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Texas' Kimbell Art Museum claims a Michelangelo

May 13, 2009 |  6:22 pm

Michelangelo

What were you doing when you were 12?

If you were aspiring artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), you might have been painting a small panel in oils and tempera that showed a wary, white-bearded St. Anthony hovering in space over a serene but rocky landscape while being tortured by a grotesque array of nine ferocious devils. The image adapts an engraving by 15th century German artist Martin Schongauer, whose widely circulated prints were highly prized in Italy.

Now the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, says it has acquired that painting, "The Torment of Saint Anthony" (1487-88), for an undisclosed sum. The modest panel, about 18-by-13 inches, was not unknown. In fact, it has been around for at least 400 years. In "Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects," Giorgio Vasari, the Mannerist painter, historian and not always reliable gossip, describes the young Michelangelo making a copy of the work when he was studying in the Florentine workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio. The painting has most recently been in a private collection in Great Britain.

But the little painting's authorship has long been questioned. Last summer, Sotheby's sold it as a workshop picture from Ghirlandaio's studio. It fetched $2 million -- a small fraction of what a widely agreed-upon Michelangelo would have brought.

What's new, aside from the Kimbell's purchase, is the firm attribution to Michelangelo by one of the 

nation's premier art museums. (Only three other portable Michelangelo paintings are known, all of them in European museums.) The Kimbell has a superlative collection of European paintings; it has wrestled over the years with the Getty Museum, its main rival among small but exceedingly rich institutions, over acquiring key works to develop its holdings.

Following extensive conservation and technical study of the panel at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Eric McCauley Lee, the Kimbell's young new director, has gone out on a limb to make the high-profile claim. He's certainly not out there alone. Everett Fahy, the Met's own Renaissance curator, reportedly concurs, but the New York museum's current financial position apparently didn't allow for such a purchase. Many most-eminent-scholars disagree with the Michelangelo attribution, however, so expect the disputes to continue.

Lee, 42, was named to the Kimbell directorship in January, after an 18-month search; he began work just seven weeks ago. Before that he was director (for a scant two years) of Cincinnati's Taft Museum of Art and of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma for nearly a decade before that.

Michelangelo or not, this much is certain: With this acquisition, Lee's arrival in Texas now qualifies as a full-fledged splash.

-- Christopher Knight

Credit: Associated Press

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