Jan van Bijlert was one of the four important Dutch Caravaggisti from Utrecht (the others were ter Brugghen, van Honthorst and van Baburen). All four had at the start of their career travelled to Italy, to Rome, to study the revolutionary art of Caravaggio. At their return they continued painting in this Caravaggesque way for some years (except for van Baburen who died shortly after his return), before evolving towards a more gallant, pollished Classicist style in the early 1630s.
Musicians rank amongst the most popular subjects of Caravaggist painting, especially in Holland. According to Paul Huys Jansen, the author of the monograph about van Bijlert of 1998, our lute player dates from the first decade after our painter’s return to Utrecht, 1625/1635.
About Jan van Bijlert
Utrecht 1597/98 – 1671 Utrecht
Painter of history paintings (biblical and mythological subjects), genre scenes and portraits.
Youngest son and pupil of Herman Beerntsz. van Bijlert, a stained glass painter in Utrecht. Jan’s brother Beernt became also a glass painter, Willem a glass writer. At their father’s death (probably in 1615) Jan became a pupil of Abraham Bloemaert (1566 – 1651), who was the most important teacher of many painters in Utrecht.
Having finished his apprenticeship van Bijlert left for an extensive study tour to France (Paris and Aix-en-Provence) and then for Italy. The eldest record of his stay in Rome dates from 1621.
In the spring of 1623 he was a founding member of the ‘Bentveughels’ (‘group of birds’), the society of Northern painters, mostly Dutch, also Flemish, a few German and a single French painter, all of them active in Rome. Although created as a support for compatriots this association soon became well known for its rather convivial meetings, in so far that in 1720 this joyful society was forbidden by papal decree for too many feasts had ended in the greatest disorder. In Italy van Bijlert was known as ‘Giovanni Bilardo’ and among the Northern painters under his Bentname ‘Aeneas’. Every member of the Schildersbent received a surname, a so-called “Bentname”.
In Rome van Bijlert became strongly influenced by the Caravaggesque movement; Caravaggio (1573 – 1610) had already died in 1610, but Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582 – 1622) saw to a rapid spreading of his revolutionary ideas. The ‘Manfrediana methodus’ was especially successful among painters from across the Alps.
Van Bijlert returned to Utrecht towards the end of 1624. The next year he joined the local militia and already in June 1625 he married (in a Protestant, Reformed church in Amsterdam) a young orphan from Nijmegen, Margrieta Kermincxdochter. He must have known her from before his trip to France and Italy, as her uncle and aunt lived next to his parents’ place. The couple had three children, but lost two of them at a young age (only their daughter Elisabeth remained alive). Van Bijlert lived the rest of his life in Utrecht, although he moved regularly. In 1633 he had already bought his first own house.
The other three important Utrecht Caravaggisti had returned earlier from Rome, before van Bijlert: Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588 – 1629) in 1614, Gerard van Honthorst (1592 – 1656) in 1620 and Dirck van Baburen (circa 1694/95 – 1624 Utrecht) in 1621 or 1623. Ter Brugghen and most probably the young van Baburen died in Utrecht of the plague. It is stunning that such a small town of some 30.000 inhabitants, regularly hit by the plague or by cholera, produced during the first half of the 17th century such an incredible number of highly important painters.
In 1626 van Bijlert joined the Guild of Saint Luke of Utrecht. He was its dean in the years 1633 – 1637. After the separation in 1644 between the sculptors and the painters he became alternately dean and 'overman' (head-man) of the Painter’s College between 1654/55 and 1667-1670.
In 1634 he was elected regent of the Saint Job’s hospital, along the Vleutenseweg, a function that he kept until his death. The Painter’s Guild of Saint Luke of Utrecht was established in one of the rooms of that Hospital. During the 17th century it was a habit that each year a local artist would offer a painting to this almshouse, which would then be hung in the Regent’s room. Our painter had done so in 1628. This small hospital had initially been created in 1504 to treat smallpox, between 1613 and 1649 sexual diseases (then called the “Neapolitan disease”), but during the years that van Bijlert was one of its regents it served mostly as a retirement home. Another well-known painter from Utrecht who was also socially involved in his community, Joost Cornelisz. Droochsloot, was elected regent in 1638 (four years after van Bijlert) and also remained in function until his death, in 1666.
