Painting: Merry Mimes

  • Share
  • Read Later

By 1600, European painters found themselves losing the Renaissance reverence for Greco-Roman antiquity. Following the Italian artist Caravaggio, they stopped looking backward and returned, as artists have done repeatedly throughout history, to the direct observation of the visible world. What they saw was a growing middle-class life in an ever more secular society, and they depicted it with theatrical relish.

Nowhere did the bourgeoisie bubble with more prosperity than in The Netherlands—and newly rich burghers invested much of their wealth in art. Patronage grew so great that as early as 1560 in Antwerp alone, there were more than three times as many working artists as there were butchers. Today most painters of that period are forgotten, but occasionally an unfamiliar name such as Hendrick Terbrugghen establishes a new reputation more than three centuries after his death.

Before 1900,Terbrugghen was known by little more than his signature. Thirteen years ago, only three of his works were in the U.S.; now there are 15 (out of 90-odd authenticated in the world). In the Dutchman's first exhibition anywhere, all those from U.S. collections are on view at Ohio's Dayton Art Institute and are scheduled to move to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Their baroque realism, their tickling highlights, merry laughter and moralizing mien have established Terbrugghen as a forerunner of Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt.

Stolid Dutch burghers wanted genre scenes, not Biblical pageantry. Terbrugghen did his requisite of martyrs and evangelists, but it is his fleshly sinners that were his daily bread. In 17th century Holland, where drinking, smoking, gambling, even lute playing were castigated, the artist's twaddling codgers, topless prostitutes and leering rakes mime ribald vignettes.

What Calvin inveighed against, Terbrugghen painted with brush in cheek. The typical Caravaggioesque huddling of figures unified by a single artificial light source lacks Caravaggio's brooding shadows, instead glows with an incandescent warmth. In the dumb show, hands are more expressive than faces. Terbrugghen was making morality playlets, but his sympathy seems to lie on the side of the sinners and the senses.