In this seductive picture, a hearty, mustachioed man and an alluringly clad young woman stand together over an open book singing by candlelight. Their lips parted in song, the couple wears sumptuous, theatrical clothing of feathers, fur and brightly colored fabrics. They seem to emerge from darkness, the flame of the partially obscured candle providing the only illumination and bathing the soft fur of the man's robe and the bare skin of the woman's breast in a warm glow. Captured in this work is Honthorst's extraordinary mastery in rendering the effects of candlelight as it plays over forms in a darkened interior, a skill for which he was given the moniker 'Gherardo delle Notti', or 'Gherardo of the Night'.
Provocative paintings such as The Duet identify Honthorst as one of the small but influential group of artists active in the 17th-century Netherlands who satisfied the taste for works depicting low-life subjects which were first introduced by Caravaggio (1571-1610) in Rome earlier in the century. After beginning his career as a pupil of Abraham Bloemaert in Utrecht, Honthorst traveled to Italy around 1610-15 to complete his training. There he encountered the paintings of Caravaggio and his followers such as Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622), whose paintings of life-size, half-length genre figures modeled by powerful chiaroscuro profoundly influenced his imagery. While abroad, Honthorst's career flourished. He received commissions from two of the most important art patrons in Rome at the time, Cardinal Scipione Borghese and Cardinal Vincenzo Giustiniani, in whose household he resided. While in Florence he gained the patronage of Cosimo II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Upon returning to the Netherlands in 1620, Honthorst continued to work in a Caravaggesque idiom, for which he and his fellow townsmen Hendrick ter Brugghen and Dirck van Baburen, among others, became known as the 'Utrecht Caravaggisti'. Pictures produced by this circle were so much in demand that older artists in Utrecht, including Honthorst's teacher Bloemaert and Paulus Moreelse, themselves experimented with Caravaggism.
Although Honthorst embraced the secular subjects, heightened naturalism and sharp tonal contrasts associated with Manfredi in particular, he nevertheless departed from his Italian counterparts by infusing his paintings with a lightheartedness and playful sensuality, as The Duet so charmingly demonstrates. In the 1620s, he began to specialize in depicting such musical groups by candlelight, a type he had first experimented with in Italy and which became a particular favorite among Utrecht collectors. Painted in 1624 at the height of Honthorst's career, the present picture is among the finest examples of the kind of nocturnal revelry for which the artist is celebrated. Comparable works of around this time include the overtly erotic A soldier and a girl in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig (inv. 178) of c. 1622, and a more demure scene of 1623 with four waggishly dressed figures gathered over a songbook at a candlelit table (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, inv. 378; fig. 1). As in these pictures, the dark background and cropped composition of The Duet serve to push the figures forward towards the picture plane, enhancing their immediacy as physical presences in a manner reminiscent of the theater. Honthorst leaves us little choice but to be intimately, close to his life-size figures who conduct themselves with unselfconscious joie de vivre (see L. Federle Orr in J. Spicer et al., Masters of Light: Dutch painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age, Baltimore and San Francisco, 1997, p. 240).
Musical subjects were popular in Utrecht painting of this period. Pictures of half-length musicians and singers illuminated by a concealed light source first appeared in the Netherlands in the works of Utrecht artists around 1620, such as Bloemaert's innovative The flute player of 1621 now in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht (inv. 6083b; Judson 1999, op. cit., p. 16). From the 16th century, the subject of music-making had been commonly associated with love and harmony, and 17th-century Dutch artists embraced this trope with gusto (see E. Buijsen et al., The Hoogsteder exhibition of music & painting in the golden age, The Hague and Zwolle, 1994). Contemporary prints reiterated this notion, such as Crispin de Passe's (1523-1591) engraving Amor docet Musicam (Love teaches music), which was included in Gabriel Rollenhagen's Nucleus Emblematum of 1611. This connection is also evident in the many contemporary songs devoted to amorous themes, such as Jacob van Eyck's What shall we do in the evening? from The Flute's Garden of Delights, published in several editions in the 1640s and 1650s. In The Duet, the amorous content of the scene is overt as the couple stands pressed together, the woman's breast exposed. A contemporary audience, like viewers today, would have understood the act of song to be a stand-in for flirtation and lovemaking. The musical paintings of later Dutch artists, such as Gerard ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer, would present the subject in a more understated manner.
