This Concert dates to the 1620s, following the return to Utrecht of the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst from Italy. The subject is a genre scene that alludes to the fleeting pleasures of wine, women and song, yet at the base of the action is a theft at the expense of the young singer: indeed the young woman next to him is trying to steal his earring, while her elderly accomplice standing behind him has her hand in his bag. The painting shows elements deriving from Caravaggio, such as the beam of light that strikes the figures from the left and the still life on the table, a tribute to Merisi’s Basket of Fruit, which is held today at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.
Salvator Rosa, 159 x 221 x 10 cm
Borghese Collection, first cited in Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 19, no. 36 (?); purchased by Italian state, 1902.
This Concert by Gerrit van Honthorst depicts a group of figures around a table as they make music. Wearing a red gown and a plumed hat, the man on the left of the scene plays a bass violin to accompany the young man and young woman in front of him as they sing a duet. The woman holds a musical score in one hand, while with the other she sensually caresses the man’s head as she tries to take his earring, perhaps a small amulet. Meanwhile, the elderly woman – her accomplice – stealthily attempts to steal something from the young man’s bag, which seems to be tied to his waist. The scene, then, depicts a theft at the expense of the man; yet the gesture of the elderly woman, with her finger raised toward the two singers, seems to be a warning about the dangers deriving from frenetic pursuit of drink, music and lust. Indeed, her appearance – in particular her toothless mouth and wrinkled face – alludes to the futility of these kinds of pleasures, to which young persons are above all attracted, deviating them from the path of virtue. This interpretation of the musical theme reflects the moralising atmosphere brought by the spread of Calvinism in the Dutch Republic during the first decades of the 17th century; such messages were often communicated in certain currents of genre painting in that period. In this context, even music – the most virtuous of the arts – was associated with notions of vanity and transience (Economopoulos 2000, p. 216).
While accepting this moralistic interpretation of the painting as an allusion to the consequences of worldly vanity, Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2003, p. 58) suggested a different reading of the old woman’s gesture, namely that that her raised finger was simply meant to tell the musician to keep silent when he noticed their plan to steal the jewel.
Of uncertain provenance, the painting has not been unambiguously identified in any of the historic inventories of the Borghese Collection, although Paola Della Pergola (1959, p. 165) did propose that the canvas corresponded to the entry describing a ‘Flemish work, 9 spans wide 7 ½ high’ in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario. It is possible that the canvas is the ‘Bacchanal by Gherardo de Loiresse’ that appears in a payment receipt for works purchased by Marcantonio IV in 1783: if this is the case, we would be able to account for the work’s entry into the family collection; nonetheless, we cannot be certain that this is the painting indicated in that receipt.
According to the reconstruction proposed by Jay Richard Judson (1959, p. 241, and 1999, pp. 209), the painting first came into the possession of the descendants of the artist and was then sold at an auction in Amsterdam in 1770; following various transfers of ownership, it was then acquired by the Borghese prince through Giovanni de’ Rossi (on this theory, see also Braun, 1966, pp. 240-242).
The attribution to Gerrit van Honthorst – which, as we have seen, does not appear in any of the historic inventories – was first proposed by Giovanni Piancastelli (1891, p. 420) and Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 47) at the end of the 19th century. Today this view is generally accepted, although in the past critics suggested other names: that of Theodoor Rombouts of Antwerp was put forth by Giovanni Morelli (Lermolieff 1874) and supported by both Hoogewerff (1924, p. 11) and Van Puyvelde (1950, p. 178). For her part, Della Pergola (1959, p. 165) rejected this proposal on stylistic grounds, noting certain similarities in the colouring and lighting with respect to other works by Van Honthorst, such as The Fortune Teller in the Uffizi Gallery and the Musical Group on a Balcony in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which dates to 1622.
Similar considerations inform the debate on the date of the work in question. While first believing that the canvas was painted during the artist’s Italian sojourn between roughly 1610 and 1620, critics subsequently agreed that it rather dates to the years following his return to Utrecht: Judson (1959, 1999) in fact dated it to between 1626 and 1627 and Braun (1966) to 1630. Proposals for these later dates are based on not only the moralistic interpretation of the scene – discussed above – but also the colour and lighting schemes. The tones here are in fact colder than those of works painted by the artist in Italy, and in particular in Rome, where Van Honthorst came into close contact with the influence of Caravaggio. Regarding the lighting, while the Dutch artist adopts the same strategy used by Merisi – a direct beam originating from the left – the illumination here does not create the same dramatic contrast between brightness and shadow with which the Dutch artist experimented during his Roman period (Economopoulos, 2000). It is for these reasons that critics believe that the work was executed in the 1620s, after the painter returned home.
Although certain aspects of Caravaggio’s influence are given less emphasis here on several planes, on others they are clearly evident. We have already mentioned the beam of light from the left that illuminates the two singers, whose effect is to exalt the man’s yellow gown; at the same time, we note the use of grey ground preparation, typical of Merisi’s early production. Finally, the incorporation of a still life onto the table, which is also struck by the ray of light, evidently serves as a tribute to the famous Basket of Fruit of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.
A replica of the work in question is held at the Museo de Bellas Artes di Caracas.
Pier Ludovico Puddu