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Valentin, the French Caravaggio

Valentin de Boulogne (French - Christ and the Adulteress - Google Art Project
Christ and the Adulteress, 1625

Born in north-central France on January 3, 1591, Valentin de Boulogne was a Baroque painter who spent most of his career in Italy, so heavily influenced by the tenebrism of Caravaggio that he would become one of the leading exponents of the Caravaggisti. Having studied under the artist who brought the Baroque to France, Simon Vouet, Valentin would synthesize his own fingerprint onto this genre in a way that few others did. Facial expression, body language, and attention to anatomy are what dominate the work of Valentin, with small accents of vibrant color. While Caravaggio's realism maintains a sense of Classicism, Valentin has more of the Baroque drama and dynamic anatomy—his figures seem to wrestle within the confines of the moment. Yet Valentin's realism in portraiture has a powerful presence that rivalled the best of his day. Unfortunately like some of his contemporaries, Valentin died young at the age of 41, where had he lived long enough he could have had a profound effect on the direction of the Baroque.

Observe in Christ and the Adulteress above how Valentin makes full use of space in the composition to intensify the scene. It is also interesting to note in the faces of the figures we see all the influences of Valentin...Rubens, Van Dyck, Caravaggio, Parmigianino, and even Simon Vouet. Valentin loosely groups the four figures on the left horizontally, almost in a v-formation, while the figures on the right are nearly on top of each other, in a step-like structure with Christ's arm pointing down to what appears to be the feet of Mary Magdalene. Interestingly, it also appears that Christ himself and old man behind him are checking out the cleavage of this woman, if she is indeed Mary Magdalene; if so, Valentin was even more cynical than Caravaggio. The soldier or guard adds an unease to the painting, with his left hand on his sword ready for any trouble. Valentin paints the background with an unusual dark green imprimatura that he leaves for its somber quality, and it brings out the red accents on the sleeves of the guard, the dress of Mary, and the old man with glasses above and behind Christ. Valentin is telling us here of the hypocrisy in judging a woman, especially if those judging are more unsavory than her.

Martyrdom of St Processo and St Martiniano, by Valentin de Boulogne/a>
Martyrdom of Saint Processus and Saint Martinian, 1629

I had the pleasure of seeing this incredible painting at the Vatican when I was in Rome over two years ago. Look at the arrangement of the three foreground figures and the two martyrs being tortured. Valentin's dynamism for such a gruelling scene is absolutely captivating: the first figure is crouched with sword in hand looking down, the second turns the wheel of the torture device while the third stands twisting with a stick of some sort in hand. The physicality and sense of movement here is palpable, even sculptural, with clear influences of Renaissance, Mannerism and Italian Baroque. Saint Processus and Saint Martinian were soldiers guarding Saint Peter and Paul in prison and after witnessing a divine waterflow were both baptized by Saint Peter in the cell, according to legend and since they became Christians were later tortured and beheaded by Nero. Valentin captures the horror on their faces in a way never before seen in a painting like this. Note the complacency and natural expression of the two guards talking to Lucina, the woman who would later bury them. In the background we see St. Peter in a blue robe, seemingly unable to look at the scene yet awaiting his own horrible death. Valentin paints an angel falling out of the clouds with a long black feather in hand, hand to his heart, also horrified by this scene. The realism Valentin has created here with his unique touch, actually using anatomy as a visual device to intensify the drama unfolding, is brilliant.

Valentin de Boulogne, Last Supper
The Last Supper, 1626

Once again Valentin favours a crowded arrangement of figures with little use of empty space, creating a rather claustrophobic version of a famous theme that traditionally uses plenty of horizontal space. This tighter positioning of the apostles serves to illustrate how close they were as friends, and as followers of Christ. The faces here are also once again heavily influenced by Rubens and Van Dyck. Beside Christ is St. John who sleeps while the others react predictably to the betrayal prophecy, and St. Thomas in the foreground holds his bag of coins for his deceit, face hidden in shadow. Note how the reactions are depicted in a more naturalistic way than previous artists, and Valentin prefers to use chiaroscuro to tell the story, with the complete absence of a background. Despite Valentin's Classical structure, the figures here also writhe and sit uncomfortably, and even the figure in the foreground reaches for a wine jug underneath the table. Christ's penetrating gaze is directed right at us, the viewer, with a somber expression of innocence.

