I’ve spent the last eight months researching an authorized history of Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, work that has taken me to New York City, the California wine country and finally to Genoa, Italy, (tough duty, I know) to visit with legendary architect Renzo Piano and his team.
It has also been my privilege to spend many hours reminiscing with Kay and Ben Fortson, president and vice president of the Kimbell Art Foundation. Over the past 50 years, with no previous experience in the museum world, the Fort Worth, Texas, couple has created and nurtured one of the world’s most respected cultural institutions. It’s a remarkable and largely untold story.
The original Kimbell building, designed by architect Louis Kahn and opened in 1972, is almost universally regarded as one of the great structures of the last century. The Kimbell art collection is small but recognized internationally for its uncompromising quality.
Most recently, with the need for more gallery space becoming acute, the Fortsons took on the daunting task of building a companion to the Kahn. The Renzo Piano Pavilion, named for its architect, opened in the fall of 2013.
“People love it,” said Eric Lee, who became the Kimbell’s fourth director in March 2009. “It has been extremely well received, and especially by the community, which is so gratifying.”
For Lee, a Yale-educated native of North Carolina, it’s been a whirlwind six years. Long an admirer of Kahn’s, Lee stepped into his dream job midway through the design process of the new building. On his second day at the Kimbell, he learned that one of only four Michelangelo easel paintings known to exist was up for sale. The Kimbell eventually purchased “The Torment of Saint Anthony” (for more than $6 million, according to the New York Times), which made it the first Michelangelo painting sold since the 1860s. Other works acquired by the Kimbell during Lee’s tenure include masterpieces by Nicolas Poussin and Jacob van Ruisdael.
Lee and I recently spent three memorable hours together. We discussed the new building over lunch at the Kimbell restaurant, then wandered through the galleries of the Kahn where the permanent collection of European art is displayed. We lingered longest in front of the Michelangelo, and one of the Kimbell’s other signature paintings, “The Cardsharps” by Caravaggio.
Speaking in a gallery whisper, Lee offered me a fascinating window into the world of Old Master paintings. I had no clue about the inherent intrigue and the detective work that had been necessary to bring the iconic works to Fort Worth. What follows are excerpts from my insider’s tour, including the first detailed account of how Michelangelo found a home at the Kimbell.
Tim Madigan: We’re standing in front of “The Cardsharps” by Caravaggio, the 1595 painting said to be one of the most significant of the Italian’s career. Is that actually the case?
Eric Lee: It is certainly one of the most important paintings of Caravaggio’s career. In fact, it’s the painting that established his reputation. It was copied dozens of times and inspired so many others, like the Georges de La Tour (“The Cheat With the Ace of Club”) that’s also in our collection. Caravaggio was one of the most influential painters of all time. You wouldn’t have had Rembrandt if not for Caravaggio. But by the 18th century his reputation took a nose dive, and he was considered sort of a hooligan. He languished in the shadows of art history until after World War II, when his reputation began to be resurrected. This particular painting, though, has always been famous.
TM: Tell me how it got to Fort Worth.
EL: We know everything about “The Cardsharps” from the time it was painted until the 1890s, on which wall in which palazzo it was hung and so forth. Then, the owner sold it to a French collector. From that moment, we know nothing about its whereabouts until 1986, when a dealer showed the painting to Ted Pillsbury (the Kimbell’s director at the time) and his good friend and adviser, John Brealey (the conservator of paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). They thought it was the lost painting, though at the time, many other leading figures in the art world didn’t. Most believed it to be a copy.
The Kimbell ended up buying the painting pending further study. Brealey cleaned it at the Met, and beneath the surface, he found pentimenti, which are changes to the composition made by an artist while painting. Pentimenti suggest that a painting is an original and not a copy. But the smoking gun came when Brealey removed an old lining from the back of the canvas and discovered the seal of Cardinal del Monte.
TM: The cardinal was Caravaggio’s first benefactor.
EL: Right, and he was the documented original owner of the painting. Caravaggio had been an unknown yet ambitious artist working in Rome when he painted “The Cardsharps.” In order to get the attention of a major collector such as Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio created a different type of painting, one which had a greater sense of realism and drama than what had appeared in paintings before.
When Cardinal del Monte saw the painting, which a dealer was offering for sale, he bought it, invited Caravaggio to move into his Palazzo and arranged for important commissions. From that point on, Caravaggio was one of the best known and most influential artists working in Rome.
TM: There seem to be parallels between the Kimbell’s acquisition of the Caravaggio and the acquisition of the Michelangelo, which you learned about on your second day at the Kimbell.
EL: Absolutely. At first, the Michelangelo seemed too good to be true. I was ecstatic over the possibility of buying what would be the only Michelangelo painting in the Americas, painted when Michelangelo was only 12 or 13, but skepticism and caution initially tempered my excitement.
The painting had been described in detail by writers who were contemporary admirers and associates of Michelangelo, and the painting was even mentioned at Michelangelo’s funeral. So, it was known that this painting had once existed, but no one knew what had become of it. Then for us to have the chance to acquire it …
TM: Do tell.
EL: The painting had been sold at auction in England in 2008 to a New York-based English dealer named Adam Williams. It needed cleaning, and almost no one believed it was by Michelangelo except Edward Fahy, who has since retired but was then the chairman of European paintings at the Met. The painting easily got a British export license because no one in Britain believed the painting was by Michelangelo. Adam Williams then took the painting to the Met, where it was cleaned by Michael Gallagher, who incidentally once worked as an associate conservator at the Kimbell with conservator Claire Barry. After this cleaning, the quality of the painting was evident, and when infrared images — which are like X-rays — were made of the painting, numerous pentimenti became apparent.
So on my second day at the Kimbell, I learned about the painting from Ted Pillsbury, who was friends with the dealer. Very few people knew about it then. Phillipe de Montebello had retired as director of the Met at the end of December 2008, the same month they realized the painting was indeed by Michelangelo, so its destiny vis-à-vis the Met would be determined during the tenure of Tom Campbell, the Met’s next director. At the time, the economy was in a free fall, but because of the way the Kimbell’s investments were structured, the Kimbell was in a better position than most other institutions to make acquisitions. At any other time, the painting most likely would not have come to the Kimbell.
TM: So you jumped at the chance.
EL: It wasn’t that simple. I went up to the Met with Claire Barry (the Kimbell’s conservator) to examine the painting first hand and to meet with people involved with its rediscovery. I asked Keith Christiansen, who is now head of European art at the Met, ‘How certain are you that this is Michelangelo?’ He said, ‘I’m 100 percent certain that it’s Michelangelo, but it will take 20 years for there to be a consensus (among art historians).’
But all the evidence pointed to Michelangelo. As I said, it had been described in great detail by early writers who were Michelangelo’s contemporaries. They wrote that Michelangelo’s first painting had been a copy after a print of “The Torment of St. Anthony” by the German artist Martin Schongauer. They wrote that Michelangelo had visited the fish market in Florence to study the scales of fish in order to incorporate them into the painting of the demons, which would make the demons appear more natural. These fish scales are clearly seen in the painting. We know that the painting was made in Florence in the late 15th century, and if any other artist working in Florence at that time had done exactly the same thing, Michelangelo would not have made so much out of the story, including the visit to the fish market, throughout his entire life. So, the painting had to be Michelangelo’s lost painting, or else a copy after it, and the infrared images showing pentimenti indicated that the painting was clearly not a copy. In the painting, Michelangelo was absolutely obsessed with every line and contour, and he very subtly reworked and tweaked the image, and added the landscape at the bottom.
We waited awhile and then pressured the dealer to give the Met a deadline, after which the Kimbell would have first right of refusal.
TM: And you brought the painting to the Kimbell to study it further.
EL: Yes. It was nerve-wracking. In considering whether the Kimbell should buy the painting, I said to myself, “If we don’t buy it and it ends up being Michelangelo, I’ll be haunted by it for the rest of my life. But it will be worse if we buy it and it turns out NOTto be Michelangelo!”
We looked at the painting as critically as possibly and tried to come up with every convincing argument that could be made against the attribution. We could find none.
TM: What caused you to finally pull the trigger?
EL: On May 7, 2010 — immediately after having lunch with the Met’s director Tom Campbell, who was visiting the Kimbell — I was alerted that the rumor of the day in the art world was that the Kimbell had bought the “Torment of St. Anthony” for over $100 million. We knew we had to act very quickly or we could lose the painting, especially with the rumors of what we were reportedly paying for it. (We already agreed on price was a tiny fraction of that amount.) I called Kay Fortson and Kay said, ‘Let’s do a telephone vote of the board,’ which is what we did, and we bought the painting.”
TM: It was exhibited first at the Met. Why?
EL: The Caravaggio was exhibited first at the Met, as were some other important Kimbell acquisitions, such as the “Fra Angelico.” Considering how controversial “The Torment of Saint Anthony” could be, we thought it was important to present it to as large and critical an audience as possible, including many art historians and curators. Also, it only seemed right to offer to let the Met premiere it, since the Michelangelo was the Met’s rediscovery, even though it was the Kimbell’s acquisition.
TM: How did you celebrate?
EL: It was still a little scary when we bought it. What would the reaction be when the painting first went on view? Fortunately, the painting was extremely well received, and the attendance at the Met’s one-painting exhibition was excellent. There was a time when I would get emotional if anyone said anything negative about the attribution, as if that person were attacking my child. Some art historians would dismiss the painting without ever having even seen it. That would just rile me! Now the consensus is there — it didn’t take 25 years after all! — and you don’t hear that anymore.
TM: So what do you feel now?
EL: I feel that we’ve been very, very fortunate. To think that we were able to buy a painting by Michelangelo in the twenty first century! It’s amazing.