GERRIT VAN HONTHORST

A BOY BLOWING ON A FIREBRAND

1592 Utrecht - 1656
C
anvas, 75,5 x 64,5 cm
Remains of a signature upper right G . v … .f

Essay

Being the son of the textile and tapestry designer Herman Gerritsz van Honthorst and his wife Maria Wilhelmsdr van der Halm, Gerrit van Honthorst grew up in an artistic milieu. While his brother Herman was trained as a sculptor, Gerrit himself was apprenticed to Utrecht’s foremost painter Abraham Bloemaert (1566-1651). In turn, Gerrit taught his younger brother Willem.

Around 1610-1615 Honthorst decided to travel to Rome, where he soon received numerous commissions of prominent art collectors such as the banker Vincenzo Giustiniani and cardinal Scipione Borghese – both former patrons of Caravaggio (1571-1610). Although Honthorst’s early production leans strong on the latter’s work and on that of Caravaggio’s most successful interpreter Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622), he quickly developed his own trademark adaption of it, the Caravaggesque night scene. Honthorst’s masterful chiaroscuro, his appliance and rendering of artificial light and light effects soon brought him not only huge success, but also his nickname ‘Gherardo delle Notti’, Gerrit of the Night. 

Leaving Rome in the spring of 1620 with a solid reputation, Honthorst arrived in his native Utrecht in July, where his return was welcomed with a feast in his honour, attended by – among others – the scholar Arnhout van Buchell, his former teacher Abraham Bloemaert, Paulus Moreelse (1571-1638), Crispijn de Passe I (1564-1637) and many more. Honthorst married Sophia Coopmans in October of that same year. The most prominent among the Utrecht Caravaggists – the other two most important being Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-629) and Dirck van Baburen (1594/95-1624) – Honthorst became a member of the Guild of St Luke in 1622, serving several times as its dean in the later half of the 1620s. During these early Utrecht years he further perfected his artificially lighted night scenes, resulting in a number of critically acclaimed masterpieces, both history- and genre works. The mid 1620s saw Honthorst expanding his style, as he started working with bright colours and cool daylight. Also, the period saw the first of a long row of commissions from the House of Orange. From April to December 1628/29 Honthorst was in England, where he painted several well received – and well paid – portraits of Charles I and his family.

As his international reputation grew, Honthorst’s style took new directions as well. While gradually abandoning the Caravaggist style for what Slatkes has called the ‘insipid but financially rewarding style of courtly portraiture’, Honthorst also started to produce large-scale allegorical works in huge decorative schemes. In 1637 Honthorst – due to his enormous success as a painter to the Court – decided to move to The Hague, where he was involved in the decoration of the palaces Honselaersdijk and Rijswijk, and later the famous Oranjezaal at Huis ten Bosch. In 1652 Honthorst – internationally regarded as one of the most important painters of his time – retired to Utrecht, a very wealthy man. 

The present work and the ancient pictorial tradition of the ‘puer sufflans ignes’

The present work dates from Honthorst’s early Utrecht period, just after his glorious return from Rome, and has all the characteristics of his chiaroscuro Caravaggist style, which rendered him his epithet ‘delle notti’. From underneath a blue, large-brimmed white and red-feathered hat a young boy in half-length, dressed in a scarlet and blue costume, with an ochre shoulder pad and a greenish sash, looks waggishly at the beholder. In order to light the large candle in his right hand, the boy blows with puffed out cheeks on a firebrand that he holds in his right hand. The magnificently rendered luminous effect of the glowing firebrand on the boy’s face, the sparks flying around, and the candid eye contact between the boy and the viewer create an utterly intimate, private atmosphere. The sword clamped underneath the boy’s right arm adds the perfect stalwart touch to this marvellously charming, lively image. 

