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Getting Ready for Valentin de Boulogne's Big Day

Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist

The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, France. All photographs courtesy of the author

On October 7, 2016, the Department of European Paintings will open a magnificent exhibition—the first ever to be devoted to Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632), one of the most original followers of Caravaggio. A French painter active in Rome, Valentin was famous in his own day, and his unique voice continues to speak to us now. I first encountered his paintings in the Louvre in 1967, and I have been hooked ever since. This is an exhibition I have wanted to do for years.

Who would have thought that to put together the exhibition I would be in what is beginning to feel like perpetual movement: hunting down his rare paintings and, with my French collaborator (the exhibition will also travel to the Louvre), making trips across both the United States and Europe.

The latest destination was to the little town of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, in the foothills of the French Alps. There in the beautiful sacristy of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, hung high on a wall, is a marvelous painting by Valentin showing Saint John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. Given to the church in 1733, it was taken down for us to examine, and I have to say that the trip—three hours on the train from Paris, followed by an hour drive—was really worth it. What a powerful painting!

Valentin's Saint John the Baptist

Valentin's Saint John the Baptist during close inspection in the cathedral sacristy

Valentin took as his point of departure a celebrated picture by Caravaggio, but Valentin instead makes the figure address us, the viewer. The artist constantly sought new ways to bring viewers into his picture by activating the space between painting and observer. By so doing, he moved beyond Caravaggio's art—which is exactly why the exhibition will be titled Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio.

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