The Musée Fabre of Montpellier Agglomération and the Musée des Augustins
in Toulouse are both members of FRAME (French Regional American Museum Exchange), the organisation for French-American cooperation. They have joined together to produce an exhibition-event dedicated to European Caravaggism, in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.
Close both in terms of geography and the complementary nature of their collections, the two great cities of the Languedoc are the perfect hosts for this exhibition. Whilst the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse holds marvellous examples of Northern Caravaggism, the Musée Fabre of Montpellier Agglomération possesses superb works by Italian, Spanish and French members of the 17th century movement. These specialisms determined the natural division between the two halves of the same exhibition.
The exhibition Bodies and Shadows, Caravaggio and European Caravaggism gathers together some 140 masterpieces from the greatest 17th century painters, through the generous cooperation of prestigious international institutions, and demonstrates the revolutionary influence of the Italian master on a half-century of painting.
Section 1 - In the face of Caravaggio Attraction and Resistance
The first section at the Musée des Augustins deals with the mixed phenomena of attraction and resistance following the appearance of Caravaggism. This runs in parallel with the section in Montpellier dedicated to the Caravaggesque Temptation. Just like Grammatica and Gentileschi in Italy, painters such as Abraham Bloemaert and Wenceslas Cobergher were older than Caravaggio but could not escape his influence, even during a period late in their careers when their style seemed to be fully established. Bloemaert was master to many of those painters who would form, on their return from Rome, the renowned Utrecht school. He never made the journey to Italy and only discovered Caravaggism following the return of Ter Brugghen, and most significantly from Honthorst a few years later. Cobergher lived in Naples and Rome, at the same time as Caravaggios personal adventures, but the experience seems to have remained locked in his memory until appearing later in a painting produced in Flanders. As for Peter Wtewael, the son of Joachim, he is the finest representative of the international Mannerist style from Utrecht. He remained faithful to his fathers influence but never completely escaped from the attractions of the Caravaggesque. Lastly, Louis Finson had undoubtedly made the personal acquaintance of Caravaggio. Finson is classed amongst the direct disciples of the master, whose work he imitated. However, he received a Mannerist training and his work, produced in a short space of time between Bruges, Rome, Aix-en-Provence and Amsterdam, includes paintings in hugely differing styles. He symbolises the ambivalent attitude of artists when first introduced to the work of Caravaggio and he is the only artist showing in both the Montpellier and Toulouse exhibitions.
Section 2 - The Utrecht School
The richest section in terms of number of works is dedicated to the Utrecht School. During the 20th century art historians rightly accorded pride of place to this group of artists, led by the three finest Northern Caravaggesque painters. Ter Brugghen was the first to return from Rome, after 1614. None of his work can be attributed with certainty to his period in Rome. He was influenced by the northern tradition of distortion and an aesthetic of ugliness, and his work is often disturbing and always powerful. Baburen is also extremely expressive and often accentuates the caricatured features of his characters. Unique amongst the northern artists, in Rome he benefited from the prestigious commisson to paint a chapel in San Pietro in Montorio, which he produced with David de Haen. Honthorst, celebrated in Italy under the name of Gherardo delle Notti, the author of paintings for churches in Rome, was the most elegant and universal talent. The second part of his career saw him leave the world of Caravaggism unlike his two colleagues, who disappeared prematurely. Hendrick ter Brugghen, who was the link between the great Expressionist tradition of painting in the north and the work of Caravaggio, is today considered to be the greatest northern Caravaggesque painter. However, his life and education remain little known. The only certain references concern his time in Milan in 1614 and his return to Utrecht during the same year. No painting is dated to this Italian period and only three would be dated during his career. It is possible, but not proven, that he visited Italy for a second time around 1620. In 1616 he became a member of the Utrecht Guild of Artists and could henceforth work under his own name. His precocious death at the age of 41 was possibly due to the plague which afflicted Utrecht at that time. Expressions are often exaggerated and dark in the work of Ter Brugghen, whose response to the powerful Realism of Caravaggio, was to make his work even more radical.
Baburen and Others
Dirk van Baburen had an extrememly short-lived career yet he was awarded one of the most prestigious commissions in Rome to paint a chapel for the church San Pietro in Montorio. Amongst the three great painters from Utrecht, it was Baburen who created the darkest expressions and the most colourful figures, as shown in his Pipe Smoker. Amongst the other artistic figures from the Utrecht Caravaggesque stable, Paulus Moreelse belonged to the previous generation. This painter did not ignore the contribution made by the Caravaggesque artists, but he remained loyal to later Mannerist pastoral scenes. Other painters, such as Bijlert and Bor, would have a Caravaggesque period before falling under the charm of the Classic style, imposed by the beginning of a new life at The Hague court. Several of their more fascinating paintings reveal a compromise between Caravaggism and Classicism.
