Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1595-1624), Loose Company, 1623, Oil on canvas, 110 x 154 cm, Mainz, Landesmuseum, Photo: Mainz, Landesmuseum, Ursula Rudischer.

Caravaggio Never Set Foot in Holland, but the Utrecht Caravaggisti …

Caravaggio, The Coronation with Thorns, Oil on Canvas, 127 x 165.5, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

Caravaggio (1571-1610), Lute Player, ca. 1596, Oil on canvas, 96 x 121 cm, Private collection, Photo: Courtesy of Clovis Whitfield.

Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1595-1624), Young Man Singing, 1622, Oil on canvas, 71 x 58.8 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Photo: Städel Museum.

Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656), The Merry Violonist with a Wine Glass, 1623, Oil on canvas, 108 x 89 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Photo: Collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629), Young Woman Reading from a Sheet of Paper, 1628, Oil on canvas, 78.5 x 65.5 cm, Basel, Kunstmuseum, Photo: Kusnstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler.

Copy after Gerard van Honthorst, Old Woman with Empty Purse by Candlelight, Oil on oak panel, 27.8 x 22.5 cm, Private collection, Photo: Rühl & Bohrmann.

Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656), Young Man Crushing Grapes into an earthen pot, 1622, Oil on canvas, 83.2 x 67.4 cm, Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum, Photo: Worcester Art Museum.

Cornelis Bloemaert (1603-1692) after Abraham Bloemaert, Bagpipe Player, Copperplate engraving, 225 x 160 mm, Frankfurt, Städel Museum, Photo: Städel Museum.


die Städel Museum
Städel Annex, Upper Floor
Schaumainkai 63
60596 Frankfurt am Main
Caravaggio in Holland. Music and Genre
in the Paintings of Caravaggio
and the Utrecht Caravaggisti

April 1-July 26, 2009

No, the founder of Roman Baroque painting never journeyed to the Netherlands. On the contrary, a group of painters from the Dutch city of Utrecht set out for Rome with the aim of studying Caravaggio’s spectacular chiaroscuro painting with their own eyes. These so-called Utrecht Caravaggists — Hendrick Terbrugghen, Gerard van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburen — enthusiastically adopted their idol’s new pictorial language, while at the same time varying his compositions and developing them further. In Rome they will have been fascinated not only by such new pictorial types and subjects as the half-length figures of musicians, of which Caravaggio’s Lute Player is an impressive example.

The Dutchmen will also have been excited by the monumentality of the Italian’s figures and his deliberate break with the rules of propriety. In an almost aggressive manner, Caravaggio’s spotlight-like illumination pulls certain motifs forward from the dark recesses of their surroundings. The scenes are moreover distinguished by the lack of distance with which they confront the viewer’s gaze and, in this context, the plasticity of the bodies — made all the more tangible by their contrast with the depths of the pictorial space.

Both aspects, however, serve to characterize the figures and charge the scenes with drama and pathos, brutality and religious fervour, eroticism and irony. Terbrugghen returned to Utrecht in 1614, Honthorst and Baburen in 1620. It was not long before the innovations they had brought back with them from Rome were all the rage in the Dutch city so far north of the Alps. In the half-decade from 1621 to 1626, Utrecht was virtually an artistic laboratory in which the three masters engaged in intense mutual exchange and competition. Terbrugghen, Honthorst and Baburen were thus the agents of a new variety of Baroque painting invented in Italy — a style that would soon prove highly significant for Rembrandt, as is exemplified by his Blinding of Samson in the Städel Museum collection.

The Städel Museum in Frankfurt recently acquired a significant painting by the Utrecht painter Dirck van Baburen dating from 1622. It shows a young singer presenting a virtuoso sample of his art. This masterpiece of both keen observation and dramatization is closely related to quite a number of depictions of musicians all of which were carried out in Utrecht in the 1620s. During that period, the Dutch town was an artistic laboratory where painters experimented with novel pictorial invention, constantly competing for new solutions.

The three protagonists among this group of artists — Hendrick Terbrugghen, Gerard van Honthorst, and Dirck van Baburen — had sojourned in Rome for an entire decade, where they had studied the art of Caravaggio, and soon prevailed with their own compositions executed in the style of their paragon. This exhibition for the first time offers a comprehensive and high-quality assembly of musicians and brothel scenes by the Utrecht Caravaggists.