Ever since its first appearance in the art historical literature in 1956, the present work has been in the centre of the on-going ‘puer sufflans ignes’ (‘boy blowing on a fire’) discourse, the scholarly debate on a cluster of works by a number of international artists, depicting boys or men blowing on a firebrand. With the work Honthorst – as is commonly accepted – introduced the theme in the Netherlands, causing a creative chain reaction of adaptions, variations and emulations by his admiring colleagues. The theme’s origins, though, date back as far as antiquity. In his Naturalis Historia, book 34, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) informs us about the sculptor Lycius, a pupil (some even say the son) of the admired sculptor Myron (c. 480-440 BC). ‘Lycius’, he writes, ‘made a figure representing a boy blowing a nearly extinguished fire, well worthy of his master’ (‘puerum sufflantem languidos ignes’) to add that he ‘also made a figure of a boy burning perfumes’. In the following book 35, dedicated completely to the art of painting, Pliny further mentions the painter Antiphilus from Egypt, who worked during the reign of Alexander the Great (356-323), decorated among others the Schola Octaviae and the Curia Pompeii in Rome, and was considered to be the foremost rival of the famous Apelles. Descriptions of Antiphilus’ work make clear that most of all he excelled in rendering light and shade. According to Pliny, ‘Antiphilus is highly praised for his picture of a Boy blowing a Fire’ (‘puero ignem conflante’) ‘which illumines an apartment handsomely furnished, and throws a light upon the features of the youth’. Finally, Pliny states that the painter Philiscus, painted ‘a Painter's Studio, with a boy blowing the fire’. These various listings thus indicate that the theme had certain repute in antiquity. And naturally, the painters in Renaissance Italy took much interest in these classical texts as they offered valuable information on the vanished works of their antique predecessors, and thus formed the potential basis for a sort of inverted ekphrasis (the verbal evocation of visual art), a visual response to these ancient written sources, a lead for artistic competition.

It was Michelangelo (1475-1564) who was the first to pick up on the puer sufflans ignes theme, when in the early sixteenth century he depicted a boy blowing on a fire in order to light a torch as a side figure to his Sibilla Erithrea in the Sixtine Chapel, Rome (fig. 1). Again as a side figure, one comes across a boy blowing on a firebrand on the Adoration of the Shepherds by Jacopo Bassano (1510-1592) from Venice, widely known through Johann Sadeler’s (1550-1600) 1599 print after the work (fig. 2a,b). Credit for isolating the motif comes to El Greco (1541-1617), who had studied in Venice before leaving for Rome around 1570. He made it the single subject of his Boy Blowing on an Ember, now in the Museo Capodimonte, Naples, datable to his Roman period, around 1570/75 (fig. 3). In fact, the painting was recorded in an early inventory of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome – where El Greco resided in 1570/72 – and where Honthorst no doubt saw it. A recently discovered early prototype by Honthorst, datable c. 1614/17, was surely done in his Roman period (fig. 4). This Roman work confirms Honthorst’s early predilection for the theme, which had much to offer for him, not merely because of his interest in chiaroscuro effects, but mostly because the specific theme provided him the perfect opportunity to display his outstanding skills in that field, and to emulate his praiseworthy predecessors, both those from antiquity and those in more recent times.

Bringing the theme to the North and a hitherto overlooked addition to Honthorst’s leading cluster 

Upon his return home, Honthorst’s specialty, the night scene lit by candle light or fire, brought him great success as it became a craze among his colleagues, and no doubt among patrons as well. It thus comes as no surprise that Honthorst decided to further explore the puer sufflans ignes theme’s possibilities. One only has to compare the present work with the earlier Roman effort to see the huge progression Honthorst had made. Although surely not without merit, the Roman painting lacks the frolicsome excitement of the present work, nor does it match its level of painterly execution, that by then had become Honthorst’s impeccable standard. Whereas the present work presents the ‘puer sufflans ignes’ theme in its purest form, Honthorst’s widely admired Soldier and a Girl now in Braunschweig – depicting a male and a female protagonist – elaborates further on the more explicit erotic connotations of the act of blowing on a (love) fire (fig. 5). Regardless of this thematic variation the two works share a completely similar approach in the painterly rendering of the fire and its glowing illumination of the human face, with relatively rough touches of light yellow, pink and white in the most brightly illuminated parts of the face around the mouth and the burning source itself, contrasting a smooth shadowing of the cheeks (figs. 6, 7). A strikingly similar appliance of paint and modelling of the shadows can be witnessed in Honthorst’s monumental Christ Crowned with Thorns in the Rijksmuseum, datable to the same early Utrecht period (fig. 8). The face of the boy on the left likewise illuminated by a burning torch, it again shows Honthorst’s predilection at this point of his career for depicting this specific light effect. 