The eroticism of this painting also links it to the courtesan scenes which were popular in Utrecht in this period. The woman's revealing dress and the feather in her hair suggest that she is a courtesan, the man her client. Paintings of this subject such as Van Baburen's Procuress now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 2; inv. 50.2721), famously owned by Vermeer's mother-in-law Maria Thins, as well as Honthort's own 1625 picture of such a trio in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht (inv. 10786), were common among the Utrecht Caravaggisti. Bearing little relationship to the reality of such activities in the Netherlands at this time, the figures are conventional types that fit into the tradition of scenes of the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son prevalent in the work of 16th-century Northern European printmakers such as Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533; fig. 3), and which also appear in picaresque novels in this period (see W. Franits and L. Federle Orr in Spicer et al., op. cit., pp. 118-119 and pp. 244-248). In contrast to Prodigal Son imagery, however, The Duet seems to eschew any moralizing message. Despite our awareness of the figures' risqué behavior, their festive and frank expressions stress the pleasure in their merry-making.
Honthorst's scenes of nocturnal revelry remained a favorite of discerning collectors, and in the 19th century The Duet belonged to the legendary Stroganov Collection in St. Petersburg, Russia. Building on the pursuits of his father, Count Alexander Stroganov (1733-1811) amassed an extraordinary art collection for which he built a large picture gallery in the Stroganov Palace on Nevsky Prospect, one of the grandest 18th-century buildings in the city (fig. 4). This superb collection included masterpieces by Italian, Spanish, French and German Old Masters as well as preeminent Dutch and Flemish artists such as Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck (see P. Hunter-Stiebel, ed., Stroganov: the palace and collections of a Russian noble family, Portland and Forth Worth, 2000, pp. 77-87, 115-138).
Art advisor to Catherine the Great, Count Stroganov also served as President of the Imperial Academy of Arts, and his gallery became a popular meeting place for artists and connoisseurs. He was also a generous patron of prominent living artists such as Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Marie-Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Hubert Robert. Using French texts as his model, he published a catalogue of his collection, the first of its type in Russia. From the various editions of these catalogues, it can be determined that the count acquired The Duet after the publication of the 1793 catalogue, in which it is not included, but before that published in 1807, where it is listed as La leçon de chant, or The Singing Lesson (St. Petersburg, 1807, loc. cit.). The picture passed by descent through the family and appears in the 1864 catalogue of the Hermitage and local collections, including that of the Stroganovs, compiled by G.W. Waagen (Waagen 1864, loc. cit.). After 1912 it was housed at the Hermitage Museum along with other Stroganov pictures, two years before Count Sergei Alexandrovich (1852-1923) opened the family palace to the public in 1914. Following the Revolution of 1917, the family's collection was nationalized, and in 1925 the Stroganov Palace was made part of the Hermitage (see A. Odom and W. R. Salmond, eds., Treasures into Tractors: the selling of Russia's cultural heritage 1918-1938, Washington, D.C., 2009, p. 114). In 1931, The Duet was sold in a special auction organized by the Soviet regime held at Lepke, Berlin.
Later that same year, it was purchased by Bruno and Ellen Spiro, from whom it was seized by National Socialists and sold in 1938 along with the contents of Villa Spiro, their residence in Berlin. It passed through several German private collections before being acquired in 1969 on the Munich art market by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, from which it was restituted to the heirs of the Spiro family in April, 2013. According to J. Richard Judson, The Duet was the first merrymaking night scene by Honthorst to enter a North American collection (Judson 1970, op. cit., p. 6).
Fig. 1 Dirck van Baburen The Procuress, 1622 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, USA M. Theresa B. Hopkins Fund The Bridgeman Art Library.
Fig. 2 Andrei Nikiforovich Voronikhin The Picture Gallery in the Stroganov Palace in St. Petersburg, 1793 Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia The Bridgeman Art Library.
Fig. 3 Crispijn van de Passe I, Amor docet Musicam from Gabriel Rollenhagen, Nucleus emblematum ( Cologne, 1611).
Fig. 4 After Lucas van Leyden, A tavern scene (parable of the Prodigal Son) The Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 5 Gerrit van Honthorst, Music making by candlelight, 1623, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.