Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Concert, which measures more than four by six feet, depicts a group of colorfully attired singers and musicians as they bend forward, fully engaged, to follow the musical scores laid out on a large, tapestry-covered table. A bearded concert master, dressed in a black trimmed wine-colored doublet, guides them by pointing the bow of his bass viol at notes in one of the books. So close are the musicians to the front of the picture plane that their joyous song seems to pour into the viewer’s space. Behind this group, a cheerful young man raises his glass in celebration while he simultaneously places his finger over his mouth to urge the viewer to listen quietly to the melodious sounds of this musical ensemble. Two other smiling background figures at the far right add to the festive character of the scene.
Honthorst executed this remarkable painting in Utrecht in 1623, shortly after he had returned from a prolonged stay in Rome where he had become enthralled by the revolutionary style of Caravaggio (Roman, 1571 - 1610). The immediacy of Caravaggio’s religious and genre paintings inspired Honthorst as well as other painters of his generation in Rome who became known as the “Caravaggisti.” Like Caravaggio, these artists generally worked directly from models and brought their scenes close to the picture plane as though they were but an extension of the viewer’s world. They emphasized the momentary quality of their images through dramatic gestures and pronounced contrasts of light and dark.
In Rome Honthorst often introduced artificial light sources to create the dramatic chiaroscuro effects in his scenes, as in Merry Company with a Lute Player in the Uffizi [fig. 1]. Such works were so renowned that he later became known as “Gherardo delle Notti.” (Gerrit of the Nights). So esteemed was Honthorst in Rome that he received patronage from important collectors there, including Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577–1633); Cosimo II, the Grand Duke of Tuscany (1590–1621)’ and the Marcheses Benedetto and Vincenzo Giustiniani (1554––1621 and 1564–1637), in whose Palazzo he resided for a significant period of time. When Honthorst returned to Utrecht in 1620 he was a famous man, and a celebratory feast in his honor welcomed him home.
Despite Honthorst’s predilection in Rome for painting scenes with dramatic effects of light and dark, often by means of artificial light sources, The Concert is bright and airy. He has here fused Caravaggism and classicizing traditions to create an image appropriate for the artistic tastes and expectations of the Dutch Court in The Hague. Natural daylight falls evenly across the composition, illuminating the shimmering fabrics, flowing feathers, and smooth wooden musical instruments. It models the figures’ varied flesh tones, which range from the ruddy complexions of male performers to the women’s pale breasts and rosy cheeks. It creates realistic shadows, such as those on the music books under the concertmaster’s hand and bow that reinforce the significance of individual gestures and help enhance the sense of immediacy. Even with the repoussoir figure of the concertmaster, on whom light does not fall as strongly as on his companions, it accents the curls of his hair and brings out the sheen of his glistening wine-colored doublet.
In Rome, Honthorst drew his inspiration primarily from Caravaggio’s mature paintings, but for the subject matter and naturalistic light effects of The Concert he seems to have turned to that master’s early genre scenes, such as The Musicians, c. 1595 [fig. 2]. For example, the captivating shadow cast on the face of the instrument by the lute player’s right hand as she strums its strings is a pictorial effect he derived from Caravaggio’s The Lute Player, c. 1595–1596 [fig. 3], versions of which were in both the Cardinal del Monte and Giustiniani collections. Despite this thematic and stylistic similarity to Caravaggio’s early depictions of musicians, however, the visual impact of Honthorst’s painting is quite different. The reds, yellows, blues, greens, and lavender of the musicians’ brightly colored satins, some of which are festooned with ostrich feathers dyed to match, lend a remarkably festive air to this gathering. In part he derived this rich palette from other Caravaggisti working in Rome in the 1610s, among them Orazio Gentileschi (Florentine, 1563 - 1639), Simon Vouet (French, 1590 - 1649), and Lionello Spada (1576–1622). Spada’s The Concert, c. 1615 [fig. 4], moreover, includes various motifs that Honthorst effectively exploited in this painting, including the concertmaster using his bow to direct the musicians’ attention to notes in a musical score, and a boy looking out at the viewer while bringing his finger to his lips to encourage silence.
