelangelo’s First Painting” remains through Sept. 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710,

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