Oud Holland

Review of: 'Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe' (2018)

December 2020

Review of: Bernd Ebert & Liesbeth M. Helmus, Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe, Munich [Hirmer], 2018

The exhibition 'Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe', first held at Utrecht’s Centraal Museum (December 2018-March 2019) and later at Munich’s Alte Pinakothek (April-July 2019), presented an impressive total of 78 artworks on loan from European and US museums, as well as private collections and church institutions. Three of the works were by Caravaggio himself – Saint Jerome meditating (Museu de Montserrat), the very rarely exhibited The entombment of Christ (Musei Vaticani, Pinacoteca)1 and The fortune teller (Musei Capitolini, Pinacoteca). Nevertheless, the main focus was on the paintings by the three main figures celebrated in the exhibition, the Utrecht Caravaggisti: Hendrik ter Brugghen, Gerhard van Honthorst and Dick van Baburen. The innovative dialogue created between their works and others by fellow European painters is one of the exhibition’s major accomplishments. The accompanying catalogue,with the same title as the exhibition, is edited by the two curators, Bernd Ebert and Liesbeth M. Helmus. Following a canonical structure, the publication consists of two parts. The first includes five in-depth essays by Marten Jan Bok, Helen Langdon, Liesbeth M. Helmus, Bert Ebert together with Susanne Hoppe, and one by Ashok Roy – while the second part is devoted to the 78 catalogue entries. The book is printed on matte-finished paper and has a charming, quite functional graphic design. Notably, the colour accuracy of the many reproductions is a well-appreciated quality of the catalogue. The chronological organisation of the catalogue spans the period of 1600-1630, and addresses a wide museum-public audience, providing general insights into some of the core issues concerning the Roman experience of the aforementioned Utrecht painters. Nevertheless, scholars will spot interesting topics of note, such as the new material-technical analysis, provided by Roy. For those who could not visit the exhibition in person, a virtual tour of the showing in Munich has been made available on a dedicated website, providing a permanent and much appreciated online-resource for twenty-first-century scholarship.2

Left: Cover of Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe

Middle: fig. 1. Caravaggio, The fortune teller, c. 1594, oil on canvas, 115 x 150 cm., Musei Capitolini, Rome, inv. PC 131

Right: fig. 2 Dirck van Baburen, The entombment, 1617, oil on canvas, 222 x 142 cm., Pietà Chapel, San Pietro in Montorio, Rome

Marten Jan Bok’s historical outline opens the catalogue’s essay section. It shows the importance of Utrecht both as a religious and economic centre by stressing the role that the aristocratic and patrician libertine mindset had, in the flourishing of the Caravaggisti style. As the province’s administrative and welfare centre, Utrecht had a vivid cultural life. Thus, the art market initially profited from the economic revival during the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621) between the Dutch Republic and the Habsburg rulers of Spain and the Southern Netherlands. Regardless, city-leading artists such as Abraham Bloemaert, teacher of Ter Brugghen and Honthorst, and Paulus Moreelse – who, among others, trained van Baburen – benefitted most from the Truce; whereas Ter Brugghen and van Baburen had only just returned from Italy, as the Republic went to war again in April 1621. The libertines disappeared from the city after the Reformed Church became the only permitted public church. Ter Brugghen’s career took place, mostly after the resumption of the war, whereas van Baburen had already died in 1624. The most successful of the three, Honthorst, witnessed the Peace of Münster in 1648 and ensured important commissions thanks to his connections with The Hague courts. Bok guides the reader through Utrecht’s dynamic early decades of the seventeenth century and compensates the absence of new, ground-breaking archival sources by presenting a clear and highly readable historical framework.

The turning point in the careers of the three main Utrecht painters was their sojourn in Rome, which was to have major consequences on their style. Indeed, the strong social experience of the rowdy life of Roman streets and taverns provided them with settings that thoroughly affected their paintings – as Helen Langdon points out in her essay. She provides the reader with a firm depiction of the Roman figures the northern painters were required to know at first hand. By doing so, Langdon presents, in a clear way, the recent research results on the Roman Baroque cultural settings.3 The fascination with Caravaggio required acquaintance with the violent situations and the beggars, prostitutes, thieves and mercenaries later depicted in the tavern scenes – one of the first being Caravaggio’s Gypsy fortune teller (Rome, Musei Capitolini, Pinacoteca) (fig. 1). Caravaggesque painters relied on the rapidly growing demand from the art market, but also on high-ranking patrons, such as Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani and his brother Vincenzo. The latter’s patronage was crucial not only to Caravaggio (from whom he acquired no less than 13 paintings for his collection), but also to Honthorst, who lived in his palace together with fellow painters Nicolas Régnier and David de Haen. Langdon is a leading expert of Roman Baroque Painting. Therefore, even without adding new research findings, she easily succeeds in the complex task of evoking the thriving Roman artistic community in which the three Utrecht Caravaggisti found themselves.

