14 May, 2009

News: Michelangelo’s first painting?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The Kimbell Art Museum, based in Fort Worth, paid an undisclosed figure for The Torment of St Anthony

A work of art believed to be Michelangelo’s first painting, completed when he was just 12 or 13 years old, has been acquired by a museum in Texas in deal that leaves other major galleries taking notice.

The Kimbell Art Museum, based in Fort Worth, paid an undisclosed figure for The Torment of St Anthony. Though the provenance of the painting has long been disputed, expert opinion has shifted in recent months to the view that it is indeed the earliest known painting of the master.

The work, oil and tempera on a poplar panel measuring 47cm x 34cm, is dated 1487 or 88. At that time Michelangelo had befriended an assistant in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio in Florence and is known to have copied an engraving of St Anthony by a German master called Martin Schongauer.

The disagreement has focused on whether this painting was created by Michelangelo’s own hand or whether it was produced by other artists in the workshop.

If confirmed as the missing Michelangelo, its acquisition by the Kimbell would amount to an astonishing coup by the museum.

It would make the Torment of St Anthony only one of four known easel paintings to have been created by Michelangelo, two others being in the National Gallery in London and the fourth in the Florence Uffizi.

It potentially provides new clues as to how Michelangelo came to settle on the colour palette he used in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

“This is a painting that will be studied for years and years to come,” said Eric Lee, the Kimbell’s director.

The painting depicts a sour-faced, white haired St Anthony being teased and tugged by monsters. It is based on the Schongauer engraving but differs from it in such ways that many experts now believe prove its provenance.

For instance, among the monsters are fish-like images. A contemporaneous early biographer of the master notes that Michelangelo visited a fishmarket while painting the Torment in order accurately to portray fish scales.

Further evidence that leans towards the Michelangelo interpretation has been uncovered in the past year when the painting was restored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Layers of dirt and grime were removed to unveil the original oils, while modern technologies including infrared scans and X-rays revealed the underlying pentimenti – the artist’s changes that were made as the work progressed.

The pentimenti convinced Lee and the Kimbell board that the painting could not have been a copy produced by the workshop but had to be the original article.

The Torment was owned from 1905 until last summer by a British private collector. It was sold by Sotheby’s for just $2m (£1.3m) – a breathtaking bargain if it is the Michelangelo – to a New York-based art dealer who was convinced that it came from the master.

The Met museum, having completed the restoration, was also convinced but was unable to find the purchase price amid the current financial crisis.

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