The Kimbell Art Museum will soon be the only U.S. museum to display a Michelangelo painting after acquiring his earliest known work, a rare treasure that was tucked away and doubted as authentic for more than a century.
The museum declined to disclose how much it paid for "The Torment of Saint Anthony," a 15th-century oil and tempera painting on a wood panel that depicts scaly, horned, winged demons trying to pull the saint out of the sky. Experts believe he painted it when he was only 12 or 13 years old.
And only four such works — including this one — by the artist exist, and two of them are unfinished. Most of his paintings are frescos, the famous scenes on the ceiling and wall of Rome's Sistine Chapel.
"This is one of the greatest rediscoveries in the history of art," Eric M. Lee, the Fort Worth museum's director, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "The evidence could not be stronger. It's like a detective story, like a mystery, and it involves one of the greatest artists of all time."
The painting was exhibited as late as 1874 in Paris. But some questions about its authenticity had surfaced through the years, and after a London family acquired it in the 1900s, the painting was kept privately and largely forgotten in the art world, Lee said.
Last summer an art dealer bought it for nearly $2 million at a Sotheby's auction and then took it to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where one department chairman shared his hunch that it was the work of the Renaissance artist, Lee said.
Experts in the Met's paintings conservation department carefully cleaned it by removing decades of dirt, as well as paint layers that art restorers had applied through the ages to fill in chips or dull areas, Lee said.
When they examined the painting further using X-rays and infrared technology, they were able to see how the artist made certain brush strokes, scraped paint layers to achieve detail and even changed elements of the painting before the final version, Lee said.
Museum experts said they determined it not only was Michelangelo's — based on similarities to his other works and the artist's stories of the piece as told to biographers — but also that it was his earliest work — based on its age and details in the painting. The confirmation came a few months ago, and then the Kimbell decided to buy it, Lee said.
The generations of dirt and paint buildup had obscured the painting's identity, and some doubted its authenticity because a similar painting existed, Lee said. But an art expert who extensively studied both paintings said the other was done in the 17th century.
Michelangelo's piece has previously been known as "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" because he was inspired by a similar engraving of that name while learning to be an artist. But after the Kimbell acquired the oil painting, Lee decided to change its name because that engraving depicts a different scene, he said.
The painting will be displayed at the Kimbell starting this fall after a summer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Lee said he may loan the painting to other museums later for traveling exhibits.
"This could not be a rarer object," Lee said. "That's why this is such an extraordinary opportunity."
Kimbell Art Museum: http://www.kimbellart.org