Hendrick ter Brugghen is today generally regarded as the most important figure in a group of painters active in Utrecht in the 1620s who came to be known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti. His grandfather was a Catholic priest whose family came from Overijssel and Utrecht, and his father was the secretary to the Court of Utrecht and later the bailiff of the Court of Holland. Hendrick was probably born in The Hague during his father’s service there. His teacher is unknown but his early biographers claim that he studied with Utrecht’s leading history painter, Abraham Bloemaert. He then is reported to have traveled to Italy to complete his artistic education. A print published by Pieter Bodart in the early eighteenth century claims that he spent ten years in Italy; it has been assumed that he resided there from 1604 to 1614, but a document of 1607 suggests that he was still in The Netherlands and undertaking military service as a cadet in the army of Count Casimir of Nassau-Dietz. It was long assumed that ter Brugghen met Rubens in Rome, but the latter had departed in 1608, so this is uncertain. It is also often stated that ter Brugghen could have met Caravaggio in Rome, but the latter had left permanently in 1606. No works from ter Brugghen’s period in Italy have been identified with certainty, but a letter written by Marchese Giustiniani in 1620 about painting in the Caravaggesque manner mentions works by an ‘Enrico’, possibly referring to paintings by Hendrick ter Brugghen in Italy. In any event, the artist was back in Holland in the fall of 1614. Two years later he joined the Utrecht guild and married, setting up residence in his studio on the Korte Lauwerstraat. He died on November 1, 1629 and was buried in the Buurkerk a little over a week later.
Though ter Brugghen also painted a number of biblical, mythological and literary themes, he is today most known for his genre scenes like the present work. Here, a half-length, semi-nude woman with blue and white drapery holds the arm of a man as she turns to smile at the viewer. The man is viewed in profile and wears a fur cloak, flat black beret and spectacles. Behind them a boisterous young man holds up a pewter pitcher and glass of wine.
Nicolson (op. cit., 1958, p. 95) first dated this painting to ter Brugghen's late period, or circa 1625-28, but later (loc. cit., 1960) revised the dating to circa 1623, following Gerson's lead (loc. cit.). This is the date on David with the Israelite Women Singing his Praises in the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh (see Slatkes and Franits, op. cit., cat. A5), which employs a similarly closely cropped, compact, half-length composition and also features a figure with outstretched arms in the background. Most authors now accept this date, although van Thiel (loc. cit.) suggested a date of 1628 or 1629. X-rays of the painting (fig. 1) reveal that the man on the left originally wore a large turban. In this form the composition closely resembled a drawing that Slatkes (op. cit., 1965, cat. no. A47; Slatkes and Franits, op. cit., p. 161, fig. 18) wrongly attributed to Dirck van Baburen and mistakenly identified as a depiction of the Old Testament figures Judah and Tamar (fig. 2). However, as Marijn Schapelhouman (Dutch Drawings of the Seventeenth-Century in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Artists born between 1580 and 1600, I, London, 1988, cat. 20) and Franits (Slatkes and Franits, op.cit., p. 162, note 8) concluded, the drawing is probably only a copy of a lost work by Baburen and depicts an anonymous brothel scene rather than a historical subject. However, there can be little doubt that Baburen's composition influenced the present work. Ter Brugghen and Baburen had a close working relationship in Utrecht before the latter's early death in 1624. Indeed, it has been speculated that they might have shared a studio. The present canvas has been trimmed slightly (perhaps 2 1/2 cm.) on the top and bottom edge and the corners have been cut to create an octagon, but as a cleaning in 2007 revealed, it never was appreciably larger. Pentimenti in the woman's right hand and neck, the man's left hand and a pearl that was once suspended on her forehead attest to changes in the composition and underscore the primacy of the present design.
The Unequal Lovers theme descends from sixteenth-century precedents, which depicted the folly of old men with young women, as for example in Quentin Massys's Ill-Matched Lovers of circa 1520-25 (fig. 3), or conversely, old women with young men (on the theme, see A. Stewart, Unequal Lovers: A Study of Unequal Couples in Northern Art, New York, 1977; see also K. Renger, ‘Alte Liebe, gleich und ungleich,’ in Netherlandish Mannerism, Stockholm, 1985, pp. 35-46). The theme still had currency in ter Brugghen's day, as two poems in G.A. Brederode's Groot lied-boeck of 1622 attest (see A.A. Rijnbach, ed., 1971, pp. 41-45, ‘Een oud Bestevaartje met een jong Meisjen’ and ‘Een oud besjen met een Jongman’). However, the present work offers a twist on the traditional theme. Nicolson (op. cit., 1958, p. 95) observed that the old man has a grey beard but dark brown hair, which he assumed had been dyed or the character was wearing a wig. However, as the present author observed (Boston 1992, p. 130) a close examination of his eye socket reveals that he is wearing a hooked nose mask to which the grey beard is attached – a type of disguise familiar from contemporary images of commedia dell’arte figures (compare, Ringling Museum, Sarasota, no. 688, and the many prints by Jacques Callot, Jacques de Gheyn and Crispijn van de Passe). Figures wearing these masks also appear in merry company genre scenes by Pieter Codde and Willem Duyster. A Masquerade by Casper Netscher (Gemäldegalerie, Kassel, no. 292, dated 1662) underscores the humorously licentious behavior of the characters by adding a huge, phallic sausage held by one of the bearded maskers. Slatkes (Slatkes and Franits, op. cit., p. 161) rejected this observation, but Weller (Raleigh, Milwaukee and Dayton 1998-1999, p. 100) and Franits (loc. cit., 2004; and Slatkes and Franits 2007, op. cit., p. 162, note 12) fully accept it. Thus, ter Brugghen, in characteristically creative fashion, offers an original interpretation on a traditional theme by adding the man's playful adoption of a persona; the viewer gradually realizes that, like his amused and compliant consort, the masker is actually a young man who only assumes the guise of an old lecher.
Peter C. Sutton