Critical Review of Exhibition Valentin De Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

Exhibitions play an imperative role in modern museum circles as sometimes they are the only opportunity for connoisseurs to see works of art that are usually displayed in other countries. Another function of contemporary exhibitions is to collect the pieces devoted to a similar theme or done by one artist or a group of artists to reveal their meaning and purpose in a deeper manner. These functions are quite often combined to produce such a compelling and thought-provoking event as a high-class modern exhibition that can consist of the works of a permanent museum collection, or those brought by another museum, or both variants together. This paper is aimed to give a critical review of the exhibition titled Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio.

The exhibition Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio was organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musée du Louvre, where it is displayed from October 7, 2016, until January 16, 2017, and from February 20, 2017, until May 22, 2017, respectively. Like any other modern exhibition, it was prepared and coordinated with the help of numerous sponsors and patrons. “The exhibition is made possible by the Hata Stichting Foundation, the Placido Arango Fund, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, Frank E. Richardson and Kimba M. Wood, Alice Cary Brown and W.L. Lyons Brown, and an Anonymous Foundation”. This is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 999. The entrance is free if a person has a museum admission ticket. Special audio guides and guided tours are also available for the visitors.

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Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio is a truly unique exhibition as it is the first event of such scale in the United States to celebrate this French artist. It is also quite important to mention that not only paintings by Valentin de Boulogne are displayed but also works created by other followers of Caravaggio. It allows the curators to demonstrate the difference between the way Valentin de Boulogne interpreted the ideas of Caravaggio that had an extremely significant impact on the development of European art and how other artists integrated Caravaggio’s principles into their paintings. In addition to the pieces of Valentin de Boulogne, the visitors may see paintings by Cecco del Caravaggio, Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Jusepe de Ribera. There are also some additional exhibits, like armors, rapiers or lutes, that help understand the historical context of the paintings.

The focus of this exhibition is Valentin de Boulogne and his oeuvre. The painter was born in France in about 1591. The exact date of his birth, as well as the events of his early life, is not known, as it often is in the case of artists of early periods. The first written records about the life of Valentin de Boulogne after he was baptized appeared only in 1620 when he came to Italy. He continued his formal training in the studio of the Italian painter Simon Vouet. Around that time, he also fell under the influence of Caravaggio’s artistic style that was quite common during that period. It is also possible to trace the impact of Bartolomeo Manfredi in the early works of Valentin de Boulogne. One painting by Bartolomeo Manfredi – Christ Driving the Merchants from the Temple – is also presented at this exhibition, which provides visitors an opportunity to find the links between these painters themselves. Valentin de Boulogne inherited many themes from the art of Caravaggio – he also consistently painted gamblers, drinkers, and other doubtful subjects. However, as well as Caravaggio, Valentin de Boulogne offered his own interpretation of biblical and mythological scenes. The present exhibition offers a variety of paintings that exemplify all these themes in the art of this painter. In Rome, Valentin de Boulogne also had orders for the decoration of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Among early influential collectors of his works, who partially created his image in the artistic world, were Cardinal Mazarin and Louis XIV.

The exhibition consists of more than 50 paintings created by Valentin de Boulogne and other artists that were crucial for this period. However, to get a better understanding of the way the curators of the exhibition tried to show the oeuvre of the key artist, it is necessary to explore in detail some of the highlights exhibited at the Met. It is, first of all, Saint John the Baptist by Valentin de Boulogne. It is one of the first known paintings this artist created after his arrival to Rome in his early twenties. Although the curators of the exhibition chose not to follow the chronological way of arranging paintings strictly, this work of art is located close to the start of the show signaling its significance for the first stage of Valentin de Boulogne’s career. It is supposed to be his self-portrait as St. John, and this fact adds great humanity to this image. The saint is portrayed as a young man with a mustache who looks at the audience with uneasiness. It is one of the most important characteristic features of Valentin de Boulogne’s paintings, and it becomes evident from the beginning of the exhibition. In most paintings, one or several persons look directly into the eyes of the viewer making them a participant, not a stranger. Another aspect of Valentin de Boulogne’s art is the absence of idealization that was peculiar for Renaissance but completely lost in typical Baroque paintings. He paints St. John as an ordinary person minimizing the distance between the viewer and the portrayed person.

