Did Valentin de Boulogne Put Man Before God?

THE DAILY PIC: At the Metropolitan Museum, Valentin's Biblical scenes come by way of Roman taverns – but which mattered more to him?

THE DAILY PIC (#1705): The Metropolitan Museum in New York is currently hosting “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” the first survey of this (sometimes slavish) follower of the more famous Italian master. Today’s Pic is Valentin’s Denial of Saint Peter, from around 1615 and now in the Longhi foundation in Florence.

For ages, the standard line about this kind of painting is that its particular kind of day-to-day realism (“verism” is the term of art) brought viewers closer to the lived reality of the stories told in the Bible. Going through the Met show, however, I was struck by just the opposite: That Valentin’s pictures are very clearly all about, and utterly set in, the Roman world he and his viewers knew. After all, there’s barely any difference between Valentin’s images of life in Roman taverns (see below) and in Jerusalem, circa 33 AD.

And then, when I saw a reference in a wall text to the paintings’ tableau-vivant effect, it occurred to me that these canvases, with their utterly plain backgrounds, must not even have evoked the streets of Rome so much as a scene that has very clearly been staged in a famous artist’s studio. (The same models in fact repeat from one painting to another, as patrons must have recognized.)

If it’s true that the Renaissance signals a new notion that human beings were at the center of all things, and that the artist was in some sense the exemplary creative human, then Valentin’s paintings may need to be thought of in different terms. Rather than having to do with any kind of fiercely imagined religiosity, they may have signaled an ever-growing inability of religion, with its emphasis on past events and future salvation, to compete with the glorious mess of the human here and now – including the glorious messes of art. And let’s not forget that there were at least as many clerics who hated Carravaggio’s new style of art as liked it. They may have had good reason to do so.

BPK 50.005.047

Valentin de Boulogne, Cardsharps (Gemaldegalerie, Dresden)


For a full survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.

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