We seem to have crept to within touching distance of this small group of musicians who turn towards us with surprise. The highly focused light source creates sharp highlights, intense shadows and a sense both of drama and intimacy. Dramatic lighting effects like this are now common, but in the 1620s it was a revolutionary way to paint. The man responsible for this revolution was Michelangelo Caravaggio, who was working in Rome between about 1597 and 1607.
Ter Brugghen was the first important Dutch painter to bring Caravaggio’s ideas back to Holland and this composition reveals his influence in other ways. The half-length figures crowded together within the composition and filling the pictorial space – right up to the edges of the frame – are typical of the Italian artist, as is the clarity and realism of the depiction of the grapes in the foreground.
We seem to have crept up on this small group of musicians. They turn towards us, apparently only just aware of our presence, though we're within touching distance. A highly focused light source creates sharp highlights, intense shadows and a sense both of drama and intimacy.
Dramatic lighting effects like this are now common in art, films and photography. But in the 1620s, when this painting was made, it was a revolutionary way for artists to depict the world. The man responsible for this revolution was Michelangelo Caravaggio. Between about 1597 and 1607 this radical young painter transformed the art scene in Rome, then the capital of the art world, and his influence quickly spread all over Europe.
Ter Brugghen was the first important Dutch painter to bring Caravaggio’s ideas back to Holland. He had left Utrecht for Rome as a young trainee artist in 1604, aged about 16, when Caravaggio was at the height of his fame. We don’t know whether ter Brugghen met him but he certainly saw his paintings, and those of the many other artists in Rome who were copying and adapting his ideas.
This composition reveals Caravaggio’s influence in ways other than the dramatic lighting. The half-length figures crowded together within the composition and filling the pictorial space – right up to the edges of the frame – are typical of the Italian artist, as is the clarity and realism of the grapes in the foreground. The grapes not only give depth and perspective to the scene, but their sheen and transparency make them almost tangible. As well as these stylistic traits, ter Brugghen probably also borrowed the subject matter from Caravaggio: an early work of his shows a group of musicians preparing to play (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
But while his artistic debts are clear, ter Brugghen has also developed his own style. Caravaggio usually used a light source from outside the picture; by contrast, here ter Bruggen uses two within the picture. The candle in the foreground provides the highlights while, right at the top, a smaller flame casts flickering shadows on the background walls. There is also a softness to the outlines and the features of the figures, and subtlety to the colour palette, which is characteristic of the Dutch artist and a contrast with the sharper delineation preferred by Caravaggio.
Meanwhile, the choice of instruments may be significant. Here we see the extremes of what was – in the seventeenth century – perceived of as a musical hierarchy. The voice of the singer ranked highest; strings were considered the most elevated of instruments while the flute had the lowest status. By combining them in one ensemble, perhaps ter Bruggen wanted to emphasise that this painting was as much about music itself as it was a portrait of a group of musicians.
We have another musical painting by ter Brugghen in the National Gallery, but his subject matter varied widely and included many biblical scenes, such as Jacob reproaching Laban for giving him Leah in place of Rachel.
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