Nearly fifty years have passed since the publication of Leonard Slatkes’s pioneering monograph on the paintings of Dirck van Baburen. That interval is surely long enough to merit a new critical catalogue and scholarly assessment of the artist’s achievement, the substance of Wayne Franits’s impressive new book. Franits co-authored with Slatkes the imposing 2007 catalogue of the paintings of Hendrick ter Brugghen (he completed the manuscript after Slatkes’s death). Notwithstanding this earlier collaboration, Franits has no qualms about differing with the older authority’s views. Indeed, the new book takes issue with Slatkes’s understanding of Van Baburen’s art in substantial ways.
One of Franits’s key revisions concerns the date of Van Baburen’s birth. Slatkes believed Van Baburen to have been born c. 1595, inferring that date from a passage in Giulio Mancini’s Considerazioni sulla pitturaregarding the decoration of the Pietà Chapel in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. Franits agrees with other scholars in disputing the relevance of Mancini’s narrative for Van Baburen. He finds significance instead in a document, previously published by Marten Jan Bok, providing a terminus ante quem of 16 May 1593 for one or more live births to the painter’s parents, Jasper van Baburen and Margareta van Doyenburch. One of those children was very possibly Dirck, Franits reasons, because the painter had only two siblings to our knowledge, one of whom arrived in 1599. Moving Van Baburen’s birthdate ahead to 1592 or 1593 would make sense as well because, according to Franits, it would “place [the painter] at an appropriate age for completing his training … and traveling to Rome …, events that Slatkes had assumed occurred when Van Baburen was implausibly young.” (4)
Franits also has much to offer regarding Van Baburen’s role in the decoration of the Pietà Chapel, arguably the Utrecht master’s most distinguished Roman commission. Slatkes attributed all of the major paintings in the chapel to Van Baburen save one of the two lunettes, which he assigned to the little-known Amsterdamer David de Haen. Franits, however, concurs with more recent scholars such as Cecilia Grilli and Bert Treffers in ascribing both lunettes to De Haen, making a convincing stylistic argument in support of his judgement. Of greater consequence is Franits’s publication of a drawing by the eighteenth-century master Charles-Nicolas Cochin in a private collection representing the chapel’s lost Raising of the Cross. The discovery of this fascinating sheet (modestly credited to its present owner in a footnote) permits Franits to reconstruct the chapel more completely than previously possible.
In addition, Franits gives substantial new attention to Van Baburen’s Roman patrons. Basing his account on primary research conducted by Cecilia Grilli, he throws welcome light upon the essential role played by Pietro Cussida, a wealthy diplomat in service to the Spanish throne residing in Rome, in securing Van Baburen his early Roman commissions. He emphasizes as well the importance of Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, the patron responsible for commissioning Van Baburen’s masterful Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie). He justifiably pans the long-discredited but still widely held notion that Van Baburen worked for the Borghese, pointing out that the Borghese Gallery’s Capture of Christ, sometimes held to provide evidence of such a relationship, did not enter the collection until 1787.
Franits’s account of Van Baburen’s Roman years contains trenchant observations regarding the painter’s visual sources. Although the author recognizes the impression made on the Utrechter by the models provided by Caravaggio himself, he emphasizes as decisive the impact made upon Van Baburen by slightly later interpreters of Caravaggio’s style. Jusèpe de Ribera was a particularly impactful guide: Franits presents his work as a chief source of inspiration for Van Baburen’s Archimedes (private collection), St. Francis (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), and Pan Holding a Syrinx (private collection), nicely tying the first of these works to the patronage of Cussida, who may also have aided the Spaniard. According to Franits, Bartholomeo Manfredi also made a profound and lasting impression upon the young Netherlander, making the case that his Christ Driving the Money Lenders from the Temple (Turin, private collection) and Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) draw directly from Manfredi’s works, whereas his Capture of Christ (Rome, Borghese Gallery) responds to Caravaggio “through the lens of Manfredi.” (32) The author claims that Manfredi’s art remained a source of inspiration for Van Baburen even after the painter’s return to Utrecht, citing as evidence the Manfredi-like character of a later Christ Driving Money Lenders from the Temple in the Schorr Collection, of 1621. Franits also energetically maintains Van Baburen’s sensitivity to the art of classicizing painters such as Raphael, Reni, and Domenichino, a point that suggests young Dirck to have been more universal in his artistic tastes than heretofore appreciated.
Franits has less to offer about Van Baburen’s stylistic development after returning to Utrecht, but he casts welcome new light upon the iconography of works produced during that final period. Among other things, he shows the painter to have been something of an iconographic innovator, identifying Van Baburen’s Granida and Daifilo (private collection) as the first painting to represent that soon-to-be repeated theme adapted from Hooft’s famous play, and his aforementioned St. Francis as having broken decisively from established iconographic convention by foregoing any signs of the stigmata. Franits weighs in helpfully on numerous matters of interpretation throughout the book. He convincingly identifies the theme of a now lost canvas, dubbed “historical scene” by Slatkes (110), as The Offer to Ceres, and joins Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann and other scholars in identifying the controversial subject of the painting recently acquired by the Kassel Gemäldegalerie as Achilles before the Dead Body of Patroclus.
The systematic catalogue, which comprises most of the book, is exhaustively researched, accurate, and easy to use. It is, of course, far more exhaustive than the catalogue contained in Slatkes’s now outdated monograph. A few statistics illustrate this point nicely. The present monograph lists 36 authentic works, eight more than the earlier catalogue (including one heretofore unpublished canvas entitled Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine? in a Modenese private collection). It cites 152 wrongly attributed works to the previous book’s 49. Works downgraded in the new catalogue include Christ on the Mount of Olivesin San Pietro in Montorio (attributed to De Haen), St. Sebastian Tended by Irene in the Hamburg Kunsthalle (called workshop), St. Sebastian Tended by Irene in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid (reattributed to De Haen), and Fluteplayer acquired by the Staatlche Museen, Berlin (considered workshop replica of a lost original). Franits supports the primacy of the Concert recently acquired by the Detroit Institute of Arts, considering the better-known St. Petersburg version a workshop replica. Experts will surely argue about some of Franits’s judgments. On the whole, however, they are well reasoned and in tune with current scholarly consensus.
Naturally, Franits does not make equally thorough arguments about every aspect of Van Baburen’s work. His attempt to explain “the seeming incongruity of well-crafted, expensive works of art [by Van Baburen] that contain figures engaged in disreputable behavior”(51) as a result of the elite class’s interest in ribaldry strikes me as incomplete. This paradox, central to Dutch Golden Age culture, begs for more detailed analysis and explication. Franits’s easy acceptance of Van Baburen’s designation as a Caravaggist devoted to Caravaggio’s aims also seems under examined. Did Van Baburen really aspire to Caravaggio’s style, managing to adopt it only incompletely, or alternately, did he, by melding Caravaggist with non-Caravaggist stylistic elements, mean to express an element of criticism toward Italian master’s art and thought? In her 2012 book, The Religious Paintings of Hendrick ter Brugghen (reviewed in this journal, April 2013), Natasha Seaman put forth the intriguing notion that Ter Brugghen melded Caravaggesque elements with Northern “archaisms” in part to upend Caravaggio’s theological stance. Might we understand Van Baburen’s Caravaggism from a comparable vantage point?
These matters aside, Franits has written a highly useful compendium that reaches important new conclusions and adds substantially to our knowledge of Van Baburen. His new catalogue will surely serve as the standard reference on the painter for decades to come.
David A. Levine
Southern Connecticut State University