The Kimbell Art Museum has acquired The Torment of Saint Anthony, the first known painting by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564). 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 easel paintings generally regarded as having 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 new acquisition is the first painting by Michelangelo to enter an American collection.
The painting 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 recent cleaning of Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony at the Metropolitan has 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 pentimenti (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.