43. Gerard van Honthorst

Utrecht 1592 – 1656 Utrecht

The Four Elements: Water, Air, Earth and Fire

These relatively large sheets, representing the four elements, are exceptional in the work of the Dutch history and portrait painter Gerard van Honthorst. To date, no other oval drawings by him are known.1 As suggested by Gert-Jan van der Sman, the drawings were probably made as preliminary studies for ceiling paintings or room decorations.2 One can instantly imagine the powerful, illusionistic effect of the floating figures when seen from a distance. In particular, the personification of Air, with her fluttering scarf and smoke-like hair, seems to elevate from the paper. Honthorst was especially adept in creating illusionistic decorations, a speciality he had become familiar with during his years in Italy. One of his earliest surviving ceiling decorations is Musical Group on a Balcony in Los Angeles, dated 1622.3 This revolutionary painting marked the beginning of illusionistic decorations in the Netherlands.4

After his return to the Netherlands in 1620, Honthorst became a prominent artist among the Utrecht Caravaggisti, who were much influenced by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571-1610). Although his paintings can be found in museums all over the world, Honthorst’s drawn oeuvre is relatively small – until recently less than forty drawings by him were known.5 However, a fonds d’atelier with about the same amount of drawings by the artist, including the four sheets discussed here, surfaced on the art market on several occasions in 2014.6 These drawings were formerly assembled in an album that was dismembered at an unknown date. Traces of the binding are still visible along the right border of the present drawings. A numbering system, written by a modern hand in pencil, was applied later and does not correspond with the original order of the album. Interestingly, all drawings are executed in a similar style on greyish-brown cartridge paper, and some have their contours incised with a stylus, probably to copy the composition onto “working” sheets which the artist could square for transfer.7

Some drawings in this group can be connected with paintings by the artist, dated between 1628 and 1650. During those years, Honthorst gradually abandoned his typically Caravaggesque compositions and adopted a less dramatic, classical style which was highly appreciated in the royal and courtly circles of Europe. The elegantly drawn figures in the present drawings are characteristic of this later style. Similar types of figures, especially the flying angels with curly hair and outstretched arms, can be found in a wall painting by Honthorst of the Allegory of the Marriage of Frederik Hendrik and Amalia van Solms in the Oranjezaal of Huis ten Bosch in The Hague, dated 1650.8 Moreover, the artist seems to have been influenced by the oval chiaroscuro woodcuts by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), representing gods and goddesses.9 Goltzius’s figure of Nox, the goddess of Night, is similar to the personification of Fire in the drawing by Honthorst.10 MR

1An oval drawing, presumably after Honthorst, is in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, inv. no. 1963-748 (pen and black ink, with grey wash, heightened with white gouache; 354 × 275 mm); see Annemarie Stefes, Niederländische Zeichnungen 1450-1850 (Die Sammlungen der Hamburger Kunsthalle, vol. 3), 3 vols., Cologne 2011, vol. 1, no. 452, p. 283, repr.; and http://www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/sammlung-online. I am grateful to Annemarie Stefes for bringing this drawing to my attention.

2Gert Jan van der Sman, ‘I disegni di Gerrit van Honthorst, in Gianni Papi, Gherardo delle Notti. Quadri bizzarrissimi e cene allegre, exh. cat., Florence (Galleria degli Uffizi) 2015, pp. 116-117.

3Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, inv. no. A70.P-34 (oil on wood; 309 × 114 cm); see J. Richard Judson and R.E.O. Ekkard, Gerrit van Honthorst, 1592-1656, Doornspijk 1999, pp. 21, 223-24, no. 286, fig. 171; and http://www.getty.edu/art/collection.

4J. Richard Judson, ‘Illusionism and Court Decorations’, in J. Richard Judson, Gerrit van Honthorst. A Discussion on his Position in Dutch Art, The Hague 1959, pp. 106-126.

5Judson and Ekkart 1999, op. cit. (note 3), pp. 327-347.

6Twenty-seven drawings were with the dealer Saint-Honoré Art Consulting, Paris; see David Bronze, Vingt-sept dessins de Gerrit Van Honthorst (1592-1656), exh. cat., Paris (Saint-Honoré Art Consulting) 2014, unpag.; six drawings entered a private collection, The Netherlands; two drawings were donated to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. nos. RP-T-2015-52 (pen and brown ink, with grey wash, heightened with white gouache, over a sketch in black chalk; 366 × 164 mm) and RP-T-2015-51 (pen and brown ink, with grey wash, heightened with white gouache, over a sketch in black chalk; 192 × 253 mm); see https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/zoeken; one drawing was acquired by the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, inv. no. KT 2017 030 (black chalk, with pen and brown ink, heightened with white gouache; 209 × 252 mm); see https://www.teylersmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/kunst-overzicht; and one drawing, presumably from the same group, was acquired in 2006 by the Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. no. RF 54429 (pen and brown ink, with grey wash, heightened with white gouache, over a sketch in black chalk; 250 × 385 mm); see Emmanuelle Brugerolles et al., Dessiner le Quotidien. La Hollande au siècle d’or, exh. cat., Paris (Musée du Louvre) 2017, pp. 94-95, cat. no. 32; and http://arts-graphiques.louvre.fr.

7Two squared drawings by Honthorst, representing the elements Air and Fire, are in the Albertina, Vienna, inv. nos. 8439 and 9440 (black chalk, with brown wash, heightened with white gouache; squared for transfer; approx. 352 × 257 mm); see Otto Benesch, Die Zeichnungen der niederländischen Schulen des XV. und XVI. Jahrhunderts (Beschreibender Katalog der Handzeichnungen in der graphischen Sammlung Albertina, vol. 2), Vienna 1928, nos. 462-463; and http://sammlungenonline.albertina.at.

8Judson and Ekkart 1999, op. cit. (note 3), no. 173, fig. 92.

9Van der Sman, op. cit. (note 2), p. 117; see also F.W.H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings, and Woodcuts, c. 1450-1700, vols. 72, Amsterdam and elsewhere 1949-2010, vol. 8, nos. 367-372; and Marjolein Leesberg, Hendrick Goltzius (The New Hollstein Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts, 1450-1700), 4 vols., Ouderkerk aan den IJssel 2012, vol. 2, nos. 294-300, reprs.

10Ibid., no. 7, repr.