This is an important early work by Hendrick ter Brugghen, whose attribution was first established by Benedict Nicolson in 1958 (op. cit.) and subsequently endorsed by every principal scholar in the field. It is generally dated to 1618-19, at which time Ter Brugghen was the only Caravaggesque painter active in Utrecht who had actually been to Italy and experienced the work of Caravaggio at first hand. He is thought to have travelled south in 1607, spending seven years in Italy – predominantly in Rome – before returning home, via Milan, in 1614. Although Caravaggio had left Rome by the time Ter Brugghen arrived, he is still often cited as the only Dutch disciple of the Caravaggio who was active there during his lifetime.
Ter Brugghen’s choice of subject was indebted to his Italian education. Democritus and Heraclitus were among the most important pre-Socratic philosophers who, according to Cicero and other Roman sources, viewed the human condition in two contrasting ways: Heraclitus, known as the ‘dark’, with pity and compassion and a perpetually sad demeanour; and Democritus, the laughing philosopher, with amusement at the absurdity of life. The pair became popular subjects in Dutch art after 1620, often depicted with a globe representing the world. Ter Brugghen’s globe is animated by what appears to be a wild Caravaggesque tavern scene emblematic of the frivolity of human existence. The prominent inclusion of the bone in the lower foreground serves to further underscore the vanitas themes inherent to the subject.
Ter Brugghen repurposed the figure of the weeping philosopher, Heraclitus, in his Saint Jerome contemplating a skull, which is signed and dated 1621 (fig. 1; Cleveland Museum of Art). That the Cleveland picture post-dates Democritus and Heraclitus is confirmed by the numerous pentimenti in the latter. The model may equally be the same as that used for the seated figure at far right in the Calling of Saint Matthew of circa 1618-19 (Le Havre, Musée des Beaux-Arts André-Malraux).