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Kimbell Art Museum Presents Michelangelo’s First Painting : The Torment of Saint Anthony

Michelangelo’s first known painting, The Torment of Saint Anthony, will be on view among the permanent collection of the Kimbell Art Museum.

The Kimbell Art Museum acquired the painting in May 2009. It will be featured in a focus exhibition including a facsimile of the Schongauer engraving on which it is based and the recent technical examinations and scholarly analyses that identify it as the painting described by Michelangelo’s biographers.

Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, commented, “I am delighted with the reception that The Torment of Saint Anthony received in New York and look forward to welcoming Michelangelo’s painting to its new home at the Kimbell Art Museum. I can hardly wait to see the painting hanging in the galleries of Louis Kahn’s landmark building.”

This work was executed in oil and tempera on a wooden panel in 1487–88, when the artist was only 12 to 13 years old. It is the first painting by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) to enter an American collection, and one of only four known easel paintings generally believed to come from his hand. The others are the Doni Tondo in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and two unfinished paintings in London’s National Gallery, The Manchester Madonna and The Entombment.

The painting was offered at Sotheby’s in 2008 as “workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio.” The Sotheby’s entry noted that Everett Fahy, curator emeritus of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, who had known the work since 1960, believed it to be by Michelangelo. Purchased by Adam Williams Fine Art, New York, the panel was brought to the Metropolitan, where it underwent conservation and technical research.

The recent cleaning of Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony at the Metropolitan has revealed the quality of the small panel. Michael Gallagher, conservator in charge of paintings conservation, removed the layers of yellowed varnish and clumsy, discolored overpaint that obscured the artist’s distinctive palette and compromised the illusion of depth and sculptural form. The technical study accompanying the cleaning has provided evidence of artist’s changes, signifying that the painting is an original work of art and not a copy after another painting.

Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists (1551, second edition 1568), and Ascanio Condivi—Michelangelo’s former student whose information for his biography of the artist (1553) came directly from the master—both recount how the young Michelangelo painted a copy of the engraving Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons by the 15th-century German master Martin Schongauer. Vasari relates that Michelangelo bought fish with bizarrely colorful scales so that he could render the strange forms of the devils. Condivi also wrote that in order to give the demonic creatures veracity, Michelangelo went to the fish market to study the shape and color of the fins, eyes, and other parts of the fish. The spiny, long-snouted demon with brilliantly colored scales (the scales are absent from the engraving) particularly associates the Kimbell panel with these descriptions. The work probably dates from the time Michelangelo was informally associated with Ghirlandaio’s workshop, just before he began his brief apprenticeship with this important master.

The rare subject is found in the life of Saint Anthony the Great, written by Athanasius of Alexandria in the 4th century, which describes how the Egyptian hermit saint levitated into the air and was attacked by demons, whose torments he resisted. According to Condivi, it was the artist Francesco Granacci, Michelangelo’s older friend, who gave him access to some of the prints and drawings in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio. In an effort to try his hand at painting, Michelangelo reportedly took Schongauer’s print and produced a mesmerizing rendition of it on a wooden panel that earned him great repute and fame.

Born in 1475 near Florence, Michelangelo is universally acknowledged as one of the towering geniuses of the Renaissance. Already by his teenage years, he had proven himself a superlative sculptor and painter. Best known for his mature works such as the ceiling frescoes in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, he evolved a forceful, muscular style that gripped the imaginations of artists for decades to come. First and foremost, Michelangelo thought himself a sculptor, and many of his works in marble are icons of Western art: his Vatican Pietà, his vigorous David in Florence, and his tragic, unfinished Rondanini Pietà in Milan. As a painter, Michelangelo was equally influential. As The Torment of Saint Anthony proves, he was drawn to painting at an early age, and by the time of his later masterpiece, The Last Judgment, also in the Sistine Chapel, he had presided over a vast revolution in Italian painting.

Image: Michelangelo The Torment of Saint Anthony (detail)

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