Childhood of Christ, ca 1620
Born on 4 November, 1592 Gerard van Honthorst, sometimes written as Gerrit, was a prolific Dutch Baroque painter from Utrecht who typified the chiaroscuro of tenebrism in the Netherlands. Having spent four years in Italy absorbing the styles of Caravaggio, Manfredi and others he developed his own brand of powerful realism that earned him the nickname "Gherardo Delle Notti", or Gerard of the Nights. Interestingly, he did paint a few scenes and portraits that were not at night and with deep chiaroscuro—many of them quite amusing—but as he was known for painting in his usual dark manner they were not immediately recognizable as his own.
Honthorst was unique from his tenebrist contemporaries in that he not only painted religious scenes but genre painting, with characters from everyday life, especially musicians. Compared to his French contemporary Georges de La Tour, whose style was much darker, painting common people in similar scenes to Honthorst yet his figures leaned toward caricature. And where Georges focused primarily on facial expression and light, Honthorst portrays the figure in complete detail, with particular attention to costume and how it identifies the subject. Color is also a key ingredient of Honthorst, whereas most tenebrists subdued bright colors in favor of dramatic chiaroscuro.
In Childhood of Christ above, the use of candlelight here has a spiritual as well as literal meaning. Notice how Joseph looks at the candle instead of the wood he is chiseling, and the way his facial expression reveals how he is mesmerized. Christ is portrayed as confident and all-knowing, even though a boy. The meaning is clear, yet the intensity of the moment is captured in a way that merely reading about could not accomplish.
Christ before the High Priest, ca 1617
I first saw this painting at the National Gallery in London in 1991. Having been very familiar with this particular masterpiece, I still gasped when I walked into the room and noticed it. This is a large painting, measuring 272 cm (107.1 in) x 183 cm (72 in) which makes the figures nearly life-size. Honthorst takes a scene from the New Testament that is often ignored in painting and turns it into a drama so palpable, so real, that we feel like we are in the room with them. Facial expression is what distinguishes Honthorst from his contemporaries...the way Christ looks at the high priest is so eloquent in how he is controlling his contempt, that we forget we are looking at a painting. Christ has his wrists tied in front of him, clearly indicating his fate as guilty without the opportunity for being proven innocent. What makes the painting more hypnotic is the atmospheric haze from by the candlelight behind them and the figures in the background. Interestingly, both Christ and the Priest are dressed in a similar color palette, with Christ's left shoulder exposing his red under-robe underneath as if to symbolize his own blood, yet his outer yellow robe glows brightly in the candlelight. The priest, however, has his red robe exposed and lined with fur to insinuate his brutal, hypocritical nature, while his yellow under-robe is partly hidden in shadow and only glows faintly with a deeper, darker yellow. Painted while in Italy, this painting clearly shows Honthorst fully inspired and firing on all cylinders to leave a strong narrative work that has not been equalled in terms of story and sheer impact.
The Dentist, 1622
Both humorous and dramatic, Honthorst's depiction of a tooth extraction is a social event filled with spectators. Dentistry at that time was not a profession in the way we consider it today, but instead something the local doctor or barber would perform (ouch!) without anaesthetic of course, as we can see by the man gasping in the chair. Honthorst uses a circular figure arrangement, with the raised hand of the "patient" near the center of the composition, while the barber, patient and young boy holding the candle form a triangle. The young boy's hand in front of the candle mimics the hand of the patient, except in a different context and opposite hands— in fact, the use of hands is distinctive in this painting. Virtually every figure is using their hands to identify their relation to the patient and to help tell the story. Honthorst's genius for facial expression is key here, using an innocent theme with deep chiaroscuro to remind us that art need not be about religion or historical persons to be significant.
King David Playing the Harp, 1622
This striking portrait of King David reveals Honthorst's ease of facial expression from his genre work, and his talent for more traditional Dutch genre painting without chiaroscuro. Known for his ability to play the harp, David is depicted here as well-balanced and wise, the very same man who conquered the Philistine named Goliath. The harp also represents spiritual harmony, and here David looks upward toward heaven, completely at peace with himself. Honthorst's brushwork is superb, with various textures from the graceful beard to the shiny fabrics of his coat and head covering overtop of his crown. Note the perfect skintones here, and in the fingers deftly plucking the strings we can see the pronounced extensor tendons on the back of the hand. Personality is not the first thing that comes to mind when painting Old Testament people, yet here Honthorst takes a key figure from there and makes him...human.
The Steadfast philosopher, 1623
The implication is quite clear in this painting: a philosopher surrounded by a pile of books, about to write his thoughts while being distracted by a half-naked woman who displays herself openly to him and clutches his arm with a knowing smile. His eyes completely avoid her, his arm raised to suggest the interference of hedonism as detrimental to intelligent thought. Again, the painting has a comical demeanor, and her insistence seems to mock his inability to succumb to pleasure, mocking philosophy itself for an unrealistic rigidness. Honthorst creates a palette of vivid colors and patterns, contrasting her sensuous silk to his intricate tablecloth and neutral-colored robe. Honthorst uses details to help tell the story and make his point clear.
Woman playing a lute, 1624
In this genre painting Honthorst depicts a woman laughing and playing the lute, a traditional instrument from the Renaissance and Baroque period. Note the attention once again to the fingers plucking the strings and her left hand turning the peg on the pegbox. This image is about fun and enjoyment of life. And although the lute is a symbol of faith and pureness, in painting it was also associated with love and even lust, as is here with this woman showing full cleavage while holding the instrument close to her bosom. Honthorst paints personality, and here this woman has a unique significance that Honthorst would have surely known and appreciated.
Granida and Daifilo, 1625
Taken from a famous Dutch play in the early 17th century, Honthorst depicts two lovers in a forest, Granida, a Persian princess and Daifilo, a shepherd who fall in love despite her engagement to a prince. Here the lovers are gazing fondly into each other's eyes, and Honthorst arranges them in such a way that Daifilo is below her to emphasize his lower status yet her breast showing and her legs open wide despite being clothed hint at a relationship with both elements of platonic and sexual harmony. In the background the soldiers of the prince are hunting down the illicit couple. Note the attention to the contrast in dress and colors between Granida and Daifilo. Honthorst creates a world out of words.
A keen observer of human nature, anatomy and light, Honthorst's genius was in recognizing the vulnerability in greatness and the greatness of the vulnerable. A painter for the people. His brushwork is worth a lifetime of study.