Who is Carlo Crivelli?

Carlo Crivelli’s Mary Magdalene in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Carlo Crivelli’s Mary Magdalene in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Twice in one month. In two different museums. On two different continents.

The first encounter: On the hunt for a Van Eyck in the Rijksmuseum, I wandered down to the lowest level of the museum and drew up sharply at the sight of an art-deco-esque Mary Magdalene, beckoning to me on a wall just beyond the entrance to a room of religious art.

The second encounter: I entered the section of The Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to medieval and early Renaissance art and the first painting I saw struck me—and the style felt familiar. I knew. And the plaque adjacent to the painting proved me correct. The Met had a second Carlo Crivelli on display as well, a pietà.

I may have looked at a lot of medieval and early Renaissance art during my time studying history, yet I can’t claim any expertise or superlative artistic discernment. However, at least two prominent museums have hung this man’s art—so he must have some level of merit beyond my simple enjoyment.

Yet why isn’t Carlo Crivelli more famous?

First, a quick biography of the man. We know so little of him that brevity comes easily. Born in the 1430s and dead by the end of that century, Carlo Crivelli developed his skill in Venice and Padua, Italy. An affair with a married woman sentenced him to six months in prison. Shortly after his release, he left the area for a then-Venetian territory in Dalmatia (now Croatia).

Removed from the Florentine trends and fashions—Florence had the most in-vogue style of art at the time of Crivelli’s death—Crivelli didn’t get a mention in Giorgio Vasari’s star-making book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

Also, though he never fell completely out of favor, Crivelli never had champions of the requisite levels of status nor the momentum of early fame carried down the centuries by bobbing flotillas of esteemed art historians and connoisseurs, unlike his contemporaries of Florentine fame.

He’d never become a Leonardo da Vinci—or a Van Gogh.

Perhaps you’ll argue that Crivelli’s work doesn’t measure up to these masters. Critics seem to think his art has too much going on—all the detail, all the emotion, all the colors, all the everything dialed to eleven.

However, researching Crivelli’s story brought me back to my experiences and thoughts from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh—who created groundbreaking work, without question—benefited from an art-dealer brother and a dogged-publicist sister-in-law who dedicated their lives to championing his oeuvre.

Would Van Gogh have the fame he has today without them, even with his considerable talent? I doubt it.

When we consider famous artists and their merits, we often don’t think about the good fortune—theirs and ours, mutually—that brought them to eternal renown. Yet we should. The fame factory is a machine.

What amazing art have we missed because it didn’t get the fame-factory treatment?

Maybe we need the curation. We cannot possibly catch all the art in the world. Some level of culling must happen somewhere in the chain between artist and eyeball or eardrum. No matter how much we wish we could see and hear and experience all the things.

But isn’t it a shame, all the same?