This past October Break, I visited the Met on Fifth Ave. Every trip I make to the iconic museum is always full of new discoveries. My most recent visit, for example, surprised me with an artist that I’ve had no prior knowledge of. The artist is Valentin de Boulogne (1591- 1632). The exhibit of his work, in the Met’s Gallery 999, is eponymously titled, “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio.”
The exhibition overview informs viewers that Valentin had a short-lived career (he died at age 41). Thus, his paintings are very rare. In fact, the overview states, “Around 60 paintings by Valentin survive, and this exhibition brings together 45 of them, with works coming from Rome, Vienna, Munich, Madrid, London, and Paris. Exceptionally, the Musée du Louvre, which possesses the most important and extensive body of Valentin’s works, is lending all of its paintings by the artist.”
I’ll say it now and say it later: Go see the exhibit. Though there is such a meager quantity of surviving works by Valentin, every single painting in the Met exhibit demonstrates his mastery and originality in experimenting with naturalistic painting, which was considered a new style in Valentin’s time.
I’ll say it now and say it later: Go see the exhibit. It’s on view until the 16th of January.
Valentin de Boulogne was a French painter of the Baroque period. He painted in the tenebrist style. The name of this style of painting is derived from the Italian word for murky, “tenebroso.”
The style involves heavy use of chiaroscuro— strong contrasts between light and dark—to the point that paintings rendered in this style contain much more dark or dim spaces on the canvas. Tenebrism was widely used in the Baroque period.
The artist most often associated with tenebrist style of painting is none other than Caravaggio.
His dramatic use of lighting and realistic depictions of people, often in Biblical scenes, pushed the boundaries of how to paint the physical and emotional qualities of human figures. Caravaggio’s paintings were highly dramatized portrayals of events, always alive with action and emotion. It is this style that served as Valentin’s inspiration.
One of the paintings that struck me the most from this exhibit was Valentin’s “Judith and Holofernes,” dated to around 1627-29. This painting features the Old Testament story in which a beautiful widow, Judith, beheads an Assyrian general, Holofernes, in order to save her city of Bethulia from conquest. This story has been depicted by a multitude of Renaissance and Baroque artists.
What is striking in de Boulogne’s visual rendering of the story is the emotion and drama that he imbues in the figures of his painting. Judith is depicted as grabbing Holofernes by the hair with her left hand and slicing his head off holding a sword in her right hand. Her gaze pierces into the surprised eyes of her dying victim.
Judith’s lips are firmly pressed together in concentration as if to imply a steadfast determination to the beheading. Valentin’s rendering of Judith’s face is very prosaic. No intense anger nor pride in her actions. Rather, the face of Judith conveys a collectedness needed to get the job done. This is in high contrast to the figure of Holofernes, whose mouth and eyes are wide open, conveying both surprise and a cry for help.
The figure of Holofernes is also portrayed as reaching his left arm up towards the top left of the canvas, with the tip of his pointer finger cut off by the edge of the picture plane. This pose engages with the viewer because it appears as if Holofernes tries to reach out for help outside of the picture plane and into the space of the viewer. This drama is further heightened by the dark background and stage-like lighting cast upon the figures.
Another Valentin painting from the exhibit that depicted a commonly painted Biblical story was his “Last Supper,” dated around 1625-26. This painting is a hallmark of Valentin’s genius and talent because of the wide range of emotions that he renders within each disciple. The painting, overall, is a collection of the subjective visceral reactions of the Christ’s disciples at the news of His death, the following day. This is nothing like the Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” but is instead so much more.
The intensity of the emotions visible in the faces, postures and overall atmosphere of the painting elicits a call for pity or sorrow at the impending Passion.
The Christ figure sits behind a table covered by a white table cloth, looking directly at the viewer. The Christ figure is depicted with its left hand gesturing to his chest, while its right arm and hand is outstretched on the table top towards the Judas figure. Judas is shown seated across the table from Christ, positioned at the bottom left foreground of the canvas. He has his head turned away from Christ and clutches a pouch of coins (the price of Judas’ betrayal) behind his back.
Another striking reaction depicted in a figure of the painting is that of St. Peter’s, which, to the right of Christ, raises a hand in disbelief. In all, the painting is an example of Valentin’s remarkable artistic ability as well as his awareness of the viewer’s reaction.
As evidenced in the exhibit, Boulogne takes classical subjects of religious painting and reinterprets them in ways that invites the viewer into the picture plane to be moved by the emotion and human interactions distilled within the stage/diorama-like compositions of the artist’s canvases.
I could go on endlessly about the striking imagery that Valentin de Boulogne has gifted to the world, but that would only spoil the show. If you find yourself in New York City anytime before mid-January, visit the Met on 5th Avenue and see the “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio” exhibit. You will be surprised at the reactions that Valentin’s paintings are able to elicit.