Samson, 1630

More portrait than depiction of a biblical figure, the influence of Caravaggio is much more obvious here in that Samson could be the face of anyone. According to the story in the bible, Samson is attacked by a lion and with his god-like powers rips it apart, literally, and is in awe of this divine strength. Valentin's genius for facial expression here is real and full of confusion...a man who is not quite sure how he was able to defeat a ferocious lion. This kind of attention to the psychology of a subject is what separates him from many painters, yet in Caravaggio's later work he also realized the value of capturing the emotions of the face. Instead of the massive Classical giant he is normally depicted as, Valentin has chosen to portray him as an average looking man of good physical condition. Every portrait they say is a reflection of the artist, and in this case there is much to see in the mind of Valentin himself.

Valentin de Boulogne, Judith

A truly stunning portrait. Judith was a common theme, painted by many other tenebrists including Artemisia, Allori, Caravaggio and Vouet, and each one of those interpretations is distinct and personal. Here, Valentin paints her as if we already know her, as a strong woman justifying her deed with hand pointed toward heaven. Compare this with the others who show the violent act with perverse detail. Valentin ironically has chosen a more Classical approach, which makes sense as there is only so much bloodshed an artist can depict of the same scene. What is also curious about Valentin is the way he paints drapery, in how he glazes transparent murky colors into some of his folds in such a way as to heighten drama, as it does here near the head of Holophernes. Valentin does not see her as vicious or vengeful at all, but honest and human. Note the ornate detail in her belt and in the handle of the sword.

The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew

Depicted here being flayed alive, St. Bartholomew is treated like an ordinary looking elderly man, not heroic-looking or dignified, but innocent and being martyred for his beliefs. Once again, Valentin uses anatomy as a dramatic storytelling device to describe this humble old man and what is happening to him. Note the twisting forms of the two men on either side, as if butchers cutting meat. Valentin makes a bold statement on how artists envision the saints of the bible, and how they actually might have been as opposed to being glorified, and the result here is to make us feel revolted and sympathetic at the same time.

Boulogne, Valentin de - Rafaello Menicucci - Google Art Project
Rafaello Menicucci, 1632

This remarkable honest portrait has so much presence it practically talks. Rafaello Menicucci was a court buffoon from a noble Italian family, and in his hands apparently is a drawing for the monastery of Santa Chiara in Tuscany. Here Valentin utilizes his genius for facial expression to his peak, creating a portrait that speaks louder than words or description, without pose or artificiality, but pure directness. Not even Caravaggio had this kind of power.

Valentin de Boulogne, Judgment of Solomon 02
The Judgment of Solomon, ca.1625

Another familiar biblical story painted by many artists, Valentin's treatment is dark and somber even though we know the outcome is safe and truthful. Instead, Valentin focuses on the selfishness of human nature and the lengths people will go to in order to try to "win". Note the look of confusion and innocence on the face of the child being grabbed by the guard. The twisting body language, fluid and agitated at the same time, adds to the drama. King Solomon's outstretched arm, looking sternly at the guard, is riveting.

Valentin de Boulogne - The Four Ages of Man - WGA24241
The Four Ages of Man, 1628

Valentin's most symbolic painting of his career, the four prominent stages of life are portrayed like a card game, with the innocence and gullibility of the young boy holding a trap, the charmer/musician, the knight in armour asleep from reading a book, and the elderly man drinking booze with his winnings. A very cynical view from a very cynical artist, Valentin clearly believed in few heroes or fairy tales. This directness is rather refreshing, even though not original, yet he saw with an eye that makes his work distinctly sharp and intelligent. The lesson he offers us as artists is not to show people what they want to see, but to paint what you believe, with all the tools you have to tell your story, remembering that faces and body language never lie.


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