AFTER the Musée Jacquemart-André provided the first opportunity to see a substantial exhibition of Caravaggio (1571-1610) in Paris since 1965, “Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe” is running in Munich.
The French exhibition concentrated on Caravaggio’s work in Rome alongside both his enemies and friends, such as the Cavalier D’Arpino, in whose studio he had worked for a few months in 1597, and his bitter rival Giovanni Baglione, with whom he became locked in a slander case.
Bringing together ten of the master’s paintings and presenting to the public for the first time, side by side, two autograph versions of a Magdalen in Ecstasy (one newly discovered; both in private collections), there were just 31 paintings.
The present exhibition, whose last week at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, where it opened last December, was overtaken by the tram shooting, has some 70. With few exceptions, the paintings all date to the second and third decades of the 17th century; the earliest is the contemporary copy after Caravaggio’s second version (1602) of The Crucifixion of St Peter, painted for a Spanish bishop while the original was still in the artist’s studio.
Several of the works from the Institut de France were crated up and sent straight to Germany from the Boulevard Haussmann and did not even manage to make it to the Netherlands. These include the incredibly violent David and Goliath by Orazio Borgianni (Madrid) and the widely influential Denial of St Peter by Jusepe de Ribera, from the Palazzo Corsini in Rome.
Twenty-one years ago, the London exhibition “Masters of Light”, with a not dissimilar trajectory to this as a survey of Dutch painting from Utrecht in the Golden Age, split the critics. Tom Lubbock complained: “Why should the pictorial culture of Utrecht have produced nothing of value? . . . Did they positively relish the flash but vacuous?”
Richard Cork, on the other hand, wrote of the “profundity of humane feeling explored in his (ter Brugghen) most arresting images” — no doubt with the Metropolitan Museum’s deliberately archaic Crucifixion in mind. The Financial Times spotted that the exhibition would increase awareness in the marketplace for some outstanding and engrossing works by artists who had been all but unknown until after the Second World War.
The Utrecht/Munich curators have set themselves a bolder purpose than those in France, even though they included just three autograph works by the headline artist: St Jerome Meditating, from Montserrat; the Entombment of Christ, painted for the Chiesa Nuova in 1602/3 (on display until last month); and the celebrated The Fortune-teller, from the Capitoline Museum.
The show invites us to ask how the Utrecht-born painters Dirck van Baburen (1592/3-1624), Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629), and Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) would have reacted when they first saw the unconventional and often outrageous work that Michelangelo Merisi had painted in the heady environment of a city of prostitutes and street brawlers.
Something, perhaps, of the raw shock that it must have been registered with me recently when I viewed the Judith and Holofernes (www.thetoulousecaravaggio.com) that the French art dealer Eric Turquin is auctioning later this summer in Toulouse. I had been fortunate enough to see it first 18 months ago in his Paris showroom before the authorities permitted it to be cleaned.
Brought to London as part of a pre-sale tour, it was the centre of a good deal of attention from the general public, as well as from art scholars and critics in March. Each time I viewed it in St James’s, there were always others there, talking animatedly, discussing wildly, and gazing in wide-eyed respect. A friend of mine was bowled over with excitement, whereas one young man accosted me and said that the canvas was not as violent (!) as he expected of Caravaggio.
Rome, museicapitolini, pinacoteca capitolina © bpk/ScalaCaravaggio, The Fortune-teller (1596-97), on loan from the Capitoline Museum, Rome
The composition itself has long been known from a copy by Louis Finson (Naples Intesa Sanpaolo Collection), who also owned Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary and the Judith at his death in 1617. The encounter at Colnaghi raised just the sort of debates and questions of attribution which must have dominated the drinking parties associated with the Bentveughels, the Dutch painters’ coterie in Rome, in the early decades of the 17th century.
Both van Honthorst and ter Brugghen had trained in Utrecht before moving independently to Rome, the older ter Brugghen arriving a year after Caravaggio had fled the city on a murder charge. Along with van Baburen, they had been prompted to go to the Eternal City on the advice of the art theorist Karel van Mander (1548-1606) as part of their training.
In 1604, van Mander had noted that Caravaggio had “already acquired a great reputation, honour and name with his works” and was doing “extraordinary things”. A pen drawing on brown wash of Caravaggio’s painting of St Peter’s Crucifixion remains the earliest secure evidence for van Honthorst’s being in Rome by 1616, although he probably painted in Genova earlier, and a Mocking of Christ in a church in Rome may be dated to 1610-15.
Caravaggio’s second attempt to appease his patrons was still in his studio when he fled Rome after killing a tennis opponent four years later. Archbishop Juan de Ribera of Valencia (1532-1611) commissioned a copy for the Royal Seminary of Corpus Christi, which he had founded in Spain. St Juan de Ribera, who was also Patriarch of Antioch in partibus, clearly had a strong eye for the modern.
Honthorst’s composition must have been drawn in situ in the chapel. It is no mere copy (Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo). Intriguingly, he reveals a split in the left arm of the wooden cross beam where the nail has been driven through the apostle’s hand. Each of the four adults are analysed as if for a figure study demonstrating that he had imbued van Mander’s teaching of imitatio, translatio and of aemulatio.
The National Gallery of Ireland dates its van Honthorst painting A Musical Party to the years 1616-18; James Caulfeild, later 1st Earl of Charlemont, first President of the Royal Irish Academy, bought it in 1756 as being by Caravaggio, a commonplace attribution at the time, and one can see why, as the work directly quotes his lively scenes of everyday life.
Conversely, the celebrated Taking of Christ was largely ignored by the Jesuits of Lisson Street as a work of van Honthorst’s until it was cleaned and documentary evidence was found to show that it is one of two autograph versions of the Gethsemane narrative.
