What would be the noun of assemblage for the Caravaggists? A twilight? A skulk? These are the artists who furthered the radical experiments of Caravaggio, the revolutionary artist who died, on the lam for murder, in 1609. They are often exhibited together, retroactively formed into a synchronized finger-snapping gang behind their leader, like the Jets.
In reality, these painters were much more various and independent-minded than their critical fate has suggested. The current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio elevates one from the group, a French painter who lived in Rome from 1614 till his death in 1632. While the name “Caravaggio” inevitably rides along in the title of the show, it is there to assert that we are moving “beyond.” At the museum entrance, the text on the right side of the colon is in black, as if to wish him away.
Valentin entirely merits a retrospective, and his oeuvre is unusually suited to it. He died young, at the height of his powers, so the exhibition is manageable in size, yet with sufficient paintings to flesh out the highlights of the artist’s development; it ends with a bang in several large works he executed for some of Rome’s most distinguished patrons. The viewer can trace a satisfying trajectory from early promise to masterful fulfillment: a fine-grained naturalism that somehow sits beside rather than in or beyond lived reality, as close and yet remote as passengers in a train that runs, for a moment, on a track alongside our own.
This intimate dissociation begins with his lighting, which is a pervasive but not unappealing grey murk, distinct from the harsher contrast between dark and light of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. Rather than glancing off of objects and figures, the light seems to be a medium in which the figures are suspended, the settings and furnishings a solidification of the same grey substance. The result is the dreamlike effect of perpetual twilight. (You can see why one of his competitors in Rome, the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst, was celebrated for bringing a candle to the party.)
Valentin was also committed to depicting distinct individuals rather than abstracted types, apparently working, like Caravaggio, from a cast of regular models. Although he painted a range of subjects, his characteristic scene is a gathering of Roman street folks, playing music or cards, sitting around a central table in positions that seem eminently natural yet never awkward or repetitive. In “Concert with a Bas Relief,” (1622-25) for instance, young men, a few boys, and a woman play instruments or drink wine, their heads arranged at different registers across the canvas, like notes on a staff. The tone of the painting verges on a lament, but perhaps they are sad about their dinner, which is a wretched-looking pie resembling a possum baked in a bedroom slipper.
Many of these same models, in their same contemporary dress, also occupy his religious and historical subjects. Christ expelling the moneylenders looks as if he is breaking up one of the musical parties, everyone riled out of their ennui by his stinging whip, the figures piling up like a wave away from the force of his righteous fervor. In the earlier “Denial of Peter” (1615-17), the gospel story is appended to a scene of dice-playing soldiers. Now the company feels menacing, ready to turn on Peter, whose plight is enhanced by his resemblance to a beleaguered, mild-mannered psychotherapist.
Especially later in Valentin’s career, the figures in his paintings take advantage of their proximity to our world to look right back at us. We expect this in a portrait, though the gaze is downright startling in his “Portrait of Rafaello Menicucci” (1627-28), a social climber and political opportunist who seems more than any other figure in the show to want to leap out of his frame and hand you his business card. But observers also peer out of concert scenes and religious paintings, and most especially, from a series of vivid single-figure history paintings featuring unusually attractive protagonists, such as “Judith and Holofernes,” (1626-27), whose dark-eyed Judith coolly dangles Holofernes’ head by a lock of his hair, or “David and Goliath,” (1615-16) in which David, pretty as a girl, hovers almost affectionately over Goliath’s massive, oozing, severed head.
In the last years before Valentin’s untimely death, he received two commissions from the Cardinal Francesco Barberini, pampered papal nephew and art fanatic. In both, Valentin successfully applied his naturalistic mode to two of the most intractably artificial painting types of the period, the allegory and the altarpiece.
The “Allegory of Italy” (1628-29) symbolizes in human form the bounty of Italy and two of its rivers. Rather than hewing to an ideal beauty – the solution most often taken by artists to embody an abstraction – to depict “Italy,” Valentin selects one of his usual models, but makes her majestic, transformed like a teenager on prom night, with a crenellated headdress, elaborate armor, and an abundance of red drapery. A pair of bearded male river gods symbolize the rivers, which is typical enough; however, one of them sports not only the traditional beard, but also luxuriant chest hair, radically unusual in Western art. This not only makes him a prime candidate for Baroque Rome’s first Bear Week but also jolts the scene alive with his raw virility.
“Allegory of Italy” was a hit with its patron, and Barberini next commissioned Valentin to paint an altarpiece, “The Martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinian” (1629-30) for a chapel at St. Peter’s, the most prestigious venue in Rome. Depicting a pair of early Christians lying on the rack, about to be stretched, beaten, and branded, Valentin packs twelve figures into the shallow space of a vertically oriented canvas, including the two martyrs, two angels, four soldiers, two dismayed onlookers (heavily shadowed beneath the angel), one female mourner, and the official who ordered the martyrdom, elegant in his toga but cupping his face to signal that God has just struck him blind in one eye as punishment. The painting’s vividly realized bare skin and intense emotions, expertly telegraphed through understated gesture and pose, underline the misery of the punishment, not only for the martyrs, but their tormenters as well. Only one man remains standing, unsheathing his sword. He is the opposite, in action, intent, and spatial dynamics of the angel who arrives from the top center of the painting to bestow the palm of martyrdom, clutching his chest in sympathy for the suffering he rewards to the saints. Angel and swordsman together visually contain the scene, clamping it together from above and below, compacting it into a dense unit of grueling physicality.
These two large canvases are joined by a few other great works from the last years, and then…gift shop. Valentin died suddenly of a fever on an August night, brought on, according to one biographer, by excessive tobacco and alcohol consumption. Not long after he died, however, the fever for naturalism broke, too. The classicism of his countryman, Nicolas Poussin, whose contemporaneous, weirdly cheery “Martyrdom of St. Erasmus” (1628–1629) hung next to Valentin’s altarpiece in St. Peter’s, became ascendant. Caravaggio and his followers were reviled and then virtually forgotten until the 20th century. Caravaggio had his first major show in 1951; Valentin gets his 65 years later.
Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 22, 2017.