Lot 56
  • 56

Gerrit van Honthorst

400,000 - 600,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Gerrit van Honthorst
  • The flea hunt
  • indistinctly signed and dated lower left
  • oil on canvas
  • 43 3/8 x 35 1/4 inches


Probably Jan Willem Frank, The Hague;
His sale, The Hague, Jan Willem Frank, 5 April 1762, lot 46;
H.M. van Straaten, The Hague;
His sale, The Hague, Van Marle & Bignell, 7 March 1964, lot 67;
With Richard Knight, London;
With Trafalgar Galleries, London;
Anonymous sale ("Property of a European Private Collector"), London, Christie's, 4 July 1997, lot 26;
Where purchased by the present collector.


London, Royal Academy, Trafalgar Galleries at the Royal Academy III, 1983, no. 26.


G. Hoet (P . Terwesten ed.), Catalogus of Naamlyst van Schilderijen..., The Hague 1770, p. 248;
J.R. Judson, Gerrit van Honthorst, The Hague 1959, p. 236, no. 178c (as a copy);
H. Braun, Gerard und Willem van Honthorst, Ph.D., diss., University of Göttingen, 1966, p. 335, no. 5 (as doubtful);
B. Nicolson, The International Caravaggesque Movement, Oxford 1979, pp. 61 and 230; 
J. Judson, "New Light on Honthorst", Hendrick ter Brugghen und die Nachfolger Caravaggios in Holland, Braunschweig 1988, p. 113;
Royal Academy, Trafalgar Galleries III, London 1983, pp. 66-9, cat. no. 26, reproduced in color;
B. Nicolson, Caravaggism in Europe, Oxford 1979, (ed. L. Vertova) Turin 1990, vol. I, p. 127, reproduced vol. III, plate 1254;
J. Judson and R. Ekkart, Gerrit van Honthorst, Doornspijk 1999, pp. 199-200, cat. no. 258, reproduced plate. 149 (as a workshop copy after a lost original).


The following condition report has been provided by Simon Parkes of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc. 502 East 74th St. New York, NY 212-734-3920, simonparkes@msn.com, an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's. This work is in very good condition and could easily be hung in its current state. The canvas has an old lining applied with wax, which is easily reversible if required. The paint layer is probably clean and shows very few retouches. There are some retouches in the shadowed side of the young woman's right arm and a very thin line of retouches above her head, but there are very few, if any, retouches throughout the remainder of the picture. The restoration above the head may attend to a very thin break in the canvas. The varnish could be freshened, but the work is in lovely condition.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

Wayne Franits has recently examined this candlelit Flea Hunt in the original and considers it a characteristic example by Honthorst, datable to circa 1623-25. Though Judson and Ekkart list this work as a workshop replica after a lost original (see Literature), it is clear that they had not examined the painting when it was sold as autograph shortly before the publishing of their 1999 monograph, given the sale's omission from that book. That a lost original separate to the present canvas actually exists remains unclear, and barring direct knowledge of another autograph extant example, this painting should be considered the only known authentic version.1

Honthorst introduced the theme of the flea hunt into Netherlandish painting. As with so many of Honthorst's genre scenes, an allusion to promiscuity and general playfulness is used, though here it is more directly referenced through the use of the flea hunt theme. From antiquity, the flea has been used as a symbol for sex owing to its proclivity to sucking blood from its targets. Writers as early as Aristotle, Pliny and Ovid, and continuing on to Honthorst's contemporaries John Donne, Peter Woodhouse and Christopher Marlowe, all wrote on the intimate and intense associations of the flea with sex.Honthorst eliminates any subtle innuendo here as he depicts the procuress helping the smiling, half naked woman search for fleas on her clothing, all lit by Honthorst's quintessential candlelight. Honthorst treated the subject in another painting, signed and dated 1628 (see fig. 1; The Dayton Art Institute, Ohio) which includes two peeping voyeurs in the background of the scene, yet another aid to the viewer in these otherwise not so subtle metaphors. 

Judson/Ekkart illustrate (cat. D47, fig. 148) a pen, wash, and chalk drawing of a similar composition (Museum der bildenden Künste, Lepizig, inv. no. N.I. 436) that they argue served as the inspiration for the present composition. That drawing likely repeats a Magdalen in Ecstasy, considered a lost original by Caravaggio, which is known in numerous painted versions by Lodovicus Finsonius (Musée des beaux-arts, Marseilles) and Wybrand de Geest, (Don Santiago Alorda collection, Barcelona). 

We are grateful to Wayne Franits, Professor of Art History at Syracuse University, for his assistance in the cataloguing of this lot. 

1. What appears to be a different painting to the present work, though whose autograph status is unknown, was possibly sold Fa. E. Kahlert & Son & Others sale, Berlin, H.W. Lange, 18-20 June 1940, lot 24. That picture is described as being signed in monogram upper right, and is of different dimensions to the present work. 
2. J.R. Judson and R. Ekkart, under Literature, p. 199. John Donne's poem The Flea is one of the better known modern literary sources