Gerrit van Honthorst
Amongst all the Caravaggesque painters, Honthorst had one of the most successful careers. His virtuosity enabled him, during the second half of his career, to express himself with panache in the decorative style which was in fashion at the great European courts. He was one of Bloemarts most gifted students and, leaving his native soil, he met with great success in Italy where he came under the patronage of Cardinal Borghese, amongst others. His return to Utrecht in 1620 was welcomed with an immense celebration, which demonstrates his privileged status. He was inspired by Luca Cambiaso, a 16th century Genoese painter, to place a candle at the centre of the painting. He developed this idea in his work, achieving a rich variety of effects. He did not hesitate to paint gracious young women, in contrast with the violence of the chosen subjects, thus contributing to his uninterrupted success over a career spanning forty years.
Section 3 - Dutch History Painting
Dutch history painting was made notable by the figure of Rembrandt and, before him, Lastman. There is therefore no direct link between Caravaggism and painters such as Lievens, Jacobsz, Bramer and van Bloemendael. Even the link between Rembrandt and Caravaggism is complicated, and came in part through engraving and the influence of the Utrecht painters. The perfect simplicity and chiaroscuro in The Flight into Egypt, from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours, dates to the youthful period of the great Dutch master and owes much in influence to Elsheimer as well as to Caravaggism. The paintings gathered together in this section are distant cousins to Caravaggism. Bramer treats the violent beheading of Saint John the Baptist in a precise manner, whereas Bloemendael uses a biting irony for Socrates mocked by his wife. The freize composition, which incorporates figures shown at mid-height, from The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Lambert Jacobsz, otherwise so dependant on Lastman, evokes the modus operandi of the Caravaggesque painters. The painting most in keeping with the Utrecht School is that by one of the great representatives of Dutch Classicism in its most decorative form, Cesar van Everdingen. His Mandolin Player, on loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen, seems to be the swansong for the genre of figures of isolated musicians.
Section 4 - Matthias Stom
We know little about the life of Matthias Stom, simply the exact dates of his birth and death. He originated from Amersfoort and was educated in Utrecht. He worked in Italy, Rome, Naples and then Sicily. Stom produced a large number of works which can be divided into religious paintings, images taken from the history of Rome or mythology and isolated figures.
His art is characterised by an exceptionally gifted use of colour, a systematic use of candelight and a rustic manner of treating skin-tones, where no wrinkle escaped his meticulous eye. To demonstrate his art, works chosen for this section from the heart of his abundant production of history paintings, feature scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Still unknown today, Stom is one of the most brilliant Caravaggesque painters. He was also a bridge between Italy and Holland, as his art remained loyal to his northern heritage.
Section 5 - The Flemish Caravaggesques
Flemish Caravaggism remains less known and less simple to define in comparison to the Dutch Caravaggism dominated by Utrecht. The influence of Rubens is frequently blended with the Caravaggesque spirit, conferring a Baroque tonality on the paintings. Aside from Abraham Janssens and Theodoor Van Loon the chief representatives from this school are gathered under one section. Gerard Seghers is the only painter to hold a comparable status to his Dutch peers, but his complicated work also shows an inspiration from Mannerist and Classic art. His different versions of The Denial of Saint Peter (Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of art) mark one of the highpoints of Caravaggism. Rombouts was the painter the most loyal to the Manfrediana Methodus and its characteristic subjects such as the The Tooth Puller. Jan Janssens often came close to Honthorst, in particular with The Mocking of Christ (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse). Van Mol and Wolffort were also painters with a culture of the complex and the composite. As for Cossiers, his renowned The Fortune Teller from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Valenciennes is a brilliant variation on a classic theme. In conclusion, Sweerts was a deeply independent artist yet, more or less conscientiously, he drew from Caravaggio when he painted Burying the Dead, a powerful and rare subject previously revived by Caravaggio.
Section 6 - A room of Caravaggesque Drawings
The final section of the exhibition in Toulouse tackles the paradoxical question of drawing amongst Caravaggesque artists. The complete absence of drawings by Caravaggio and his followers has long been considered a dogma. Even though Caravaggio painted directly onto the canvas with the help of incisions for the outlines, many of his disciples produced preparatory drawings. This was particularly true for the students of Bloemaert who received a traditional studio training. Honthorst produced many drawings during his career. Ter Brugghen also drew, as shown by Democritus, on loan from Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen. Through a selection of graphic works playing on exaggerated contrasts of light the exhibition demonstrates, with works by Jordaens, Van Herp, Andries Both, Lievens and Bramer, how the painter-illustrators sought a graphic equivalement to the pictorial chiaroscuro.