While the present canvas has emerged as a superlative work by the artist, scholars have not universally accepted the Lyon version as an authentic work by Honthorst. Although Judson maintained its authenticity in his publications, other scholars have reserved judgement. Hermann Braun, for example, writing in 1966, rejected the attribution to Honthorst, considering the painting a weak compilation of the figural types typically seen in the work of his colleagues, Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1592/93-1624) and Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629).3 More recently, in their summary catalogue of foreign paintings in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon published in 1993, Hans Buijs and Valérie Lavergne-Durey downgraded the work to “Attributed to Honthorst” and noted the existence of another, then-lost version that was in the Le Gavrian Collection in 1927, which can now be identified as the present picture.4 Motivated in part by these earlier objections, the curators of the aforementioned German exhibition of 2009, Caravaggio in Holland, opined that the association of the painting in Lyon with Honthorst was problematic.5
While elements of the Lyon version raise questions of authenticity based on technique and handling, the present painting fully exemplifies Honthorst’s style in every respect, from its sophisticated and accomplished brushwork, to its exuberant figures and its vibrant color scheme, as evidenced by the scarlet red and deep teal tones that compose the musicians’s outfits. One can also detect some unusual surface characteristics, namely, a pentimento at the edge of the lutenist’s forefinger, positioned on the third fret of her instrument, and a distinct area of reserve in burnt umber, running along the length of the lower edge of the violin. These surface peculiarities only serve to confirm, along with the astonishing virtuosity with which the picture has been painted, that it is indeed the prime version.
Honthorst has posed two boisterous musicians in flamboyant attire behind a ledge. Looking out beyond the frame, the male violinist bows his instrument with great vigor while singing. His smiling female companion accompanies him on the lute. Directly behind this engaging couple, an adolescent boy lifts his roemer of wine on high, as if to toast their efforts. The boisterous subject matter of our painting and the presence of such pictorial devices as the ledge and arms that literally puncture the picture plane link it to several other musical portrayals of this sort that Honthorst painted in the early 1620s. A date of perhaps 1623 or 1624 for this canvas therefore seems most plausible.
This was a period of great productivity for Honthorst, all the more so for his output as a genre painter. After his seven to ten year sojourn in Rome, where he earned the apt sobriquet, "Gherardo delle Notti" (Gerard of the Nights), for his stunning candlelight scenes, Honthorst resettled in his native Utrecht in the early summer of 1620. In July of that year, the artist was feted at an inn in his native Utrecht to celebrate his return home. Thanks to the diary jottings of Arnold van Buchel, one of the leading luminaries of Utrecht’s cultural life and a friend of many of that city’s painters, we know who specifically attended this notable event.6 After Honthorst resumed his career in Utrecht, his style continued to evolve. His forms gradually became more crisply defined and his chiaroscuro effects increasingly hard. Simultaneously, he began to paint ever-increasing numbers of pictures–such as ours--that are noteworthy for the absence of chiaroscuro. By 1630, Honthorst had abandoned genre painting altogether for a flourishing practice of supplying portraits and large-scale allegorical works in a classicizing style to several European courts.
With reference to the Lyon version, Judson correctly noted just how close its composition of two main foreground figures with a drinker between and behind them was to that of a contemporary painting by Terbrugghen of Unequal Lovers (fig. 3).7 A Merry Group behind a Balustrade thus provides yet another an important example of the collective corpus of the Utrecht Caravaggists because it testifies to their synergy. As this writer has argued elsewhere, the city of Utrecht can be considered a sort of artistic “laboratory” during the early 1620's under the aegis of its three leading painters, Honthorst, Baburen, and Terbrugghen.8 The necessity of competing for commissions must have led them to emulate one another’s work in order to showcase their own individual talents. The give-and-take artistic relationship between these three masters was complicated, so much so that it is often difficult to determine who introduced particular themes or motifs first. The iconographic roots of Honthorst’s paintings of musicians can be found not only in 16th century Netherlandish art but also in the work of the important Italian Caravaggist, Bartolommeo Manfredi (1582-1622). But there were also immediate precedents in single-figured performers posed behind ballustrades that Baburen painted around 1622 (fig. 4). However, these influences cut both ways: there seems little doubt that Honthorst’s Merry Group behind a Balustrade, a multi-figured musical scene of the sort that our artist had been creating since his Roman period and continued to produce in the early 1620's, made an impression upon Baburen. In 1623, Baburen painted his lone multi-figure painting of musicians’ concert (Detroit, Detroit Institute of Arts).9
What further links many of the subjects of Honthorst’s, Baburen’s and Terbrugghen’s paintings is their unabashed eroticism. Oft times, the narrative unfolds in what can only be identified as a brothel, the present picture providing no exception. Consider how the belly of the lutenist’s instrument in A Merry Group behind a Balustrade is pressed against her bosom to accentuate her cleavage. This can hardly be coincidental given the frequent equation in early 17th century art and literature of the shape and structure of specific musical instruments with the female body.10 Both the musician’s ample cleavage and her fantastic turban, crowned with feathers spiraling upwards, serve to identify her as a prostitute. More complicated, however, are her companion’s garments. He sports striking striped clothing and a fanciful feathered cap of a type sometimes identified with ‘Landsknechtendracht’, the elaborate garments of 16th century Northern European mercenaries.14 Regardless of the iconographic and sartorial roots of this attire, in most instances it was not contemporary to the 1620's. It consequently served as distancing mechanism when viewers of Honthorst’s day perused his picture’s subject matter.
1. Jochen Sander et al., Caravaggio in Holland: Musik und Genre bei Caravaggio und den Utrechter Caravaggisten, exhibition catalogue, Frankfurt am Main 2009, cat. 34.
2. J. Richard Judson, Gerrit van Honthorst: A Discussion of His Position in Dutch Art, The Hague 1959, pp. 247-248 cat. 196; J. Richard Judson and Rudolf E. O. Ekkart, Gerrit van Honthorst 1592-1656, Doornspijk 1999, pp. 222-223 cat. 285.
3. Hermann Braun, Gerard und Willem van Honthorst, Ph. D. dissertation, Universität Göttingen, 1966, p. 331 cat. 31.
4. Buijs and Lavergne-Durey, p. 135 (see Literature).
5. Sander et al. (as in note 1), p. 170.
6.See Arnoldus Buchelius, Notae quotidianae, ed. by J. W. C. van Campen, Utrecht 1940, p. 1.
7. Judson and Ekkart (as in note 2) pp. 222-23. For the painting by Terbrugghen, see Leonard J. Slatkes and Wayne Franits, The Paintings of Hendrick ter Brugghen 1588-1629, Amsterdam - Philadelphia 2007, pp. 160-161 cat. A51.
8.Wayne Franits, ‘Laboratorium Utrecht. Baburen, Honthorst und Terbrugghen im künstlerischen Austauch,’ in: Sander et al. (as in note 1), pp. 37-53.
9. Wayne Franits, The Paintings of Dirck van Baburen ca. 1592/93-1624: Catalogue Raisonné, Amsterdam - Philadelphia 2013, pp. 164-165 cat. A35.
10.Eddy de Jongh et al., Tot lering en vermaak; betekenissen van Hollandse genrevoorstellingen uit de zeventiende eeuw , exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam 1976, pp. 60-61.
14.. Marcus Dekiert, Musikanten in der Malerei der niederländischen Carvaggio-Nachfolge..., Münster 2003, pp. 261-263.