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Is “The Young Archer” by Michelangelo? It Fails the Testicles Test. UPDATED

The putative Michelangelo of Fifth Avenue, as it appeared in June in the entrance rotunda of the French Cultural Services headquarters, New York

If all goes according to plan, I’ll be going later today to the Metropolitan Museum’s press preview for the putative “Michelangelo of Fifth Avenue,” as it became known from a 1996 NY Times article by the late John Russell. It will be on public view for 10 years at the Met, beginning tomorrow, on loan from the French State. For many years before it made the front page of the Times, it had quietly adorned the French Embassy’s Cultural Services building, diagonally across the street from the Met.

Its museum display will surely reignite the debate over the ambitious attribution of an unremarkable work. Now dubbed “The Young Archer,” it is labeled by the Met as “attributed to Michelangelo,” acknowledging the scholarly controversy over its authorship. The museum’s curator, James Draper, believes that it evinces Michelangelo’s “daring promise as a 15- or 16-year old.”

I’ve written extensively for several publications about the debate over this statue, but never reported one telling comment made to me back in 1996 by a highly distinguished art historian (whom I had contacted to draw upon his Michelangelo expertise). He had asked me not to connect him with this insight and I never published it. He discussed, among other things, a part of the subject’s anatomy that never made it onto the front page of the Times. (The family newspaper had cropped the photo, so that only the top half of the boy was pictured.)

CultureGrrl is not so squeamish. Let’s move in for a closer look at a detail from the photo at the top of this post:

The lad’s gonads

My anonymous scholar noted a mistake in the representation of this (somewhat damaged) body part, which he opined would not have been committed by the anatomically attuned master, even in his youth: The testicles hang at the same level, instead of one below the other. This fine point of connoisseurship had certainly eluded me when I viewed the sculpture and may be too indelicate for the mainstream media.

New York magazine, however, did last week point out several problematic areas of the sculpture, above the waist.

In an interview for my 1996 article in the Wall Street Journal about the Michelangelo “discovery” (initially made by New York University’s Professor Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt), James Beck, the late Columbia University professor, dryly observed that the absence of bravura modeling in this sculpture “is an aspect of Michelangelo that I’m unfamiliar with. She [Brandt] may have discovered a new period.” (It should be noted that Beck was not my anonymous source.)

I suppose I should suspend disbelief until I see the case Draper makes in the wall text for Michelangelo as creator of “The Young Archer.”

It’s too bad that the Met couldn’t manage to show this sculpture concurrently with a more compelling work that Michelangelo is thought to have created when he was even younger—only 12 or 13. The earliest known of the artist’s paintings, “The Torment of Saint Anthony,” was recently acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum. But it was first shown last summer at the Met, which had authenticated it. (You can see a much larger and better image of it here.)


Michelangelo Buonarotti, “The Torment of Saint Anthony,” c. 1487-88, Kimbell Art Museum

UPDATE: I’ve just come back from eyeballing the statue again, and I have to revise my grade for what’s left of his private parts to a C+. I should evaluate art with my eyes, not with my ears.

Here’s a better photo:


an ArtsJournal blog