Jokes and Jest

Singing old lady. Left: Cornelis Bloemaert, 1600-1699. Collection Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Right: Gerard van Honthorst, ca. 1621. Collection Frans Hals Museum | De Hallen Haarlem
Singing old lady. Left: Cornelis Bloemaert, 1600-1699. Collection Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Right: Gerard van Honthorst, ca. 1621. Collection Frans Hals Museum | De Hallen Haarlem

In the first decades of the seventeenth century, three artists from Utrecht became famous for the revolutionary innovations they introduced to the art of painting, following their return from Rome. These artists were Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerard van Honthorst.
In the Eternal City they had become captivated by the work by Caravaggio with life-size and realistic figures and dramatic contrasts between dark and light. Back in Utrecht they in turn inspired other artists such as Abraham Bloemaert. Some of their works became hugely popular among print makers and the general public. With the exhibition Jokes and Jest, Centraal Museum explores the influence of printmaking and the success of Utrecht’s Caravaggisti painters – a theme that has remained underexposed so far.  

Jokes and Jest

With around six paintings and thirty prints, Jokes and Jest portrays the print makers’ favourite themes and the messages that they wished to convey with their images. Dice players and drinkers, prostitutes and matchmakers, tavern musicians, street urchins and peasants were popular themes that sold well, thanks in part to the humour and satire of the prints. Adding some lines in verse would enhance this effect and sometimes also the underlying moral, compared to the original painting; or it could give the picture a wholly different meaning. Thus, the caption to an engraving based on Dirck van Baburen’s painting of a lute player ran: ‘De fluijt gaet soet, tgeluijt is eel. Maar Heer, hoe klinckt een out wijfs keel!’ (Roughly: ‘The flute is delicate, the sound is sweet. But, my Lord, how does the granny’s voice screech!’)

From painting to print 

The prints based on the Utrecht Caravaggisti painters are categorised as ‘reproduction graphics’: etchings and engravings by which an existing painting is ‘translated’ into a black and white image by an independent print maker. Due to the printing technology, the resulting print is virtually always a mirror image of the original. Such prints were the only means available at the time to copy and circulate images on a large scale. 
Between thirty and forty original seventeenth-century prints based on Caravaggisti paintings have survived until today. This may seem a small number, but the large amount of copies that were made of them, and the fact that they remained in circulation for decades and in various versions, are an indication of their popularity among both the upper and lower social classes. Their popularity also extended to far beyond the national borders.

Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe

Jokes and Jest is a prelude to the major exhibition on the European imitators of Caravaggio titled Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe, which Centraal Museum is organising in 2018-2019 in collaboration with the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich. The exhibition will concentrate on Utrecht’s Caravaggisti painters. 

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