Their works are juxtaposed with superb paintings by Caravaggio that served the Utrecht painters as inspiration. The show revolves around Caravaggio’s famous •Lute Player•, an incunabulum of Baroque portraiture of musicians. Museums throughout Europe and the United States are supporting this exhibition with more than 40 important loans. Among lenders are Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Centraal Museum in Utrecht, and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

A young man has come on stage, putting on his best pose. He holds the music book from which he sings in his left hand, while his right underscores his performance with a theatrical gesture. Donning a feathered beret and with his head thrown back, he pertly fixes his gaze upon the viewer — his audience — out of the corner of his eye.

The young man’s exposed shoulder, his neck muscles tensing from his singing, and his tanned face are illuminated by a strong glare. Dirck van Baburen, who signed the painting 1622, brilliantly unfolds the whole gamut of Baroque histrionics in the portrayal of this single half-figure. And yet, incorporating ambiguities and ruptures, he does not stick to the rules of high pathos. The musician is anything but a neat gentleman giving a sample of his art for a refined company’s evening entertainment. His hair is disheveled, his chin not properly shaved, his stare borders on boldness, and his tanned skin tells us that he pursues his work outdoors, under a scorching sun.

This masterpiece, acquired for the Städel by the Kulturstiftung der Länder, the Hessische Kulturstiftung, and the Städelscher Museums-Verein in late 2007, is one of the most impressive examples of the extremely popular depictions of musicians executed in Utrecht in the 1620s. The large number of surviving works in this thematic field suggests that the relevant patrons must have literally snatched the pictures out of the artists’ hands. The genre was primarily defined and brought to perfection by Dirck van Baburen (c. 1595-1624) and his two Utrecht painter colleagues Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629) and Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656). Their magnificent chiaroscuro modeling and dramatic light effects, but also their calculated infringement of decorum, of the rules of what was regarded as proper and appropriate, which they opposed by declaring models of low origin worth portraying — for all this they were indebted to their great model in far-off Italy: Caravaggio, who earned his Dutch emulators the name Utrecht Caravaggists. Terbrugghen, Honthorst, and Baburen had actually worked in Rome for about ten years, dedicating themselves to the art of Caravaggio and related painters.

With his famous Lute Player, one of the highlights of the Städel’s exhibition, Caravaggio had created the incunabulum of Baroque portraiture of musicians, a work enthusiastically received by his successors. In addition, Caravaggio’s novel style set standards for an entire generation of artists. His manner of painting lent the figures depicted a hitherto unknown physicality and soulfulness. Caravaggio’s almost aggressive, spot-like lighting setting off individual objects from the deep darkness of the space surrounding them and the pronounced close-up view of his scenes, which seem to present themselves to the eye with no distance in between, endow the bodies with a concrete plasticity independent of the pictorial space’s depth. But his technique of lighting and his close-up view also contribute to the figures’ characterization and charge the scenes with drama and pathos, brutality and religious ardor, eroticism and irony.

Caravaggio’s Lute Player, which virtually marks the beginning of the ancestral line of Utrecht musician paintings, mirrors the refined music culture of his Roman patrons. As an allegory of music and harmonious love, it catered to the tastes of well-educated connoisseurs and admirers of art who would have known how to decipher its different levels of meaning. Such paintings served to decorate their owners’ music salons and spark cultivated conversations about the essence of music and art. The typical Utrecht musician painting — which enjoyed a heyday lasting only a few years following the return of Baburen, Honthorst and Terbrugghen from Rome and was used as a field of experimentation for the exchange of artistic ideas — was of a wholly different nature. Rather than noble youths in antique garb, it was peopled with dandified figures of questionable character, wearing colourful costumes and representing not harmony, love and the cultivated enjoyment of music, but more “tangible” forms of pleasure. The exhibition retraces the emergence of negative connotations of music — in combination with wine and venal love, music became a symbol of dissolute merrymaking that found particularly striking expression in the brothel scenes known as “loose companies”. This development may be related to the establishment of the socially low-ranking musician’s profession in the period in question. Yet the meanings of the instruments themselves also underwent fundamental changes: the lute, for example, with its form reminiscent of the female body, became as much a code for lust as the flute and bagpipes a symbol of the male genitals, or the bowing of the violin a reference to coitus.