As the present Boy Blowing on a Firebrand is not dated – nor is the Soldier with a Girl or the Mocking of Christ – art historians since long have suggested dates varying from 1620 to 1624. However, in this respect one key source has been systematically overlooked. The only Honthorst scholar to mention this missing piece of the puzzle was Hermann Braun, who in his 1966 dissertation on the Honthorst brothers remarked that in a French-written 1906 catalogue of Dutch and Flemish paintings in St Petersburg collections, a work by Honthorst is mentioned which at that point was part of the famous Delaroff collection, and which apparently depicted a similar boy blowing on a fire: ‘Il y a encore un tableau de Honthorst dans la vaste collection Delaroff: c’est un Jeune garcon soufflant le feu, daté de 1622.’ Braun, who only knew the mentioning in the 1906 catalogue, but had never seen the work (neither from a photo nor in real life), all too easily assumed that the present Boy Blowing on a Firebrand was what he called a ‘eigenhändige Wiederholung’ a version by Honthorst himself, of the 1622 dated Delaroff work. Assuming that the Delaroff work was lost, he let the case rest. Neither before nor after Brauns dissertation the 1622 Delaroff work was ever considered again within the puer sufflans ignes discussion. The work, though, hasn’t been lost at all. Disregarded for over a century, it currently resides in the collection of the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, where it hides under an erroneous attribution to Matthias Stom (1589/90-after 1649) (fig. 9). Although clearly in need of cleaning, the work is without any doubt the Delaroff Honthorst. It entered the Hermitage collection in 1946 through a private person, it has a Delaroff provenance, and it is dated 1622. Although clearly not – as Braun assumed – a ‘version’ of the present painting, but an independent composition, the affinity between the two works is remarkable. Again one sees a boy – the same boy? – wearing a fanciful costume, a wide brimmed hat and carrying the same sword under his arms, blowing on a similar firebrand, concentrated on lighting a torch. As for the painting technique, the work shows the exact same characteristics found in the other paintings (fig. 10). What’s more, the two paintings turn out to be of near identical dimensions, suggesting they might even have been conceived as pendants, possibly explaining the fact that the present work is signed whereas the other work is dated. 

The theme picked up in the Netherlands and beyond

Honthorst’s exciting innovations had a huge impact, and reactions to soon followed. In 1623 Hendrick ter Brugghen painted the clearly Honthorst-inspired Boy Lighting a Pipefrom a Candle in the Dobó István Värmúzeum, Eger (fig. 11). Tellingly, it was the artist’s first effort in the use of an artificial light source, again underlining the subject’s exemplary status in demonstrating one’s abilities in the depiction of such lighting. Ter Brugghen’s adaption of Honthorst’s example is further pointed out by the inclusion of the sword, which the bust length depicted boy carries underneath his arm. Slightly later, Ter Brugghen again responded to Honthorst when he painted his marvellous Girl Blowing on a Firebrand, variously dated between 1623 and 1627 (fig. 12). A painter who was arduously studying the work of the Utrecht Caravaggisti was the young Jan Lievens (1607-1674) from Leiden, who eagerly adopted his older colleagues’ imagery. In two pictures generally dated around 1624/25, both in Warsaw, the baldy ambitious Lievens, only 17 years old, explicitly sought to compete with both Honthorst and Ter Brugghen. His Young Man with a Pipe, Blowing on Glowing Coals (fig. 13) directly relates back to Ter Brugghen’s Boy Lighting a Pipe from a Candle, while the Boy Blowing on a Coal (fig. 14) fully relies on Honthorst. The fact that these ‘blowing boys’ are still together, both signed with the same rare signature J. Liviús and of similar size, indicates that they were probably intended as pendants of some sort, despite their relative lack of compositional cohesion. In this regard, it is interesting that both of the Ter Brugghen works discussed here were once accompanied by pendant pieces as well, which could speak for the idea of the present work and the Hermitage work once having belonged together, too. Be this as it may, Lievens surely reused Honthorst’s composition for a third ‘puer sufflans ignes’ this time aptly representing ‘fire’ within the context of a series of the four elements (fig. 15). 

A last Netherlandish painter to appropriate the theme directly from Honthorst was Matthias Stom, who as we have seen was erroneously credited as the author of the Hermitage work. Looking at his Boy Blowing on a Firebrand in Warsaw the faulty Hermitage attribution seems understandable, as compositionally the two works resemble each other neatly (fig. 16). Clearly Stom, who specialised in night scenes, was aware of the Honthorst, which he probably saw in Utrecht. After his departure for Italy – from which he would never return – he painted several more ‘blowers’ which can nowadays still be found in Italian collections, thus returning the originally Italian theme (since Michelangelo) to it’s native. In Flanders we find the theme back with another Tenebrist, Adam de Coster (1585/86-1643), who was active in Antwerp, but must have been thoroughly acquainted with Honthorst’s work (fig. 17). In France one comes across the subject in the oeuvre of George de la Tour (1593-1652), another painter famous for his Tenebrism, who likely familiarised with the theme through the Utrecht Caravaggists (fig. 18). By then painting the theme had clearly become a near topical must for painters specialising in night scenes, and it is therefore hardly surprising that the most celebrated painter of night scenes in the Netherlands in the later half of the Golden Age, Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706) also tried his luck at the subject (fig. 19). To realise that in this long chain of artistic emulation – from antiquity on – the present, recently surfaced work, together with its rediscovered ‘brother’ painting in the Hermitage, played such a quintessential role, adds even more lustre to this utterly pleasurable picture.

