Michelangelo's First Painting: "The Torment of Saint Anthony"

Michelangelo's First Painting: "The Torment of Saint Anthony"

September 26, 2009 to November 15, 2009

Michelangelo’s first known painting, The Torment of Saint Anthony, went on view among the permanent collection of the Kimbell Art Museum on September 26, 2009. The Kimbell Art Museum acquired the painting in May 2009. Described by Michelangelo’s earliest biographers, this remarkably fresh and well-preserved gem is believed to have been painted in 1487–88, when Michelangelo was 12 or 13 years old. The work is executed in egg tempera and oil on a wooden panel and is 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, The Manchester Madonna and The Entombment, both housed in the National Gallery, London.

The Kimbell’s acquisition was the first painting by Michelangelo to enter an American collection.

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.

The Torment of Saint Anthony 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 cleaning of Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony at the Metropolitan 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 (1550, 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. 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.

Caption: Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Torment of Saint Anthony (detail), c. 1487–88, tempera and oil on panel. Kimbell Art Museum