Larger Than Life: Ter Brugghen's Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene

January 21 – May 15, 2011

West Building Main Floor

THIS EXHIBITION IS NO LONGER ON VIEW AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY.

Overview: Hendrick ter Brugghen's Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene from the Allen Memorial Art Museum of Oberlin College will grace the walls of the National Gallery of Art in the West Building from January 21 through May 15, 2011. The painting, hailed as Ter Brugghen's masterwork, will hang near the National Gallery's magnificent Bagpipe Player in Gallery 44 in a special focus show that celebrates two of the artist's most luminous and lyrical compositions. Although these paintings belong to different genres, they reveal the sure fluidity of brush, exquisite color harmonies, and sophisticated compositional orchestration for which Ter Brugghen is renowned.

Ter Brugghen (1588–1629) presumably studied with the Utrecht master Abraham Bloemaert (1556–1661), from whom he learned the fundamentals of painting. Around 1607/1608 he journeyed to Italy to supplement his education, and while in Rome encountered the vivid dramas and theatrical light effects of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610). Caravaggio's innovative stylistic vocabulary exerted a profound influence on Ter Brugghen. He adopted the Italian's theatrical figures and lighting and became one of the leading Dutch Caravaggists upon his return to Utrecht in 1614.

Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene depicts an episode from the life of Sebastian, a third–century Roman soldier. After refusing to renounce Christianity he was bound to a tree and shot by archers. Irene, along with her maidservant, rescued him, removed the arrows from his flesh, and nursed his wounds. The painting's emotional force results largely from Sebastian's monumental form, but also from Ter Brugghen's skillful orchestration of color and light. The glowing light he cast across the scene gently illuminates Sebastian's near-death pallor and accents Irene's kindly face as she gazes toward the arrows she tenderly removes from Sebastian's side.

The circumstances prompting the creation of this work are not certain. It is probable that Ter Brugghen painted it for a hospital in Utrecht. Saint Sebastian was commonly invoked against the plague, and Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene dates to 1625—near the start of an eight-year epidemic that ravaged the city. Irene was a Christian exemplar of benevolence and virtue, and her example of compassion and piety would have been particularly appropriate for such a setting.

Organization: Organized by the National Gallery of Art.

Sponsor: The exhibition is made possible by the generous support of Michael A. Glass.

Image: Hendrick ter Brugghen, Bagpipe Player, 1624, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Fund and Greg and Candy Fazakerley Fund, 2009.24.1