Another highlight of this exhibition is Judith with the Head of Holofernes (ca. 1626–27, oil on canvas) that is usually exhibited at Musée des Augustins, Toulouse. This painting illustrates one more crucial aspect of this exhibition – the analysis of social and cultural processes taking place in Europe of the seventeenth century. It is critical to have at least some knowledge of these issues to better understand the nature and themes of Valentin de Boulogne’s art. Judith with the Head of Holofernes depicts a famous biblical episode when Judith has beheaded Holofernes, a general who was about to invade and destroy the city where Judith lived. The image of Judith holding the head of the dead general in her hand tells much both about the controversial processes of redefining gender roles in the seventeenth century and about the personal attitude of Valentin de Boulogne towards these issues. This painting is a tale of a woman who was ready to do everything to protect her land and people. Moreover, it is an impressive story about the distribution of power that once seemed to be centered in the hands of male soldiers and generals but at the moment appeared to belong to the woman who was thought to be “good” only for seduction. This painting is located closely to some male portraits presented at this exhibition, which gives the visitors an opportunity to compare Valentin de Boulogne’s interpretation of gender roles. The location of Judith with the Head of Holofernes prompts to compare her with, for instance, Samson (1631, oil on canvas) or Saint Jerome (ca. 1628–29, oil on canvas).

The exhibition is arranged in a way to give as much information about the paintings as it is possible. The work of art titled Lute Player (ca. 1625–26, oil on canvas) is accompanied by a very detailed printed description and comprehensive audio guides. While studying this painting, Christiansen, one of the co-curators of this exhibition, advised to “look for the floor in a painting by Valentin: it’s nowhere to be found, because he wants that imagined floor to be shared space with the viewer”. This painting depicts that Valentin de Boulogne did not merely copy Caravaggio’s ideas but added his own innovative interpretations to his art. The lute player portrayed here is a “soldier of fortune,” which can be seen from his armor; however, he is engaged in a very sophisticated activity – playing the lute, which was considered to be an apt instrument for love songs. The curators also allowed the visitors to trace the development of the self-portrait theme in the oeuvre of Valentin de Boulogne as this lute player seems to be very similar to whom the artist was in his life – a troublemaker with an extraordinary artistic talent.

Moreover, the visitors may compare the lute that the man in the painting is playing to the real musical instruments of the seventeenth century also presented at this exhibition. Special attention should be paid to the lute created by Pietro Railich (German, 1615 – ca. 1678), which is exhibited at the same gallery. Although a musical instrument cannot be compared with a painting as they belong to entirely different spheres, this lute is also, to a certain extent, a work of art. Its elegant shape, as well as the textures of spruce, snakewood, and ebony that were used to create it, is in perfect harmony with its primary functions – to produce music. The addition of such everyday objects to the content of the exhibition was an excellent idea as it allowed to attach some level of multidimensionality to the whole event.

To better understand the message of the curators, it is important to pay attention to one of the paintings that was not created by Valentin de Boulogne. It is Denial of Saint Peter by Jusepe de Ribera. Giving a broader artistic and historical context to the works of Valentin de Boulogne is one of the primary purposes of this Met exhibition. Denial of Saint Peter is presented here because art historians believe Valentin de Boulogne to be one of the most successful Caravaggio’s followers, but this statement is quite difficult to accept without any visual evidence. The works of Jusepe de Ribera, one of the most influential Caravaggio’s followers in Rome before the appearance of Valentin de Boulogne, is supposed to show the achievements of this artistic school at the moment Valentin de Boulogne came to the stage. This painting serves as an impressive illustration of the principles Caravaggio’s followers believed to be the most important – the stillness of the moment and the effect of the moment frozen in time. It is also very interesting for the visitors to compare Denial of Saint Peter by Jusepe de Ribera with the painting on the same topic created by Valentin de Boulogne. Denial of Saint Peter  is located not far from Boulogne’s piece, which makes it quite easy for the visitors to see the similarities and differences between these artworks. This example also proves that the organizers and curators of this exhibition spent much time on improving all aspects of the event including the comfort of the visitors.

However, it is important to remember that contemporary museum exhibitions are usually not only about the display of artworks but also about the creation of catalogs. These books, which are often published in both printed and electronic versions, are aimed to provide a detailed description of the works exhibited during this event and make a contribution to the general studies of the theme discussed at the exhibition. In the case of Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio, it is a catalog with the same title prepared by the curators of the exhibition and distributed by Yale University Press.

All things considered, Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio is an exhibition that allows visitors to understand the nature and main artistic principles used by Valentin de Boulogne. It is of particular importance as this artist is not well-known in Europe and the USA. That is why this exhibition not only serves the purpose of showing Europe-based paintings to the US audience but also popularizes the painter whose talent allowed him to become one of the most influential and creative Caravaggio’s followers. One of the strongest points of this exhibition is the well-organized and logical arrangement of the paintings that enables visitors to analyze the main themes and trends in the oeuvre of Valentin de Boulogne. Another positive element is the inclusion of the works of other Caravaggio’s followers, armor, and musical instruments. In general, the exhibition and its catalog make a significant contribution to the development of the studies devoted to this French artist. This event may be interesting both for art connoisseurs and people who are not familiar with Valentin de Boulogne’s oeuvre.

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