 

 

 

JH

 


Provenance

Warwickshire, Coombe Abbey, collection Earls of Craven, by 1866
Sale London, Christie’s (collection Rt. Hon. Cornelia, Countess of Craven), 13 April 1923, lot 99, to Harris
Bath, collection Charles A. Cooke, Esq.
His sale, London, Sotheby’s, 1 July 1953, lot 28, sold to Mayhem
Brussels, Gallery Leger and Sons
Brussels, private collection, since 1959

 


Literature

Catalogue of the Pictures at Combe Abbey, Warwickshire, The Seat of William Earl of Craven, 1866, cat. no. 246 (‘Boy Blowing a Fire Band, G. Honthorst’).
T. Cox, Inventory and Valuation for Fire Insurances, Pictures, Drawings and Engravings in Combe Abbey, Oxford, Bodleian Library under Craven Papers, 1916, no. 246 (as being in ‘The Breakfast Staircase and Lobby at Foot. A Boy, blowing a firebrand in scarlet and brown coat and large brimmed hat : 32 x 26’ (approx. 81 x 66 cm.).
J. R. Judson, Gerrit van Honthorst : a discussion of his position in Dutch art, The Hague 1956, p. 63, note 3.
B. Nicolson, Hendrick Terbrugghen, The Hague 1958, p. 66, fig. 33b.
J. R. Judson, Gerrit van Honthorst : a discussion of his position in Dutch art, The Hague 1959, p. 63, note 3, p. 227, cat. no. 161, fig. 16.
B. Nicolson, ‘The ‘Candlelight Master’: a follower of Honthorst in Rome’, in: Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 9 (1960), pp. 121-164, p. 149, note 62 (1).
B. Nicolson, ‘Second Thoughts about Terbrugghen’, in: The Burlington Magazine 102 (1960), pp. 465-473, p. 466 (2).
J. Białostocki, ‘Puer Sufflans Ignes’, in: Arte in Europa : scritti di storia dell'arte in onore di Edoardo Arslan, 2 vols., Milan 1966, 1, pp. 591-595, pp. 592, 594, note 12 (republished in: J. Białostocki., The Message of Images : Studies in the History of Art, Vienna 1988, pp. 139-144, pp. 143, 264, note 13).
H. Braun, Gerard und Willem van Honthorst, dissertation Göttingen 1966, pp. 157-158, no. 31.
R. Klessmann et al., Jan Lievens : Ein maler im Schatten Rembrandts, exh. cat. Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum 1979, p. 50, under cat. no. 7.
B. Nicolson, The International Caravaggesque Movement, Oxford/New York 1979, pp. 61, 225.
L. J. Slatkes, review of: B. Nicolson, The International Caravaggesque Movement, in: Simiolus 12 (1981-19 82), pp. 167-183, p. 176.
W. Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandtschüler, 6 vols., Landau/Pfalz 1983-1994, 3 (1983), p. 1791, under no. 1225, citing Klessmann 1979.
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B. Nicolson, L. Vertova, Caravaggism in Europe, 3 vols., Florence 1990, I, pp. 51, 127, III, pl. 1250.
L. Federly Orr, in: J.A. Spicer et al., Masters of light : Dutch painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age, exh. cat. San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery, London, National Gallery 1997-1998, pp. 239-240, under cat. no. 36, fig. 1.
L. Slatkes, in: J. Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, 34 vols., New York 1996, 14, pp. 727-732, p. 729.
R. J. Judson, R.E.O. Ekkart, Gerrit van Honthorst 1592-1656, Doornspijk 1999, pp. 15, 183-184, cat. no. 231, pl. 132.
M. Neumeister, Das Nachtstück mit Kunstlicht in der niederländischen Malerei und Graphik des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts : Iconographische und Koloristische Aspekte, Petersberg 2003, pp. 237, 274, note 666.
L. Slatkes, W. Franits, The Paintings of Hendrick ter Brugghen 1588-1629 : Catalogue Raisonné, Amsterdam/Philadelphia 2007, pp. 155, 166, 423, fig. 20.
G. Papi, Gherardo delle Notti : quadri bizzarrissimi e cene allegre, exh. cat. Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi 2015, p. 150, under cat. no. 12.