- New York Times story
- Expanded online story:
The image is of St. Anthony being tormented by eight flying demons. The painting is on a wooden panel, 18 inches tall. And some scholars are now convinced that Michelangelo Buonarotti completed it in 1487-88 — when he was 12 or 13 years old.
Eric McCauley Lee is the new director of the Kimbell:
LEE:“The rarity of this work is extraordinary. It’s absolutely unbelievable to me that the Kimbell has been able to acquire a painting by Michelangelo.”
It’s rare because it’s only one of four easel paintings the artist made, and now the only one in an American museum. Normally, when he painted, Michelangelo painted frescoes like those in the Sistine Chapel.
Historians have known that when he was young, the Italian Renaissance master painted a St. Anthony — they’ve known it ever since 1550, when critic and art historian Giorgio Vasari reported it in his famous book, Lives of the Artists. Michelangelo’s biographer and former student, Ascanio Condivi, also wrote about it. As recently as the 1960s, Everett Fahy, a noted expert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, believed the panel was authentic.
But since the 19th century, scholars had come to discount it. Some haven’t even mentioned it in their works on Michelangelo. For much of the 20th century, it was owned by a British collector and remained unseen by the public.
LEE: “As with so many works of art, it was so discolored by overpaint and dirt and darkened varnish that it became unrecognizable as a Michelangelo.”
The painting is based on an engraving by Martin Schongauer. Young artists often copy master works as a student exercise. But in 1487, Michelangelo chose not an Italian artist but a German one, and he chose to paint his version, so he could outdo Schongauer’s black and white image. According to Condivi’s account, Michelangelo even visited a fish market so he could copy the fish scales correctly that he wanted to add to a demon. According to Vasari, the painting (and his youth) won Michelangelo a lot of attention.
The painting is not without its doubters. It has most often been attributed to the “workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio,” where Michelangelo later apprenticed. And that’s how it was listed at an auction last July, when New York art dealer Adam Williams bought the panel for $2 million. He turned it over to the Met for cleaning and tests, including digital infrared reflectography (which is useful for revealing the “under drawings” of paintings). These treatments revealed not a copy but a work, dated to the late 15th century, done by an artist clearly experimenting with different painting techniques and changing Schongauer’s original as he went – pretty much just as Vasari and Condivi wrote.
The Kimbell bought The Torment of St. Anthony from Williams but would not reveal the price. The New York Times is saying that experts peg it at more than $6 million. Gaile Robinson in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram puts the figure much higher. The painting will be on display at the Met beginning in June. And this fall, the Michelangelo will come to the Kimbell in Fort Worth.
[A note on the title: Like many works in this tradition, the Schongauer engraving is often called “The Temptation of St. Anthony.” But St. Anthony the Egyptian, the founder of Christian monasticism, was a third-century hermit whose temptations were many — including laziness and various phantom women. But here, he’s literally bedeviled, which, according to the account by Athanasius of Alexandria, is what Satan resorted to only when the temptations failed to do the job.
The confusion seems to have evolved over the years because famous treatments of the theme, like the ones by Hieronymous Bosch and Jan Brueghel, conflate Anthony’s entire life into one image or triptych with demons, women, animals, etc. Such works would more properly be called The Temptations of St. Anthony.
Hence, the Kimbell’s wish to distinguish its Michelangelo painting with the the more specific title, The Torment of St. Anthony. Presumably, the “torture” of St. Anthony would be deemed too topical or political.]