J. Richard Judson and Rudolf E. O. Ekkart, Gerrit van Honthorst, 1592-1656 (Aetas Aurea Monographs on Dutch and Flemish Painting, XIV). Doornspijk: Davaco Publishers, 1999. 405pp, 39 col. plates, 534 b&w illus. ISBN 90-70288-06-0.
Gianni Papi, Gherardo delle Notti: Gerrit Honthorst in Italia. Soncino: Edizioni dei Soncino, 1999. 262 pp, including 56 col. plates and 89 b&w illus.
Honthorst is at last receiving the attention he deserves in these two lavishly produced volumes that would be essential reference works for their fine illustrations alone. A perusal of the latter should enable readers to decide whether they agree more with Richard Judson’s assertion that Honthorst is not now considered to be in the highest echelon of Dutch artists, or Gianni Papi’s conclusion that his Italian career at least was touched by greatness. I incline towards the latter view.
Judson and Ekkart’s long awaited monograph covering all the paintings and drawings is produced to Davaco’s usual high standards, even if there are several slip-ups in referring to plate numbers when catalogue numbers are intended, or vice-versa [incidentally, why not always refer to plate numbers rather than catalogue numbers for speed of comprehension?]. Furthermore, proof-reading more generally leaves something to be desired. The book takes the form of a very substantial catalogue raisonné divided into three sections — History and Genre Paintings (Judson); Portraits (Ekkart); and Drawings (Judson) — preceded by two moderate-length essays on the subject pictures and portraits, by Judson and Ekkart respectively. Although the book is presented as a revised and expanded version of Judson’s pioneering 1959 study, his avowed aim of determining the formation of Honthorst’s style and evaluating his contribution to the development of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century is circumscribed by the reduced length of his informative but somewhat schematic essay, so that readers interested in a detailed overview of Honthorst’s development will still want to refer selectively to the fuller exposition in the earlier volume. The great boon of the present publication is the incorporation in it of Rudolf Ekkart’s ground-breaking and very well handled sections on the portraits, which (with three exceptions) were not covered in Judson’s previous book.
Despite the modest disavowal in his preface, that the catalogue of portraits should be regarded as a trial run, Ekkart’s achievement in establishing a convincing corpus, and addressing other complex issues of production, patronage, and influence should not be underestimated. Among the many interesting observations in his essay is the pertinent suggestion that the painting of portraits must have been one of the requisite elements of a painter’s training in the seventeenth century, which he sees as “the only explanation of the fact that many artists who specialized primarily in other genres also produced portraits now and then which certainly do not give the impression of being the work of an inexperienced hand.” All of the identified portraits bar one date from after Hont-horst’s return from Rome to Utrecht in 1620. The exception is the masterly characterization of a donor, Flaminia Colonna Gonzaga, which, because it is located within a religious painting of 1618, The Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Bonaventura in the Capuchin Church in Albano, is catalogued by Judson. However, given its brilliance and Ekkart’s point about training in the genre, it would make sense in future to look for other portraits from the Italian years. For the Northern decades when Honthorst developed a very plausible and deferential line in court portraiture (beginning with his trip to England in 1628), as well as indulging in occasional excursions into what Ekkart calls ‘bourgeois’ portraiture, we now have an extremely sound catalogue which will form the basis of any future attributions. Ekkart is good on the workshop which, given the multiple copies that were required in marriage negotiations and for other dynastic and political purposes, he sees as heavily involved in most of Honthorst’s portrait production, increasingly, he deduces, probably under the day-to-day management of Honthorst’s younger brother Willem, whose lack of a substantial independent artistic profile is thereby explained.
Given the workshop participation, and Honthorst’s hiring of additional assistance at times of peak production, quality is inevitably variable, although Ekkart sees a more than adequate minimum level being tied to the G. Honthorst signature on many of the portraits, which he construes as a workshop hallmark rather than evidence of Gerrit’s unique execution. Indeed it is usually impossible to single out the master’s hand in terms of execution. However, the few totally independent portraits by Willem show an inferior grasp of design and invention, even if the technique is reasonable, so that Ekkart is surely right in wanting to claw back from Willem and give to Gerrit certain works of obviously superior cast and composition. Indeed Honthorst’s skill at composition in his portraits is perhaps his strongest suit. Ekkart’s attributional and other judgements inspire trust, my only immediate disagreement being in the case of his over-sceptical wish to deny that the Rijksmuseum pair of portraits by Gerrit Honthorst of an artist and his wife, dated 1655, are of Gerrit himself and Sophia Coopmans. The male figure is clearly the same person that we find represented in Pieter de Jode’s engraving of Gerrit, after a lost self-portrait of Honthorst’s.