Terbrugghen returned to Utrecht in 1614, Honthorst and Baburen in 1620. The artistic innovations they came back with from Rome were already acclaimed in the Dutch city in the course of the following decade. Their new pictorial language soon replaced the somewhat exhausted late Mannerist tradition of their predecessor generation including such artists as Paulus Moreelse or Abraham Bloemaert. Outside of Italy, the effects brought forth by Caravaggio’s painting were nowhere more marked than in Utrecht. The Städel Museum now elucidates this fascinating thematic complex for the first time under the metaphorical heading Caravaggio in Holland in an exhibition. In the first room, three versions of The Crowning with Thorns provide an impressive opening: the representations of the scene from the New Testament by Caravaggio, Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Dirck van Baburen grant a direct insight into the artistic relationship between the Italian master, his successors, and the Utrecht Caravaggists. The thematic emphasis on Music and Genre in the Work of Caravaggio and the Utrecht Caravaggists unfolds in the following rooms. Depictions of half-figure musicians like Baburen’s Young Man Singing form the core of the show that deliberately focuses on Terbrugghen, Honthorst, and Baburen as the great three masters of the Utrecht Caravaggists and on the quinquennium from 1621 to 1626, in which the portraiture of musicians found its decisive expression. These paintings are confronted with a superb selection of works by Caravaggio to which the Utrecht painters related to.

A concentrated assembly of graphic works with explanatory inscriptions from the holdings of the Städel Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings round off the presentation. This juxtaposition reveals the close connection between the depiction of musicians and the inn, brothel and “merry company” scenes so characteristic of Dutch genre painting in general and the Utrecht Caravaggists in particular. A special section of the exhibition is dedicated to this subject. Since the — late — rediscovery of Caravaggio and the Caravaggists from about 1950 on and especially in recent years, several exhibitions have explored the phenomenon in question. The Städel Museum’s exhibition differs from past projects by emphatically focusing on the portraiture of musicians and brothel scenes and by directly confronting works by Caravaggio with paintings by the Utrecht artists Terbrugghen, Honthorst, and Baburen. A comprehensive and high-quality selection of their works are now be presented in Germany again for the first time since the exhibition “Holländische Malerei in neuem Licht. Hendrick ter Brugghen und seine Zeitgenossen” in Braunschweig in 1987. The assessment of the Utrecht Caravaggists’s depictions of musicians on the art market is also symptomatic of the high esteem these works presently enjoy. Hendrick Terbrugghen’s Bagpipe Player turned out the second most expensive lot in a spectacular auction at Sotheby’s in New York in late January 2009 that comprised a number of very prominent items. What fascinates collectors, public, and experts alike is the special aesthetics of this manner of painting that focuses on its motifs with an astounding measure of wit and irony despite all moralism.

Curator of the exhibition is Prof. Dr. Jochen Sander (Städel Museum); Research assistants are Gabriel Dette, M.A., and Dr. Bastian Eclercy (Städel Museum).

Caravaggio in Holland. Musik und Genre bei Caravaggio und den Utrechter Caravaggisten is edited by Jochen Sander, Bastian Eclercy, and Gabriel Dette with a preface by Max Hollein and contributions by Marcus Dekiert, Gabriel Dette, Bastian Eclercy, Wayne Franits, Louis Peter Grijp, Nicole Hartje-Grave, Liesbeth M. Helmus, Thomas Ketelsen, Everhard Korthals Altes, and Jochen Sander. Hirmer Verlag, Munich 2009, 34.90 euros, ISBN 978-3-7774-8065-7.

Caravaggio (1571-1610), Love Conquers All, 1602, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629), Flute Player, 1621, Oil on canvas, 70 x 55 cm, Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister, Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Ute Brunzel.

Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1595-1624), Saint Francis, Oil on canvas, 114 x 82 cm, Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Photo: Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum.


Gerard von Honthorst (1592-1656), Girl Blowing on Coal, Embraced by Her Lover, Oil on canvas, 82.6 x 66 cm, Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum / Kunstmuseum des Landes Niedersachsen, Photo: B. P. Keiser.