Gerard van Honthorst, “Saint Sebastian”, circa 1623, Oil on Canvas, 101 x 117 cm, The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom
Born in November of 1592 in Utrecht, an important trade center of the Northern Netherlands, Gerard van Honthorst was a Dutch Golden Age painter who was known for his artificially lit scenes. In his early career in Rome, he had great success painting in a style influenced by the work of Caravaggio. Upon his return to the Netherlands, Honthorst became a prominent portrait and allegorical painter.
The son of a decorative painter, Gerard van Honthorst initially trained under his father and finished his education under painter and printmaker Abraham Bloemaert, a painter of historical subjects and an early advocate of the emerging Baroque style. Bloemaert was an important teacher who would train most of the Utrecht painters who were influenced by Caravaggio’s style. Upon completion of his education, Honthorst traveled to Rome where he lodged at the palace of Vincenzo Giustiniani, an aristocratic banker and art collector whose collected paintings and sculptures totaled over fifteen-hundred pieces.
Honthorst was influenced by the contemporary artists in Giustiniani’s collection, particularly those works by Caravaggio, Bartolomeo Manfredi and the Carracci family of artists. The technique used by these artists to depict light in their canvases strongly impressed the young artist. While lodged at Giustiniani’s palace, Honthorst painted his 1617 oil on canvas “Christ Before the High Priest”, a work in which lighting plays a particular importance. The scene of Jesus questioned by the priest Calaphas takes place at night with the only source of light being a candle in the center of the table. Jesus and Calphas are illuminated by that candle; all the secondary figures in the room are shrouded in darkness.
Gerard van Honthorst acquired an important patron in Rome, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a member of the Borghese family and also the patron of Caravaggio and Gian Lonrenzo Bernini. Through the Cardinal, Honthorst received important commissions at Monte Compatri and Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. He also received work from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de’ Medici. In 1620, Honthorst returned to Utrecht and through his new work increased his reputation in the Dutch Republic and abroad.
In 1623, the year of his marriage, Honthorst became president of Utrecht’s Guild of Saint Luke, a city guild of painters and other artists in early Europe. His reputation was such that the English envoy at the Hague, Sir Dudley Carleton, recommended his work to Lord Dorchester and the Earl of Arundel, courtier to King James I and King Charles I. Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, the sister of Charles I, commissioned Honthorst as portrait painter and as drawing-master for her children. He was invited to England in 1628 where he painted several portraits, a vast allegorical scene featuring Charles and his queen as Apollo and Diana, and an intimate group portrait “The Four Eldest Children of the King of Bohemia”.
Upon his return to Utrecht in 1652, Gerard van Honthorst, still retained by Charles I, painted a 1631 group portrait of the king and queen of Bohemia and all their children. He also painted scenes from “The Odeyssey” for Lord Dorchester, historical scenes in 1635 for Christian IV of Denmark, and a portrait of Countess Leonora during her visit to the Hague. Honthorst opened a second studio in the Hague where he painted portraits of the members of the court, employed a large number of assistants to make replicas of royal portraits, and taught students, each paying one hundred guilders a year.
A prolific artist, Gerard van Honthorst passed away in April of 1656. Many of his paintings, cultivated in the style of Caravaggio, involved tavern scenes with musicians, gamblers and people dining. He was very skilled in the art of chiaroscuro, the strong use of contrasts between light and dark to affect the whole composition.
In November of 2013, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC purchased Honthorst’s 1623 “The Concert” from a private collection in France. The painting went on display for the first time in two-hundred and eighteen years at a special installation in the National Gallery’s West Building in November of 2013. It is now on permanent display in the museum’s Dutch and Flemish galleries.
Notes: Gerard van Honthorst was one of the first artists to portray Saint Sebastian as a half-length figure, slumped forward in a seated position. The pose was subsequently adopted by other followers of Caravaggio in Utrecht, including Hendrik te Brugghen and Jan van Bijlert in the mid-1620s. The painting “Saint Sebastian” was most likely painted shortly after Honthorst’s return to Utrecht from Rome in 1620.
Top Insert Image: Pieter de Jode II, “Gerrit (Gerard) van Honthorst”, Engraving, From Cornelis de Bie’s “Her Golden Cabinet”, Publisher Joannes Meyseens, Antwerp, 1661
Second Insert Image: Gerard van Honthorst, “Saint Peter Penitent”, Date Unknown, Oil on Canvas, 110.2 x 97.4 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Gerard van Honthorst, “Old Woman Examing a Coin”, 1623, Oil on Canvas, 75 x 60 cm, The Kremer Collection, Amsterdam
Bottom Insert Image: Gerard van Honthorst, “The Denial of St. Peter”, 1622, Oil on Canvas, 111 x 149 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts