Without a doubt, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an awesome exhibit of Valentin de Boulogne’s works going on right now until January 16, 2017. French philosopher Montaigne (1533-1592), and especially his essay “Apology for Raymond Sebond” (1568), is contemporaneous with French painter Valentin Boulogne’s (1591-1632) paintings.
Montaigne is even a source for Boulogne in the curator’s notes in this exhibit. Montaigne’s essay is a defense (after the original Greek meaning of the word “apology”) of skepticism, and the essay is a motivator. The essay is both a carrot and a stick, because Montaigne writes that it’s impossible to know. Readers feel a tantalizing and fun challenge about all of the deceptions of life. Reading a lot of so called “modern” philosophy (only 400 years ago) gives one the impression that the philosophers were heroes of knowledge, dauntless and courageous.
Deception can be fun and exciting in Boulogne’s paintings. Deception is a tool for a person’s enemy, a challenging force for the scientist, a fact of life for the old man and a tool for drama in paintings. For Americans, dramas are on television shows and movies, and for Boulogne that meant narrative paintings—sometimes called genre paintings—that are cinematic in scope.
Boulogne’s early works reflect a young man’s disdain for tricks and fakeness of authorities. These early works reflect a sense of fun. Chicanery serves in these paintings as a MacGuffin and a Where’s Waldo? Who’s being tricked and how?
In at least a half-dozen paintings about parties and fortune tellers, Boulogne shows a mastery of these games, with an enthusiastic and excited audience as a result.
Boulogne is sort of like the director of the Transformers movies, Michael Bay, in these paintings—he just wants to show a cool story. In painting after painting, some character in the scene steals a chicken from a man’s pocket as he is playing guitar or having his fortune told by a gypsy. The gypsy might be in on the joke, or she might be the villain who organized the steal anyway. Maybe not. In one painting, a man steals a gypsy’s purse. All the while, Boulogne poses musicians, drunks and fortune-tellers at these parties, with the basic question of whether these fixtures—fortune tellers and guitar players—are deceivers themselves.
Is the drunkard tricking himself into momentary happiness?
Stuff gets real when Boulogne hits religion, and while Boulogne never leaves Christianity, it’s such a big philosophy that he doesn’t need to. Boulogne’s version of “The Last Supper of Christ” is so straightforward that the painting will give the viewer goosebumps. After so many paintings of actors, fakeness and vanities, Christ looms over a sleeping drunk at the table and gazes out at the audience of the painting. The drunkard sleeping at the table is proxy for anyone who is unaware of what happens around him. His full-on eye contact gives a blistering attack on anyone who engages in vanities and idiocies of short-term thinking.
Does Judas really think he’s going to trick an omniscient deity? And by extension, does anyone looking at the painting think they’re going to pull a fast one on Jesus Christ?
That’s all great. Boulogne has cool dramatic explosions about frauds and charlatans, and he answers these with straightforward and courageous Christian heroes. What do the flourishes of red drapes mean? Well, the drapes are certainly pyrotechnics, too. Any painting student who sits down to create a realistic image of what the eye sees in a carpet or in the folds of a shirt will tell you this kind of painting takes mastery and craftsmanship—dedication that takes hours of patience.
Nevertheless, the subtle and diabolical explosions of red drapes are metaphors for blood. Five-hundred years later this is still creepy, and these paintings have bite.
In extreme litotes and understatement, Mao Zedong said, “Revolution is not a dinner party,” and that’s the joke that’s going on here. In Boulogne’s paintings of children and heroes covered in red sheets, the artist is saying he recognizes death. Boulogne’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” has an imposing perspective that forces the viewer to lean down and cower like the main character of the painting, and thus the viewer feels the thankfulness the son feels. Next to the son, however, a bully holds a giant red sheet.
Boulogne’s paintings are fun and spiritual, but the bully with the red drapes is never far behind. In his painting of the youthful “St. John the Baptist,” there’s a comedic turn to these menacing statements when the viewer says, “Dude, you painted little kids in those red drapes?” Against his loyal art admirer, Boulogne goes in for his kill here: If you don’t understand his paintings, then you might run out of time before you do.
Cover photo credit: “Return of the Prodigal Son”—Valentin de Boulogne (French, Coulommiers-en-Brie 1591–1632 Rome). Museo della Venerabile Arciconfraternita della Misericordia, Florence.
*Media images courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition going on now until January 16. For more information, please click the link here.