The Concert has a classicizing quality that separates it from his strongly Caravaggist works, a stylistic characteristic that becomes increasingly strong over the course of his career, particularly in paintings he made for the Dutch court. Honthorst’s classicism, evident in the even light that floods the scene, is apparent in his balanced composition of singers and musicians arrayed behind a table situated parallel to the picture plane. The clarity of the smoothly modelled, slightly idealized figures speaks to that same artistic impulse. This classicistic framework likely stems from the academic training Honthorst received from his teacher Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1566 - 1651), but it was reinforced in Rome by the paintings of Annibale Carracci (Bolognese, 1560 - 1609) and Domenichino (Italian, 1581 - 1641) that he saw in the Giustiani collection. The timing of Honthorst’s return to Utrecht in late May or early June of 1620 was undoubtedly tied to the political circumstances in the Netherlands. Honthorst had been in Rome during the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609–1621), a period during which hostilities between the United Provinces and Spain had been temporarily halted. With the end of the Truce fast approaching, Honthorst returned home before warfare recommenced and travel became more complicated. His return was celebrated in Utrecht and he was greeted with a feast attended by most of the established artists in town, including his former teacher Bloemaert.
Honthorst’s fame quickly spread throughout the Netherlands. In June 1621 Sir Dudley Carleton (1573–1632), the English ambassador to the Dutch Republic, wrote from The Hague to Lord Arundel, his London patron, that Honthorst, who had spent “some yeares at Rome & other parts of Italy to mend his art; wch consisting much in night works…,” is “growing into reputacion in these parts.” Carleton was so impressed with the artist that he commissioned a painting for Lord Arundel, Aeneas Fleeing from the Sack of Troy (now lost). After receiving it, Arundel wrote Carleton to say how delighted he was and how he admired Honthorst’s ability to emulate the style of Caravaggio.
It is not certain how Carleton came to know of Honthorst and his Caravaggist manner of painting so soon after the artist had returned to Utrecht. The English ambassador may have been advised of Honthorst’s abilities from Bloemaert, but Carleton, who had acted as an art agent for English collectors when he lived in Italy in the 1610s, also continued to have his pulse on the Italian art market. Whatever the source of information, Carleton quickly concluded that Honthorst’s ability to work in Caravaggio’s revolutionary style would be welcome among English and Dutch courtiers who wanted to be au courant with international trends.
This history is significant for The Concert since all evidence indicates that Honthorst painted this masterpiece for a courtly patron in The Hague. Its life-size scale and its carefully crafted and thoughtfully conceived composition indicate beyond any doubt that it was a commissioned work, probably intended to hang high on a wall to lend a festive atmosphere to a grand room. The large red and green Ushak Star carpet, imported from western Anatolia, carefully rendered to indicate both the four-leaf clover design and the nubs of the pile, was an expensive table covering of a style traditionally intended for a Sultan’s court.
The beautifully conceived and expensive musical instruments, including a bass viol, violin, lute and bandora with a gilded figurehead, were of a type played in courtly settings. However, according to the Dutch musicologist Louis Peter Grijp, this combination of instruments, and, in particular, the bandora, is rarely, if ever, represented in Dutch painting. How Honthorst came to depict this distinctive set of instruments is an intriguing question. The combination of instruments resembles that of an “English mixed consort,” which may indicate that the work was commissioned by a patron familiar with this musical tradition. The oblong, soft-covered music books, which are similar to those seen in other Dutch paintings of the period, were handwritten: transcribing individual musical parts from a printed source was the responsibility of each musician. The foreground book, partly shaded by the concertmaster’s hand, has only musical bars and notes, whereas the book to which he points with his bow also has text for the singers. Unfortunately it is not possible to identify the music in these books even though the notes are quite legible, particularly as preserved in a partial copy of the painting in the Whitaker Museum in England [fig. 5]. Grijp, nevertheless, concluded that the presence of such music books indicates polyphonic singing of a fairly skilled nature. He has also confirmed that the combination of instruments would produce a harmonious musical experience.
