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Friday, August 1, 2014

Gerard van Honthorst

The Concert, 1623, Gerard van Honthorst--more Dutch than Italian.           
In the art world today, it would be ludicrous to suggest that any one artist, much less a single painter, has any great amount of influence over the work of other artists. Perhaps the movie industry comes closest, but even there, stylistic cinematic influences are so diluted and problematical, few critics would elevate any one director to such status--okay, perhaps Steven Spielberg. That has not always been the case, however. During the sixteenth century, it would be difficult to overstate the influence of one painter. His name was Michelangelo--not Bounarrati, Caravaggio--Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio born in 1571 and perhaps named for the famous Florentine sculptor and painter. There, however, pretty much any similarities cease to exist.
Adoration of the Shepherds, 1622, Gerard van Honthorst
--a favorite of greeting card publishers around Christmastime.

Gerard van Honthorst,
etching by Pieter de Jode II
I can't tell you the number of times I've come upon outstanding artists from the 17th Century, and to a lesser extent the 18th-century, whose primary claim to fame rests upon their having studied under Caravaggio, or simply studied his work. The Italian rapscallion's influence stretches far beyond the meager thirty-eight years of his lifetime (1571-1610). One example of this far-reaching influence can be found in the work of Gerard van Honthorst. Van Honthorst was a Dutch "Golden Age" painter (yes, another one) born in Utrecht in the Netherlands, the son of a decorative painter. The year was 1592. Caravaggio was just starting his career in Rome at the time. Van Honthorst journeyed to Rome in about 1616 and stayed there for a mere four years. Caravaggio had been dead for more than six years when he arrived, and many art historians would have us believe he was also long-forgotten by then, only to be rediscovered in the 20th century. Van Honthorst and his work (and that of several others) is a good reason to believe this may not have been the case.
The Procuress, 1625, Gerard van Honthorst, the presence of Caravaggio so strong he might well have been one of the figures in the foreground (given the subject matter).
Smiling Girl, a Courtesan, Holding
an Obscene Image, 1625, Gerard
van Honthorst
Gerard van Honthorst returned to his native Utrecht around 1620. There is evidence in his portraits of a strong Netherlandish style. But it would seem, despite his relative brief exposure to Rome, the lingering ghost of Caravaggio, must have been thoroughly absorbed as seen in the dramatic, Italian qualities of lighting and chiaroscuro we now associate with Caravaggio and the Baroque era. So powerful was the influence of Caravaggio during his lifetime, and perhaps to a somewhat lesser extend in the years immediately following his death, that it's difficult to separate that which is Caravaggio and that which is more generally considered Baroque painting. The same holds true as to Bernini and Baroque sculpture. We see in the work of van Honthorst the same mindset, embracing the "low" life while dignifying the "high" life in his religious works and portraits. The Concert (top), while somewhat less dramatic than anything Caravaggio did, is nonetheless just as vibrant, lively, and exciting. Yet, van Honthorst's Adoration of the Shepherds from 1622 literally glows with Caravaggio's theatrical exposition. And to read the work of both artists, one might think they painted only at night by candle light.

Supper of Emmaus, Gerard van Honthorst, the Dutch Caravaggio.
Christ Before the High Priest,
1617, Gerard van Hothorst
Van Honthorst was quite prolific. The great bulk of his work consists of portraits which, with a couple exceptions, could well be classed as "ho hum," not at all different from the high quality work done by dozens of other Dutch artists during this period. It's when the artist climbs down from his studio stool and takes up residence on the local bar stool (did they have bar stools back then?) that we see the brilliance of Caravaggio shine forth. His Childhood of Christ (bottom) from 1620 is one of his more touching scenes of religious genre. It's said that Rembrandt's Caravaggio influences were derived from his having known van Honthorst and seen his work. (Rembrandt was some fourteen years younger than van Honthorst.) Despite the common street people which populate the work of both van Honthorst and Caravaggio (Caravaggio was severely criticized for using a prostitute as a model for the Virgin Mary), it is in van Honthorst's religious paintings such as his Supper of Emmaus (above) or his Christ Before the High Priest, (right) painted in 1617 while still studying the work of Caravaggio in Rome, that van Honthorst can best be seen as the Dutch Caravaggio.

The Childhood of Christ, 1620, Gerard van Honthorst.
(Point of authenticity, Mr. van Honthorst--the Jews used oil lamps, not candles for lighting.)