Liesbeth M. Helmus, co-curator of the exhibition, reveals in her essay just how much the historical sources – combined with paintings by Ter Brugghen, van Baburen and Honthorst – can reveal about their journey southward. The three painters followed the advice of Karel van Mander to study under Caravaggio, in order to round off their training.4 Even if none of them were able to meet him in person, his works were a constant source of study, which ultimately led to an improvement of their own styles. Slightly overlapping Langdon’s text, Helmus also focuses on Vincenzo Giustiniani’s role in assuring Honthorst and van Baburen an eminent spot in the Roman art scene. The commissions to Ter Brugghen and Honthorst were placed together with main works by Caravaggio and Rubens, among others, and provided the perfect setting for an exclusive cultural centre. While Langdon only briefly addresses Giustiniani’s pivotal figure, Helmus focuses on the writings by the wealthy connoisseur, and the influence they had in the building of his rich collection.

The place of the Utrecht Caravaggisti’s workin the Roman art market has been thoroughly examined by the exhibition’s co-curators Bernd Ebert and Susanne Hoppe.A spot in the ‘cut-throat business’ of painting was hard to secure, and a commission for a prestigious altarpiece could instantly change a painter’s life. Retracing the commissions obtained by van Baburen and Honthorst, the authors outline how tight the connections between one altarpiece and the next truly were. A satisfied patron often meant a quick commission from the next one, as shown by the altarpiece The entombment of Christ (fig. 2), painted by Baburen in 1615. The picture was the centrepiece of the Pietà Chapel in the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, decorated with a programme developed by Honthorst and David de Haen on behalf of Pietro Cussida, the representative of the Spanish king in Rome. From then onward, Honthorst’s renown in Rome increased – and so did his number of commissions. The same process emerges from looking at his contracts for altarpieces: the first documented altarpiece in the Church of San Paolo a Termini (1617) was soon followed by the one for Santa Maria della Scala (1617/18), leading to the main altarpiece painted in 1618 on behalf of the Principessa Flaminia Colonna Gonzaga for the Church of Santi Francesco and Bonaventura in Albano Laziale. The private collections also had a significant role in assuring the painters’ success, as is shown by the example of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the most important private collector in Rome, alongside Giustiniani. Del Monte owned a work by Honthorst and most probably was the link for the acquisition of Honthorst’s work by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de’ Medici, whom Del Monte represented in Rome.

Artistic and painterly accomplishment was the means needed to rise above other artists in a competitive art market, like that of Rome. In the catalogue’s concluding essay, Ashok Roy investigates the technical practices of Honthorst, van Baburen and Ter Brugghen, providing a comprehensive picture of very different technical approaches, each used in their response to Caravaggio’s innovations. He outlines that Honthorst was the only one of the trio for whom a number of detailed preliminary drawings for painted compositions are known. Starting with the painting composition and the role of life models, Roy then examines the tinted ground for easel paintings, looking for similarities between the Caravaggisti and their Lombard model, who used a dark ground and developed lighter paints on top. The Utrecht Caravaggisti used methods and colours similar to those of Caravaggio. Nevertheless, they all seemed reluctant to leave uncovered areas of brown or grey-brown ground as he did. The reader also learns how the Caravaggisti modelled the flesh rather softly, without exploiting so starkly, as Caravaggio, a deep shadow set against projected highlight. Roy’s essay marks an important contribution by discussing the latest technical results and giving them the prominent place they deserve in art historical research. 