Evidence that The Concert was in a princely collection in The Hague in the early seventeenth century comes from contemporary palace inventories and documents from the Napoleonic era. In early 1795, after French forces had overrun the Netherlands, the Dutch Stadhouder, Prince Willem V of Orange-Nassau (1748–1806), fled the country. On May 16, representatives of the French Republic and the newly formed Batavian Republic signed the Treaty of The Hague, and, shortly thereafter, representatives of the French government in the Netherlands packed up numerous paintings and shipped them to Paris as spoils of war. Among the 191 paintings taken from the Gallery of Willem V in The Hague was: “A concert of several men and women musicians, life size, half-length on canvas by G. Honthorst, 4 feet 5 inches [by] 6 feet 5 inches.” The dimensions and description of this concert scene can be associated only with The Concert.
Most of the paintings in the collection of Willem V had been assembled by the prince’s ancestors in the early-to-mid seventeenth century, and had passed by inheritance to him. The Concert is likely the painting described in the inventory made in 1632 of the contents of the Palace Noordeinde in The Hague, the residence of Prince Frederick Hendrick (1584–1647), as: “A painting for the fireplace mantle made by Honthorst, being a music.” Since the description is so vague and no dimensions are indicated, one cannot be certain of this identification, nevertheless, hanging above the fireplace in the palace’s largest room, the “groote bovensael” (upper great hall), this painting would have commanded the most prestigious spot in the chamber, an appropriate location for the Gallery’s masterpiece. The same painting must be the one listed in an inventory made in 1702 describing the contents of the Palace Noordeinde after the death of Prince Willem III. In 1791, Honthorst’s “A musical company, on canvas” was transferred from Noordeinde to Prince Willem V’s cabinet of paintings at the Buitenhof, the very location from which the French removed The Concert in 1795.
Surprisingly, when the confiscated Dutch paintings were unpacked in Paris, six of the 191 works sent from The Hague were missing, including The Concert. It is not known when these paintings became separated from the others, all of which were destined for the Musée Napoleon at the Louvre, but apparently some French dignitaries were allowed to select a few choice works for their own collections. No further trace of The Concert exists until the 1840s, by which time it had entered a French private collection where it remained through the generations, unknown to scholars. The only visible trace of the painting is a watercolor made around 1900 by the painter Etienne Azambre (1859–1935), which depicts The Concert hanging in the grand salon of the family’s country estate [fig. 6]. The reappearance of this masterpiece in 2009, one of the most remarkable discoveries in Dutch art in recent years, demonstrates that Honthorst’s stylistic and thematic innovations had an even greater impact among Dutch artistic circles in the early 1620s than had been previously realized.
In 1623, when Honthorst painted The Concert, only two courtly patrons in The Hague could have commissioned such a large and imposing work: either Prince Maurits of Orange (1567–1625) or Frederick I (1596–1632) and Elizabeth Stuart (1596-–1662), the exiled king and queen of Bohemia, who had arrived in The Hague in April 1621 just as the Twelve Years’ Truce was ending. Since the painting hung in 1632 in the private quarters of Prince Frederick Hendrick, Maurits’ half-brother and successor, it seems plausible to assume that Maurits had commissioned The Concert to embellish his residence at the Stadhouderlijk Kwartier. After the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce, however, Prince Maurits was fully involved in leading the Dutch forces against Spanish troops, and had little time (or interest) to develop a large art collection. Nevertheless, even if Maurits was never was a very active patron of the arts, he did try to enhance the international reputation of his court by expanding his residential quarters in the Binnenhof, improving its interior décor, building impressive gardens, and entertaining lavishly, often with musical entertainment. The paintings he possessed generally came to him as gifts, either from municipalities (often mythological scenes with political implications), admiralties (Maurits was the admiral-general of the Republic, hence he received paintings depicting victorious maritime battles), or other courts wishing to curry favor (mostly portraits).
