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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Dirck van Baburen

The Procuress, 1623, Dirck van Baburen
Today, as in the past, there has long been a tendency for artists to find a favorite subject matter and then specialize their work as to content. Personally, other than the broad area of portraits, I've not been tempted in that manner. I like to pride myself in versatility--being willing and able to paint virtually any subject matter. However, many artists have built their entire careers around one or two subjects--cars, children, naked ladies, sports, pets, even such esoteric content as bugs, weather, foods, and fantasy figures. There's nothing wrong with doing that. In fact, it could well be a good career move if one lives in a city with access to successful galleries and a large population of devotees with similar interests. (Marketing work on the Internet makes even those factors largely a moot point.) Those who specialize in such a manner often become extremely good at what they do. I know, because I've written about a number of them. However, the specialization as to content which we see among artist today is nothing like the extreme specialization I've often highlighted as taking place during the Dutch "Golden Age" era of the 17th-century. Then, an artist might specialize in painting flowers, but not just flowers, only tulips, and beyond that, only red tulips. I'm exaggerating slightly, of course, but only slightly. For instance, Dirck van Baburen was a Dutch Golden Age painter who specialized in painting musicians...always in barroom settings...and pretty much only male musicians, at that.
Descent from the Cross or Lamentation, 1617-21 Dirck van Baburen
Strangely, van Baburen also had another area of concentration--religious works--which would seem to be the antithesis of his carousing musicians. However, in style at least, they were quite similar. Both the content and the surprising similarity as to style between van Baburen's Descent from the Cross (above), painted between 1617 and 1621, and his The Procuress (top), painted in 1623, can be laid solely at the feet of the most all-powerful painting influence of the time--the Italian rapscallion, Michelangelo Caravaggio.

The three differed somewhat one from the other, and from Caravaggio,
but there's no denying the impact the Italian Baroque artist had on, not
just these three, but on Northern European painting in general. 
Sometime between 1612 and 1615, Dirck van Baburen and two of his Utrecht painting buddies, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst set out for Rome to check out the latest things having to do with art. While there, they joined a group of Dutch-speaking artists known as the "Bentvueghels" (Birds of a Feather) and unavoidably came upon the work of the biggest name in Italian art at the time--Caravaggio. Whether they picked up on any of Caravaggio's bad habits is uncertain, but they certainly absorbed his dramatic lighting and painting techniques. Upon returning home about 1620, they brought all they'd learned back with them and came to be known collectively as the Caravaggisti. Van Baburen and ter Brugghen even operated a small workshop together for a time. Compare the three artists version of The Lute Player (above) painted while they were in Rome (or shortly thereafter) to gauge the profound influence Caravaggio had, not just on these three painters, but in fact, nearly every artist who came into contact with his work.

A self-portrait of the artist,
Dirck, van Baburen
Dirck van Baburen was born. That's it. That's about all we know for certain about his early life. "Guesstimates" and theories set the year about 1595 (give or take a year or two) and some historians have suggested he was born in Wijk bij Duurstede (central Neth-erlands). Inasmuch as the first mention of his name is as a member of the Utrecht Guild of St. Luke in 1611, we can assume his family moved there while he was still a boy and learned to paint at a very early age. He was apparently a student of Paulus More-else at the time. Upon returning to Utrecht, van Baburen was one of the first artists to apply Caravaggio's painting style to genre art as seen in his many paintings of musicians (below). The self-portrait (left) suggests he may have played the flute. Several of his portraits of mus-icians seem to be of the same model, possibly himself.

The upper-right figure appears to have had a different
head added to an existing body.
Along with Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst, van Baburen helped establish the stylistic and thematic innovations now known as the Utrecht School of Caravaggisti. Van Baburen's career was short. He died in 1624 at the age of twenty-nine...or thirty...or thirty-one. Only a few of his paintings are known to exist today. Despite what I said earlier about his fondness for musicians, van Baburen painted mostly religious subjects, at least while in Rome. They include the San Pietro in Montorio Entombment, which very much resembles Caravaggio's earlier version of the same subject in the Vatican Museum. Baburen also painted a Capture of Christ for Scipione Borghese and Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles for Vincenzo Giustiniani. A few years after van Baburen's death, the Dutch poet and intellectual, Constantijn Huygens, noted him as one of the most important Dutch painters active in the early decades of the 17th-century.

Cimon and Pero Roman Charity, 1618-24, 
Dirck van Baburen. To our eyes, this painting
might seem rather shocking, or at least in bad
taste (pardon the pun). It depicts the story of
a loving daughter saving her father from a
sentence of starvation in prison. (Actually,
he looks to be pretty healthy.)


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