Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio (2017)

Valentin: David with the Head of Goliath

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 20 February-22 May 2017)

Around 1610, a French teenager arrived in Rome, hoping to study as a painter. His name was Valentin. Although he was just too late to meet Caravaggio, his artistic formation took place in a community beholden to the sharp contrasts and uncompromising realism of the older artist. Valentin would become known as one of the most gifted of the ‘Caravaggisti’, but this exhibition gives him credit as someone who was able to develop and transcend his sources. We move from rowdy Roman taverns, full of cardsharps, fortune tellers and impromptu concerts, to face-to-face encounters with brooding saints. Every room testifies to this underrated painter’s flair and intensity.

We begin with a confrontation. David with the Head of Goliath (c.1615-16, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) was painted when Valentin was still in his early twenties, but already capable of creating a marvellously ambivalent image. The young hero presents the head of the slaughtered Philistine, flanked by two soldiers in 17th-century costume. You’d expect an element of satisfaction, but Valentin’s David looks distinctly ill at ease. His body twists in the narrow space left for him, as the pikeman muscles into the right-hand side of the frame; more than that, he curves forward over the decapitated head, as if to hide it – or protect it, an impression strengthened by the strangely tender way that his fingers are tangled in Goliath’s hair. And, unlike many Davids, this one looks straight out at us, as if trying to judge our reaction. Vulnerable and full of self-doubt, this is a boy caught in the moment of becoming a great man, possibly against his will.

Valentin: The Innocence of Susanna

Valentin de Boulogne, The Innocence of Susanna, Louvre, Paris

One of the striking elements of the composition is the way Valentin focuses our attention on David, not just by the spotlit quality of his figure, nor by the direct appeal of his gaze, but by using a device he would return to, again and again. The pikeman on the right is captured in the moment of turning, glancing over his shoulder at us. The soldier on the left is likewise frozen in movement, either advancing to gloat or recoiling in disgust. But David himself is still, despite his awkward posture. Whenever Valentin wants us to focus on a figure, he shows them in a moment of calm, distinct from the motion all around them. To understand where he wants us to look, we have to seek out the eye of the storm.

Look at The Crowning of Thorns (c.1616-17, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). The same is true here: six mocking soldiers circle the seated Christ, each of them twisting or gesturing or leaning forward. Christ alone sits still and silent, again picked out by a divine spotlight focused on his bare, pale flesh. Or The Innocence of Susanna (c.1621-22, Louvre, Paris), where despite all the grand gestures of the men, our attention is drawn to Susanna herself, a dignified figure on the right hand side, hands modestly crossed over her breast, staring out at us in a pool of calm while chaos reigns around her.

Valentin: St Matthew

Valentin de Boulogne, St Matthew, Versailles

Valentin takes his point of departure from Caravaggio, but his borrowings are spiced with new interpretations or quotations from other artists. When he’s close to Caravaggio it’s because he chooses to be, not because he didn’t know any better. His nude adolescent St John the Baptist (c.1620-22, Cathedral of St John, Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne) is a cousin of Caravaggio’s sensual, brooding boys, set against a black background, draped with a bright red cloth and accompanied by a mildly inquisitive sheep. While these three elements are present in an earlier Baptist (c.1613-14, Private collection) – included here as the earliest work by Valentin – the early picture feels more ambitious, the product of a less experienced artist trying to be original. The saint’s body is shielded by his arm, drawing attention not to his flesh but his message, in the form of his pointing finger. And the curators suggest the facial hair – very unusual – might indicate that this is a disguised self-portrait (they think the same of the later Samson). In the Maurienne St John, Valentin seems more relaxed about adopting an explicitly Caravaggesque image.

It becomes clear that Valentin drew on the work of the Spanish-Neapolitan artist Jusepe de Ribera, just as much as that of Caravaggio. Interestingly, Valentin and Ribera were exact contemporaries and their paths probably crossed briefly before Ribera headed from Rome to Naples in 1616. In the exhibition, I’d admired Valentin’s Denial of St Peter (c.1615-17, Fondazione Roberto Longhi, Florence), where the sacred event is pushed almost into the picture’s margin, sidelined by a group of gamblers dicing on top of a fragmentary classical relief. Only when I flicked through the catalogue did I see a photo of the same subject painted by Ribera (c1615, Palazzo Corsini, Rome): it’s Ribera, not Valentin, who pushes Peter to one side; though it’s Valentin, not Ribera, who adds that little touch of antiquity.


Valentin de Boulogne, The Fortune Teller, Toledo Museum of Art

It’s also tempting to see something of Ribera in Valentin’s series of half-length saints: lined, dignified, ruthlessly real old men – although who’s to say that the influence didn’t work both ways? The St Mark and St Matthew (both c.1624-26, Versailles) are astonishingly well painted. St Matthew’s hair hangs lank and greasy over his forehead, while St Mark’s beard curls in a soft cloud over his chin, individual hairs picked out with yellow paint. There’s the faintest hint of Caravaggio in the form of the angel who accompanies Matthew: a pretty boy who reaches out to turn the pages, his arm invading the saint’s space in a way that recalls – with more decorum – the angel in Caravaggio’s controversial first version of St Matthew.

And there are cardsharps and musicians, dicers, pretty gypsy girls ready to tell fortunes, drinkers and men weighed down with old age: soldiers and greybeards and urchins posing as The Four Ages of Man (c.1627-29, National Gallery, London). All of Roman life is here and Valentin cherishes it. Playfully, he pushes the Caravaggesque subject of The Fortune Teller one step further (c.1618-20, Toledo Museum of Art). As usual, a gypsy gazes at the palm of a besotted youth, but for once the youth isn’t the victim: in Valentin’s picture, the dupers are duped. The gypsy girl is so busy beguiling the boy that she doesn’t notice the cloaked man behind her, who picks her pocket; he in turn is so focused on his theft that he doesn’t realise his own purse is being cut by the little girl in the foreground. It adds a note of irony to a concept which must already have been becoming cliched by this date. And the later we go in Valentin’s career, the darker these tavern scenes become. The roistering eases off and his figures grow melancholy, preoccupied. Even the light grows fainter, though that might owe more to darkened varnish than to painterly intention.