The other court in The Hague, that of exiled King Frederick I of Bohemia and his consort Elizabeth Stuart (known as the “Winter King and Winter Queen”), was better situated to respond to Sir Dudley Carleton’s enthusiastic endorsement of Honthorst in 1621. Frederick I and Elizabeth Stuart were, respectively, the nephew of Prince Maurits and the daughter of King James I, and so they were treated with the highest respect by Carleton, who, as English ambassador, served on behalf of King James. When the Winter King and Winter Queen arrived in The Hague in April 1621, Carleton provided them lodging in his own home until a suitable residence in The Hague could be refurbished for their use. The couple’s arrival in the English ambassador’s home, thus occurred only a couple of months before Carleton’s letter to Lord Arundel in which he praised the artistry of Honthorst. No documentation exists that the king and queen of Bohemia developed an immediate relationship with Honthorst at that time. Nevertheless, by the late 1620s they were clearly in close contact for, when Honthorst was invited to paint at the English court in 1628 he took with him, as gifts for Elizabeth’s brother, King Charles I, two portraits he had painted of the couple. In 1630, after he returned to the Netherlands, Honthorst became their court painter, and he continued to work for Elizabeth Stuart after Frederick’s untimely death in 1632.
Life in The Hague in the 1620s was no hardship for the exiled king and queen, no matter how badly the king’s political fortunes in Germany were faring. The couple was treated well by the Dutch, who were determined to honor their royal visitors. When they traveled, generally in elegant horse-drawn coaches and accompanied by attendants dressed in colorful livery, crowds would line the route. Their personal prestige was quite high, particularly in 1623. That year not only marked the tenth anniversary of their wedding, which had taken place in London, but also the tenth anniversary of their arrival by ship in Vlissingen, a stopover on the newlyweds’ way to Heidelberg, the seat of Frederick’s domain as Elector Palatine. In Vlissingen, the couple had been greeted by Prince Maurits, both because of family connections, but also because the marriage of Frederick, the Elector Palatine, and Elizabeth Stuart had created a political alliance that greatly strengthened the Protestant cause in central Europe.
The events of 1613 had huge political implications in their day, and still resonated in 1623 despite the defeat of Frederick’s forces by Catholic armies in 1620, after which he and his consort lived in exile in The Hague [fig. 7]. Even though Frederick’s political situation in Bohemia was dire, he continued to be a leader of the Protestants. He firmly believed that he would regain his realm once he received sufficient military and financial support from the Dutch and the English governments, a general perception that seemed reinforced by the couple’s sumptuous lifestyle in The Hague. A clear indication of the ongoing popularity of the king and queen is that, in 1623, three different marine painters—Hendrick Vroom (1566 - 1640), Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen (Dutch, c. 1580 - 1633), and Adam Willaerts (1577–1664)—created enormous panoramas depicting the festive arrival of Frederick and Elizabeth Stuart at Vlissingen in 1613. Although it is not known who commissioned these works, they were likely ordered by municipalities (probably, among them, Haarlem) that felt it was politically advisable to demonstrate support for the king and queen of Bohemia in their efforts to regain their realm.
The king and queen had a close personal relationship to Prince Maurits, Frederick’s uncle. They were also beholden to him and the States General of the Netherlands for the military and financial backing they had already received for their cause, as well as for the generous way in which they had been welcomed in The Hague. In a courtly culture where gift-giving was a means of expressing gratitude for past support but also an accepted mode for strengthening bonds to ensure future backing, it is quite likely that Frederick and Elizabeth Stuart would have followed this tradition and honored Prince Maurits with a substantial gift in 1623 when there was such enthusiasm for them and optimism about their cause. What better gift for Maurits, who was intent upon raising the international reputation of his court, than a celebratory painting by a dynamic young Utrecht artist, just returned from Rome, who was greatly admired by the English ambassador in The Hague, Sir Dudley Carleton?