This exhibition focuses on a series of biblical themes that recur from Caravaggio’s known works of the Passion of Christ in addition to day-to-day tavern scenes and depictions of individual saints such as Andrew and Jerome.
The remarkably self-absorbed Jerome of 1605-06 by Caravaggio (Montserrat) was once attributed to Jusepe de Ribera; seeing it alongside Ribera’s later St Andrew (Quadreria dei Girolamini, Naples), one can excuse the confusion.
St Sebastian was, after the Princes of the Apostles, St Peter and St Paul, the third patron saint of Rome. In the early 17th century, his cult was being particularly promoted, and it is surprising that there is no commonly agreed autograph painting by Caravaggio of him among the 70 or so works currently attributed to him.
Cardinal Scipione Borghese, van Honthorst’s later patron, used an architect from Utrecht to complete the restoration of his shrine church on the Appian Way, and the Barberini paid for a new chapel in Sant Andrea delle Valle, later made famous in Tosca, and paid to rebuild the little chapel of dedicated to the Roman martyr on the Palatine.
In the early 1620s, both van Honthorst and ter Brugghen turned their attention to depict the martyr as plague swept Holland with devastating effects after 1623; ter Brugghen, in his early forties, seems to have been a later victim, dying in 1629. His portrayal of the Christ-like martyr is signed (with his ligature HTB) and dated 1625.
Tended by Irene and her companion, the half-alive Sebastian slumps forward as the women untie him from the tree and prise the fourth arrow from his lower ribs. The rich red-and-gold damask on which he sits, rather than the horrific event, claims our attention, as it did in the 1998 National Gallery show. It is a Gothic cope that had once belonged to an earlier Bishop of Utrecht, David of Burgundy (1456-96), the illegitimate son of Philip the Good, which the artists seem to have kept as a studio prop.
When Honthorst’s fellow countryman Nicolas Régnier (born in Maubeuge) painted Sebastian, he used the more conventional pose of the naked athletic model looking up appealingly towards heaven (Dresden), a Renaissance type of the standing male nude repeated by Ribera and other artists such as Guido Reni. What passer-by, man or woman, would not stop to help pluck the arrows of misery from the body of such an attractive victim?
© allen memorial art museum, Oberlin college, OH. R. T. Miller Jr Fund, 1953.256Hendrik ter Brugghen (1588-1629), St Sebastian Tended by Irene (1625)
The exhibition also includes work from beyond Utrecht, including that of the Antwerp artists Theodoor Rombouts and Gerard Seghers and three Frenchmen, all of them the sons of artists: Valentin from Boulogne, the son of a stained-glass artist (1591-1632); the Protestant Nicolas Tournier (whose Saint Andrew of c.1616 wears one of the earliest representations of tartan plaid); and Simon Vouet, who had painted in England, Constantinople, and Venice, and who was later recalled from Rome to be Court Painter to Louis XIII, in 1627.
Others include the Italians Giovanni Serodine, who started out as a stuccoist; Orazio Borgianni (1577/78-1616), the son of a Florentine carpenter who had married a Spaniard and who came to Rome after her death; Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) and Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622).
Alongside the main theme of the show, two other strands emerge: one is the influence that Ribera exerted over many of the artists, and the other is the development of a particular genre among the Northern artists of single figures of concert players and drinkers, close-up details of day-to-day life, drawn from a repertory of characters that populated Caravaggio’s Rome.
In 1612 or 1613, Jusepe de Ribera had painted the scene of Christ among the Doctors (Langres), in which a distinctively red-headed boy stands in dispute with the hoary old men who represent the authorities in the Temple. One of a dozen paintings by the Spaniard (he was dubbed “Lo Spagnoletto”) owned by the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, it would have been known visitors to Rome.
Manfredi, whose paintings were also appreciated by Giustiniani, painted the boy Jesus as a lost innocent giving pause for thought to seven old men. In van Baburen’s similar composition (c.1618), last seen in the 2015 retrospective of Gherardo delle Notti in Florence (Arts, 1 May 2015), Jesus is a more confident instructor, making telling points with his fingers.
Borgianni’s much earlier group, of 1609, is tighter, making the dominance of the precocious 12-year-old even more marked (on loan to the Rijksmuseum). Jesus’s flame-coloured hair has absolutely nothing to do with gold-coloured haloes, as Liesbeth M. Helmus suggests in her catalogue essay, but derives from a physical description in the spurious epistle of Lentulus, a tradition known to many artists.
The so-called “Master of the Annunciation of the Shepherds”, a Spanish painter whose life and work overlapped with Ribera’s, painted a carrot-top in his scene of the dispute (National Gallery of Ireland), and later a ginger Saviour in his 1620 Ecce Homo (Madrid, Royal Academy of Fine Art). In this show, a chestnut-haired Messiah sets out cleansing the temple in paintings by van Baburen (The Schorr Collection) and Cecco del Caravaggio, a rather more violent and energetic scene.
The exhibition changes gear with the scenes of everyday low life, the taverns and brothels of Rome, frequented by artists, nobility, and cardinals alike. Gambling dens, such as those depicted by Régnier and Rombouts, and the card-table supplied by Caravaggio (Capitoline Museum, Rome) even provided the setting for van Honthorst’s Denial of St Peter of 1616/17 (Rennes), in which one of the soldiers carries on playing at the card-table as the maidservant challenges the Prince of the Apostles. They offer beer after the rich vintages served in this rich display.
“Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe” is at the Alte Pinakothek, Barer Straße 27, Entrance Theresienstraße, Munich, Germany, until 21 July. Phone 00 49 89 23805-195. www.pinakothek.de