It was an editorial choice to regroup the impressive 78 artworks shown in the exhibition, not only chronologically, but also thematically.The explored themes varies from religious subjects (such as depictions of Christ among the doctorsSaints; The crowning with thorns; David and Judith, to name only but a few) to popular genre paintings (including MusiciansConcerts; Card and dice players; Procuress and fortuneteller). This offers the reader a comprehensive review of the characteristics of the three Utrecht Caravaggisti, when it comes to depicting one and the same scene. The catalogue succeeds above all in consideringTer Brugghen, van Honthorst and van Baburenin a broader European context, marking how fruitful the artistic exchange between painters from the Southern Netherlands, France, Spain and various Italian cities was for their artworks. As a matter of fact, the catalogue and the exhibitions in Utrecht and Munich aimed to explore the impact of Caravaggio on the Utrecht painters, and, in return, to assess their places in a European context. This occurs by highlighting the consequences of their stylistic changes both in Rome and once they returned to their homeland. In this regard, the exhibition succeeded in its aim. The target audience was the general public, not the scholar community, as the rather informative catalogue demonstrates. New research from other (younger) scholars would have enriched the scholarly debate about foreign artists in and around Rome at the beginning of the seventeenth century – one thinks about Natasha T. Seaman’s monographic study on Ter Brugghen, or Marije Osnabrugge’s research on Netherlandish immigrant painters in Naples – to mention only two recent publications.6 It would also have been appreciated if the exhibition included drawings; a choice that enhances the understanding of the artistic creative process and is thus strongly appreciated by the general public, as well as by scholars. The success of the exhibition has shown that interest in the Caravaggisti is, fortunately, still high, and this catalogue will remain a solid overview of these three pioneers, and their inspiring creativity.

Stefania Girometti
Curatorial Fellow at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

1 Caravaggio’s Medusa (Private collection) was exhibited in Utrecht only, and replaced the Vatican’s Entombment, from January to March 2019.

2 The virtual tour is part of the venture between the Alte Pinakothek and Google within the global project 'Google Arts and Culture'. Together with the virtual tour, the webpage offers virtual exhibitions on Rome and Utrecht, interviews with the Munich-based curator Bernd Ebert, as well as other in-depth content: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/take-a-tour-through-the-exhibition/wAJS_JFb90AZJA

3 The shady underworld of dark Roman streets and taverns and the painters filling them was recently presented in an exhibition curated by Francesca Cappelletti and Annick Lemoine, held in Rome and Paris in 2014/2015. See: F. Cappelletti and A. Lemoine (eds.), Les bas-fonds du baroque:La Rome du vice et de la misère, Rome 2014.

4 In his Schilder-boeck of 1604, the Flemish art theorist and biographer noted that, “Michael Agnolo da Caravaggio” was doing, “extraordinary things in Rome” and had, “already acquired a great reputation, honour and name with his works”. Hence, van Mander advised young painters to follow him and emulate his, “wondrously beautiful manner” by acquiring the technical skills through practice. See: K. van Mander, Het schilder-boeck waerin voor eerst de leerlustighe Iueght den grondt der edel vry schilderconst in verscheyden deelen wort voorghedraghen, Haarlem 1604, fol. 191, cited by L. M. Helmus, p. 51.

5 To cite only few of the capital studies to which Ebert and Hoppe refer in their article, see: P. Cavazzini, ‘Success and failure in a violent city: Bartolomeo Manfredi, Nicolas Tournier, and Valentin de Boulogne’, in: Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio, A. Lemoine and K. Christiansen (eds.), New York 2016, pp. 17-27; G. Feigenbaum (ed.), Display of art in the Roman palace: 1550-1750, Los Angeles 2014; W. Franits, ‘Laboratorium Utrecht. Baburen, Honthorst und Terbrugghen im künstlerischen Austausch’, in J. Sander e.a. (eds.), Caravaggio in Holland: Musik und Genre bei Caravaggio und den Utrechter Caravaggisten, Munich 2009, pp. 37-53; A. Karsten, Künstler und Kardinäle: Vom Mäzenatentum römischer Kardinalnepoten im 17. Jahrhundert, Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2003; M. von Bernstorff, Agent und Maler als Akteure im Kunstbetrieb des frühes 17. Jahrhunderts: Giovanni Battista Crescenzi und Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, Munich 2010.

6 N. T. Seaman, The religious paintings of Hendrick ter Brugghen: Reinventing Christian painting after the Reformation in Utrecht, Aldershot 2012; M. Osnabrugge, The Neapolitan lives and careers of Netherlandish immigrant painters (1575-1655), Amsterdam 2019.

Stefania Girometti, 'Review of: Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe', Oud Holland Reviews, December 2020.