What Was Michelangelo’s First Painting?


What was Michelangelo’s first painting?

A painting with a suspicious provenance has been purchased by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas for an undisclosed amount.

Purportedly, the painting called “The Torment of Saint Anthony”, was the first painting of Michelangelo Buonarroti, completed when he was a young teenager, or perhaps even a preteen. If the painting is that of a young Michelangelo, it would be one of just four “easel paintings” made by the master.

Though the provenance of the painting, a historical document that verifies the painting’s past ownership and history, has long been disputed in the notoriously difficult to please world of classic art, expert opinion has shifted in recent months. Many art historians now believe that the painting is in fact the earliest known painting of the famous Michelangelo.

The work, composed of oil and tempera on a poplar wood panel, measures 47cm x 34cm, and is dated either 1487 or 1488. At that time, Michelangelo was the friend of an assistant in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio in the city of Florence. At that time, it is well established that Michelangelo copied an engraving of St Anthony by a German master named Martin Schongauer. This seems to lend some credence to the painting.

The disagreement over “The Torment of Saint Anthony” (a classic scene depicted by many artists over the years) has focused on whether this painting was indeed created by Michelangelo’s own hand or whether it may have been produced by other artists working in the same workshop. If confirmed as the “first” Michelangelo painting, the acquisition of The Torment of St. Anthony by the Kimbell would be an major coup in the world of classic art, and a huge piece of publicity for the museum.

The only other easel paintings made by Michelangelo are hanging in the National Gallery in London, with a potential fourth being shown in the Florence Uffizi. The new painting could provide new clues as to how Michelangelo selected the colour palette he used in the famous Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

The Kimbell Art Museum’s director, Eric Lee, released a simple statement on the painting, saying “This is a painting that will be studied for years and years to come.”

The painting in question depicts a grumpy and white haired Saint Anthony being attacked and tugged on by vicious looking demonic monsters. The depiction of Saint Anthony does appear to be based on the Schongauer engraving, but differs from the original in a few ways that could prove to experts that it was made by the hand of Michelangelo. For example, among the demons attacking Saint Anthony are fish like creatures. According to an early biographer of Michelangeo, the artist apparently visited a fish monger while painting “the Torment” in an attempt to more accurately portray the scales of a fish. This could be the kind of clue required of a painting’s provenance that seals the deal.

More evidence of the painting’s provenance as a work of Michelangelo has been uncovered in the past year and a half, while the painting was being restored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. During the restoration, several layers of dirt and other impurities were removed by art restorers to get to the original oils used in the painting. Even more restoration work, achieved with infrared scans and X-ray imagery, revealed the underlying “pentimenti” – a word that refers to changes an artist makes as a work of art is in progress. The evidence of the “pentimenti” convinced the Kimbell’s board and art director that the painting could not have been a copy or ripoff produced by the other members of the workshop Michelangelo was studying at. The board of the Kimbell Art Museum believe there is no other conclusion other than that “The Torment of Saint Anthony” is in fact the real deal.

Between 1905 and 2008, “The Torment of Saint Anthony” was owned by a British private collector. It was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for just $2 million – a true bargain if it is the work of Michelangelo. A New York based art dealer was convinced enough that the painting was made by Michelangelo, and made the purchase to have the painting researched further.

After completing the restoration, The Met in New York was eually convinced of the painting’s provenance, but was unable to find a willing buyer, probably due to the current financial crisis.

Should the painting turn out to be a verifiable work of Michelangelo, it could be worth somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Though we don’t know yet what the Kimbell Art Museum paid for the small easel painting, it is unlikely that they paid anywhere near the true value of the work. Could this be the greatest bargain in the history of the art market? Until we know if “The Torment of Saint Anthony” is a legitimate work of Michelangelo, and until the Kimbell reveals what they paid for the work, we can only guess.