Even though no document confirms such a scenario, pictorial and iconographic aspects of the painting reinforce this hypothesis. Without question, the musicians in The Concert are fully engaged in their song, which, given their smiles and gestures, must be both delightful and uplifting in its rhythms and its lyrics. All the musicians, save one, are the wholesome, full-bodied and vibrant types familiar from Honthorst’s other genre scenes from the 1620s. The one unusual figure is the concertmaster with his long hair and full beard. Nowhere else does such a figure appear in Honthorst’s early works, an indication that the artist portrayed a specific individual to assume this important role in the composition. As Henriette Rahusen first noted, this individual’s distinctive appearance is akin to that of depictions of the Winter King in a manuscript by Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne (Dutch, 1589 - 1662) that portrays various aspects of courtly life in The Hague in the mid-1620s. The foreground player in a folio page depicting the game of balloon is likely the Winter King, and he so resembles the concertmaster that he must be the same individual. [fig. 8].
The identification of the concertmaster as King Frederick I of Bohemia adds a political dimension to The Concert, a not uncommon phenomenon in “genre” paintings from this period. Here, Frederick guides the performers’ efforts by directing their attention to the proper notes on the musical score, thereby ensuring that they will play and sing in harmony. The implication is that he would rule in a similar manner, and that peace and harmony would result from his enlightened reign. This message is, in fact, one underlying Julius Wilhelm Zincgref’s emblem book, Emblematum Ethico-politicorum Centuria, 1619, which was dedicated to Frederick, and which celebrated that leader’s political and moral ideals. Frederick’s concept of leadership, appropriately, is expressly conveyed in the emblem Concordia Discors [Harmony from Discord], which features a lute [fig. 9], the most prominent of the musical instrument in The Concert. The text reads:
Comme de sons confus s’entonne l’harmonie
D’vn accordant discord, de mesme vne cité
Quoy que d’homes diuers maintiendra l’equite,
Si par des bonnes loix sagement de manie.
[Like confused rhymes sung in harmony
From discord an agreeable sound, the same for a city
Where equity can be maintained among diverse men
If [they are] wisely handled by good laws.]
The Concert’s pictorial and iconographic associations with the Winter King make it quite plausible that he commissioned this work as a gift for Prince Maurits. The painting, which presumably hung prominently in the Stadhouderlijk Kwartier, would have provided a striking backdrop to the musical entertainment that Maurits so enjoyed, and would also have served as a constant reminder of the rightness of Frederick’s cause and the need to have Dutch support in his efforts to regain his realm.
By 1632, when The Concert was listed as hanging over a fireplace in the centrally located groote bovensael in Prince Frederick Hendrick’s palace at Noordeinde, both Prince Maurits and King Frederick I of Bohemia had died, and while the political overtones of this work were no longer current, the painting’s compelling pictorial qualities endured. The musical ensemble was just as vivacious and enthusiastic as before, and the song had not lost its luster. Honthorst’s career, likewise, had not dimmed, and his fame had continued on its upward trajectory.
By the late 1620s Honthorst had become actively engaged in painting for both the English and the Dutch courts, often painting portraits or portraits historié. In these portraits historié, nobility assumed pictorial guises, generally in the form of mythological, historical or Arcadian personages. To accommodate the large number of commissions he continued to receive, Honthorst established a large and productive workshop that remained active well past mid-century. However, in retrospect, the artist rarely again reached the artistic heights he achieved in this masterpiece of 1623. In The Concert Honthorst skillfully infused the artistic knowledge he had gained from his years in Rome with the energy and fresh vision of an artist at the height of his powers, knowing full well that success with this courtly commission would ensure a long and successful career.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
June 14, 2015