Valentin de Boulogne
22 Feb — 22 May 2017 at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France
Considered the most brilliant of the painters coming in the wake of Caravaggio, and one of the greatest French artists—indeed, the equal of Poussin—Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632) spent the greater part of his career in Rome executing prestigious papal commissions. His work was also collected by people in power, most notably Cardinal Mazarin and Louis XIV, and throughout the 19th century served as a model for masters as different as David and Courbet.
With all the freedom of Caravaggio—who also died in his prime—Valentin borrowed his predecessor’s dramatic realism, chiaroscuro, and subject matter (taverns, concerts, martyrs, saints, etc.), but transformed them, allying a neo-Venetian chromatic sensibility with a totally new sense of the grandiose and the melancholic. Owner of the world’s largest collection of his works, the Louvre, in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is presenting the first monographic exhibition of the most significant representative of the Caravaggesque movement in Europe.
Sometime between 1610 and 1620, Valentin arrived in Rome, where he would spend his entire career. A master glass painter’s son, the artist never married nor had any children. His first years in the Eternal City saw him living hand-to-mouth, hiring out his services by the day. Reluctant to engage with contemporary academic painters, he was more likely to be found rubbing shoulders with northern artists such as the members of the Bentvueghels society at various taverns and orgiastic banquets. In this respect, his lifestyle resembled Caravaggio’s. As for that artist, information and documents about the Frenchman’s life are scarce. To further add to the mystery, only works painted during Valentin’s latter years are dated.
A son of France, Valentin was one of the leading proponents of the naturalistic style to come after Caravaggio. In the years following the famed artist’s death in 1610, Valentin, along with Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera, was the most prominent naturalistic painter in Rome. Unlike de Ribera, who set up home in Spanish-dominated Naples in 1616, Valentin spent his entire career in Rome, where his art gained the favor of the Barberini family. Like several other artists, Valentin was profoundly influenced by Caravaggio’s work. The similarities between the two artists are obvious. Their paintings, inspired by scenes from daily life, possessed a certain raw quality. Featured subjects included card playing, fortune telling and cabarets. A look at their respective use of gesture, composition, and chiaroscuro, also reveals evidence of a shared approach. However, Valentin’s work introduced certain stylistic changes that satisfied Caravaggio’s critics: subtleness of psychological expression, a degree of introspection, and a refined Venetian-inspired palette. The younger artist’s novel touches softened Caravaggio’s brutal brand of chiaroscuro (David with the Head of Goliath, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection), creating a new style.
The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through the three periods that marked Valentin’s work Between 1610 and 1620, the artist showed a predilection for everyday subjects. Like de Ribera, Cecco del Caravaggio and Manfredi, the Frenchman embraced the novel approach of looking to the various denizens of Rome for inspiration—his early work features card players and cheats, tavern patrons and fortune-tellers. Exuding a sense of tense foreboding and unprecedented drama, works produced at this time feature tight compositions, sculptural figures, and high contrast chiaroscuro, heralding the photograph-like paintings to come.
Post-1620, compositions began to carry more meaning, and the gestural language and characters grew more complex. The simple, tightly-framed compositions of the 1610s gave way to more monumental depictions—at times featuring lone figures painted using live models (Saint John the Baptist, Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne); other times group scenes (The Denial of Saint Peter, Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell’Arte Roberto Longhi, Florence; Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice (The Cheats) Washington).
Several pieces reference Ancient history—the Louvre’s Concert with a Bas-Relief, where a motif featured on terracotta plaques from the Campana collection is replicated, is one example.
Gestures are theatrical and a refined palette tempers the chiaroscuro. A new sense of melancholy pervades the art of Valentin, who painted his large-scale religious commissions at this time: Christ and the Adulteress (Getty), Crowning with Thorns (Munich), and Christ Driving the Merchants from the Temple, (Palazzo Barberini). The period between 1627 and 1630 saw the artist rise to fame. He received several commissions from the Barberini family, including one that would mark the peak of both his career and that of Pope Urban VIII. It was for this family that Valentin would paint one of the 17th century’s most remarkable pieces—the Allegory of Italy (on special loan from the Finnish Institute in Rome). The scene features a painted-from-nature personification of the river Tiber, which calls to mind ancient sculptures.
Works painted during this phase of Valentin’s career show signs of ambivalence. One can observe his quest for naturalism vying with a kind of idealism, and the struggle produces a rather surprising effect. The viewer, unsettled by a sense of impending drama, witnesses depicted events as they unfold.
Like Nicolas Poussin and Simon Vouet, Valentin was asked by Cardinal Francesco Barberini to paint an altarpiece for St Peter’s basilica—the most prestigious commission to which an artist could aspire. The highly lifelike figures and brilliant hues of Martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinian (Vatican Art Gallery) bear testament to the artist’s mastery of color and composition. The inauguration of both Valentin and Poussin’s altarpieces provoked vigorous debate on the respective virtues of naturalism, which celebrated color; and classicism, a style centered on draftsmanship. The debate went on for the following three centuries. Fortune
Valentin attained great fame in his own lifetime, with word about him reaching France, where his art gained favor in the 17th century. His paintings of Saint Mark and Saint Matthew, which used to hang in the King’s bedchamber in Versailles, will be on display outside palace walls for the first time. Immediately following his death, the artist’s reputation grew exponentially. Only two weeks after Valentin’s untimely passing in 1632, engraver and art dealer François Langlois¾on the hunt for masterpieces by great artists for his collectors¾received a letter from Pierre Lemaire, who said of the phenomenon: “You can’t find any paintings by him, or, if you do find them, you have to pay four times what they had cost”. Louis XIV’s Chief Minister, Cardinal Mazarin, nevertheless collected no fewer than nine paintings by the artist, which after the Cardinal’s death became part of the royal collection, and are now some of the Louvre’s finest exhibits. The king personally acquired Valentin’s series of four Evangelists, which still decorate the royal bedchamber in the palace of Versailles. In the 19th century, the artist ‘s innovative style became a reference point for Courbet and Manet, two great champions of painting from life. Valentin may have spent the entirety of his very short career in Rome, but his legacy makes him a leading figure in the history of French and European painting, alongside George De La Tour and Vermeer.