Valentin: Judith

Valentin de Boulogne, Judith, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse (detail)

Despite his talent, I suppose you could write off Valentin as just another Caravaggista until the final room, where we get to see what he could do when he shook off the shackles. Here, in four remarkable paintings, we see him trying on different styles for size, even at this late point in his career (Valentin died young, so his last paintings still show all the talent of an artist in his full maturity). His triumphant Judith (c.1626-27, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse) has the look of a Gentileschi heroine about her, while his contemplative Samson (1631, Cleveland Museum of Art) wears the kind of vibrant colours that were becoming more common in French art at this period, thanks to the return of Simon Vouet from Rome to Paris. But the two really striking things are the two massive paintings facing each other on the final walls. Exhibit A: a gruesome martyrdom; and Exhibit B: a most peculiar allegory with a split stylistic personality.

The martyrdom is that of Saints Processus and Martinianus (1629-30, Vatican). It was one of the most important commissions of Valentin’s career, establishing him as a protege of the Pope’s nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Intended for an altar in St Peter’s, it was a pendant to Poussin’s equally towering and equally gruesome Martyrdom of St Erasmus, and it seems inconceivable that the artists weren’t aware of each other’s commissions, due to the similarities in the stretched, prone figures of the saints. By this point Valentin had departed a long way from Caravaggio, but there’s one trace of him left in the form of the adolescent angel, startlingly ‘real’ compared to his High Baroque cousins, and teetering precariously on the edge of a cloud.

Valentin: Martyrdom of Sts Processus and Martinianus

Valentin de Boulogne, The Martyrdom of Sts Processus and Martinianus, Vatican (detail)

Hanging opposite is the Allegory of Italy, another Barberini commission which had been commissioned a year earlier, in which Valentin taps into two very different aesthetics. Indeed, the upper and lower halves could almost be by different hands. The figure of Italy herself, in the top half, is rather bland, conventionally classical – not at all the kind of thing you’d expect, having followed Valentin’s career throughout the show. But the lower half is astonishing: an almost aggressively naturalistic triumph of the flesh, as two larger-than-life-size river gods recline with putti. The frank painting of body hair feels almost transgressive, as male nudes are almost always shown without. It’s a stroke of originality that reminded me of Caravaggio’s saints and pilgrims, and their dirty feet, which caused such a scandal some years earlier. Perhaps Valentin never did manage to completely shake off his former idol; perhaps, even when he’d moved away from Caravaggio’s style, he was still inspired by the older artist’s desire to challenge and provoke? Fortunately Valentin didn’t cause a scandal. Barberini loved his picture and promptly commissioned the neighbouring Martyrdom. 

Valentin’s star was on the rise. In 1632 he wasn’t the most celebrated painter in Rome, but he was well-respected and his works were in demand. He should have had another thirty years of working life left in him. But, that August, he tried to cool himself in the heat by plunging into a fountain. He caught a chill and died slowly and in great pain from a fever. Baglione, who disapproves of anyone even vaguely connected with Caravaggio, sniffed that Valentin had come to his end through debauchery and drunkenness. This was probably exaggerated, but it’s true that Valentin seems to have left very little money behind: his funeral costs were charitably covered by Cassiano dal Pozzo. The minute he died, of course, you couldn’t get your hands on one of his pictures for love or money, as one disgruntled fellow artist (Pierre Lemaire) complained.

Valentin: Allegory of Italy

Valentin de Boulogne, Allegory of Italy, Finnish Institute, Rome (detail)

So what message should we take away from the exhibition? I’m probably biased, because I like Valentin, but I hope that visitors will realise he’s a more exciting and talented painter than he’s been given credit for. His work acts as a kind of bridge from the early, dark, daring work of Caravaggio to the later, brighter High Baroque style – the aesthetic that would be taken back to France, as I’ve said, by Simon Vouet. And that’s the interesting thing about Valentin, I think – that, for a Frenchman who spends most of his career looking like an Italian, many of his late works look so classically French because they anticipate what was going to develop in Paris during the 1630s and 1640s.

I would urge you to go, but you have to be organised about it. For reasons best known to themselves, the Louvre have decreed that you must visit their two current exhibitions (Valentin and Vermeer) with a single ticket. Vermeer is attracting the kind of crowds last seen at the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery, and the timed tickets are sold out days in advance. This means that you can’t just turn up on the day and hope to get in to either of the shows (on present evidence, at least). Do plan ahead, because it’s worth it. Yes, Vermeer is fabulous and I’ll be gushing about that in due course, but the Valentin show covers less familiar ground and you’re less likely to come across these pictures all together again. Come and dip your toe into the work of this underappreciated artist. Savour his shadows, admire his compositional flair, and watch him grow as a painter. I hope it’ll leave you feeling that he’s more interesting than you expected.

If you couldn’t see the show when it was at the Met, and you can’t get to Paris, there’s always the catalogue. Luckily, due to the two venues, it’s available in both French and English. I haven’t read my copy yet (I’ll probably have to sneak back and correct lots of things here when I do), but it looks a really serious, valuable book with essays, individual catalogue notes and good images.

Buy the catalogue

Valentin: Samson

Valentin de Boulogne, Samson, Cleveland Museum of Art

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