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.2 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
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