Finally, Ekkart is informative about the networks of patronage through which Honthorst’s portrait practice developed among sitters who had links with the courts of either the Stadholder or the Winter Queen in The Hague, and in locating his portraiture within a seventeenth-century stylistic context. He discerns its roots in Michiel van Mierevelt and Daniel Mijtens rather than Van Dyck, without regarding him as a follower of any single portaitist. He was, rather, an artist who more or less found his own idiom, and sometimes even had some reciprocal impact on such notable contemporaries as Mijtens and Rembrandt. He also played an important role in the development of the portrait historié. After the mid-century his influence as a portraitist was indirect, but Ekkart suggestively argues that the styles of Jan Mijtens, Adriaen Hanneman and Pieter Nason are unthinkable without Honthorst’s example.
Professor Judson’s treatment of the subject pictures remains an important work of reference. As in his 1959 publication, he is particularly strong on provenances, iconography, drawings, and connoisseurship, this time adding a substantial handful of new discoveries/attributions, as well as pictures overlooked in the earlier book, and a good many extra references to possible lost works. Both Judson and Papi attribute two previously much debated pictures of the Crowning with Thorn and Mocking of Christ, in the Getty Museum and the Capuchin Church, Rome, respectively (though tentatively in the latter case), to Honthorst’s Italian years, while Judson also ascribes to the same phase two recently emerged canvases of the the same subject (!) (Spier Collection, London, and art dealer Rob Smeets, currently on loan to the L.A. County Museum of Art — the Spier picture also included by Papi, which he only knew through an old photograph.) While there is a fair possibility that at least three of these are by Honthorst (the Capuchin church picture is different in lighting and technique and seems closer to the circle of Baburen), the Getty and Spier paintings are somewhat different from Honthorst’s established Roman style and would, therefore, have to be very early works — which, in turn, raises the thorny issue of when Honthorst arrived in Italy. There is absolutely no documentation for this, but both Judson (c.1613) and Papi (c.1610), in expansionist mode, would like to place it considerably earlier than the signed drawing of 1616 in Oslo after Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter in Rome. The drawing has the air of a new arrival’s homage to Caravaggio, and I wonder whether, even if we include the new attributions, the number of paintings by the always highly productive Hont-horst that can be associated with the Italian sojourn warrants a stay of much more than five years — unless, of course, he first spent untraced time in a north or central Italian venue (which is exactly what Papi tentatively proposes with regard to Genoa, and Judson for Venice and Bologna). On the attributional question, too, we are still insufficiently knowledgeable about the Italian-period styles of Northern artists in the circles of Honthorst and Baburen in Rome ( e.g. Jan Janssens, Gerard Seghers and Theodoor Rombouts) to be overly categorical in our ascription to Honthorst of any but the most unequivocal new discovery. After all, Honthorst’s brilliant reputation was already attracting artistic emulation in his late Roman years.
Despite the above-mentioned strengths, Judson’s contribution is in some other respects disappointing. For not only does he omit even mentioning certain attributions that have been plausibly promoted by several scholars (e.g. the Orpheus in the Palazzo Reale, Naples), he also fails in several instances to keep abreast of the recent art-historical literature. Thus, for example, he still catalogues as by Honthorst the Violinist in Angers (no. 247), despite Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée’s report (Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 122, 1993, p.195) that the cleaning of the painting has revealed it to be a signed work of Jan van Bijlert’s pupil, Abraham Willaerts. And it comes as a surprise to find him still also referring to Caravaggio’s now almost universally accepted Christ Crowned with Thorns in Vienna as a copy.
Judson’s discussion of the Italian Honthorst is arguably the least successful part of his study, and it is with interest that one turns to Gianni Papi’s detailed and vigorous analysis. Papi is very good at placing Honthorst’s achievement within the Italian milieu, about which he has far more to say than Judson. He gives more weight than the latter to the influence on Honthorst of the night pieces of Cambiaso, and downplays the important role accorded by Judson to the Bassani. He also plausibly points to an apparent reciprocity of influence between Honthorst and Spadarino. Furthermore, in another illuminating chapter, on candlelight painting in Rome, he both pinpoints some precursors of Honthorst in the city in the field of candlelight painting, and traces the development of the genre in response to, as well as independently of, his example. Under the banner of Honthorst’s influence, he makes a new bid to redefine the oeuvre of Trophime Bigot and to demarcate it from the so-called ‘Candlelight Master’. While not altogether convincing, this foray generates some thought-provoking insights, and is characteristic of Papi’s consistently adventurous approach to attribution. In the catalogue proper he (more or less tentatively) proposes a number of new (and renewed) attributions to Honthorst which only occasionally ring true (as in the case of the above-mentioned Orpheus), but which nonetheless importantly focus attention on several imposing images that argue the pressing need for further research into Honthorst’s circle and influence, both in Italy and Utrecht.
University of Aberdeen