At his return to Utrecht van Bijlert continued painting naturalistic scenes with a strong chiaroscuro, influenced by Manfredi, until circa 1630. After that date he fell under the influence of Gerard van Honthorst, who had given up his earlier Caravaggesque style (in Rome he was known as ‘Gherardo delle notti’), evolving towards a more elegant, idealised and polished, academic, classicising style under the influence of Bolognese painters such as the Caracci and Domenichino. Caravaggesque realistic representations of models and their physical shortcomings were being replaced by ‘the best in nature’, with the necessary decorum. From now on van Bijlert’s attractive paintings (often genre scenes of brothel interiors and of musical gatherings) show more details and are painted with lighter colours. What followed was a long and successful career, during which our painter often worked for important patrons. He also regularly painted portraits and religious scenes.
Mannerism had been a rather tormented answer on the departure of two of the big three of Late Renaissance painting, Leonardo (1519) and Raphael (1520), but above all on the genius, muscular art of Michelangelo (1564).
In the next stage Early Baroque artists had to chose between two very different options: the classicising tranquillity and unrest of Annibale Carraci (1560 – 1609) and the genius, but bold naturalism lit by dramatic chiaroscuro and tenebrism of Caravaggio (1571 – 1610).
The person, the art, the revolution of Caravaggio were not simple to handle, let alone to accept. His naturalistic compositions, original colours and clair-obscur lighting had never been seen before, the way he reduced the most important bible subjects to their simplest, elementary senses neither. In his hands religious art had embraced the ideas of the Counter-Reformation and had thus become human again: at times crude, but never stereotype. Protestantism had been tough on the Catholics, but a bisexual, restless genius must have been as hard to support, be it in Rome or at Valetta on the island of Malta.
Caravaggio was probably born in Milan in 1571, from 1592 onwards he had lived in Rome. In 1606 he had to flee the town after killing an oponent because of a quarel over a ‘tennis match’. He stayed in Naples for a few months, settled in Malta, fled from prison there to Sicily and died in mysterious circumstances on the Tuscan beach of Porto Ercole.
This artist was not from this planet: apparently he made no preparatory drawings and he had no assistants nor pupils. But still half of the most important artists of the first half of the 17th century would not have evolved the way they did without having seen his paintings, or without having been influenced by his early followers, such as Bartolommeo Manfredi.
Hordes of artists travelled to Rome: many Dutch, Flemish and French artists came to the Eternal City to witness his art, Spanish artists saw it in Naples (then belonging to Spain).
About our painting
Musicians became some of the favourite subjects of Caravaggesque painters. Caravaggio himself had rarely painted them, this fashion seems to have been initiated in Rome by Bartolomeo Manfredi and by Valentin de Boulogne. It became a very popular subject among his Dutch followers, especially in Utrecht.
Paul Huys Jansen, author of the 1998 monograph about Jan van Bijlert, has authenticated 204 paintings by van Bijlert; only 14 (ten portraits and four genre scenes) are dated. He states that our painting dates from shortly after Bijlert’s return from Rome to Utrecht, from the period 16625/1635. This was clearly his best period, when he was still resolutely painting in a strong Caravaggesque style and compact representation. He was very good at painting single-figure compositions. These figures, if necessary cut in order to stick to the essential, are shown with much realism in close –up in three quarter view. This closeness, this reduction of space must have disturbed one of the later owners of our painting: he had it slightly enlarged at the right side. In its virtuoso detailed, minute representation of this naturalistically portrayed young musician it stands close to the canon of Caravaggism. I suppose that the lack of a neutral dark background is the reason why the author has pushed a plausible date for our painting as far as 1635.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is such a strong Caravaggesque painting.