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The Singer
  • Artist Hendrick Terbrugghen (Dutch, 1588 - 1629)
  • TitleThe Singer
  • Dating 1620-talet
  • Technique/MaterialOil on canvas
  • Dimensions104 x 85,3 cm
  • AcquisitionGift of Axel Jonsson, 1940
  • CategoryOil painting
  • Inventory NumberGKM 1130
  • Display StatusOn display in The Rembrandt Room (Room 8)
Signatures etc.
Exhibition History
When the northern half of the Netherlands finally shook off Catholic Spanish rule in the early seventeenth century, religious freedom was introduced in the new country. Calvinism had a dominant position, but in Utrecht Catholicism remained strong, and painters drew their inspiration from Italian art.

Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588–1629) is believed to have lived in Italy from about 1605 to 1614. In Rome, he saw Caravaggio’s art, which with its radical realism was revolutionizing European painting. He received a fresh inspiration from Italy when Gerrit van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburen returned to Utrecht in 1620, armed with keen impressions of contemporary art. The three artists developed a style of Caravaggian chiaroscuro in Utrecht. Van Honthorst invented the illusionistic scene, with a figure who seems to lean out as if through a window, and this was the starting-point of Terbrugghen’s painting in the Gothenburg Museum of Art.

Terbrugghen had started to paint musicians and singers in 1624, and his interest in these subjects continued until his death 1629. In The Singer, the composition is bold and dynamic. The young man, who is standing in an alcove, raises his right hand in an inspired gesture. His left arm is resting on a carved stone balustrade that runs right across the picture; in his hand he holds an open songbook. A vellum-bound book with a place marked with a piece of paper lies in front of him, resting on a large piece of sheet music. The singer has long hair and is wearing sumptuous clothes nothing like the sober blacks and whites that Dutch burghers wore at this point. His black beret is adorned with a black plume. This type of outfit is also seen in paintings by Caravaggio and his followers in the Netherlands, the Utrecht Caravaggisti. The painting has a gathered, monumental feel to it. The singer is looking upwards, towards the light coming obliquely from above. The contrast between the light and the dark background gives the composition solidity and clarity. The face and the raised hand are highlighted in a way that makes the painting a convincing portrayal of reality. The colours are fairly muted. The dominant colour is a greyish-brown tone, which is set against the glittering gold of the mantle’s brocade. The contrast is provided by the singer’s white sleeves and the sheet of music, which catch and reflect the light and set up vibrant rhythms across the painting.

The singer’s face, raised arm, and billowing cloak and the books show that the focal point is low. In Dutch homes, paintings used to be hung quite high up on the walls. It is possible that Terbrugghen’s picture was in fact meant for a particular place, perhaps over a fireplace or in a choir loft. Placed so, it would have created a complete illusion when seen from below. The two books would have seemed to be about to protrude out of the picture. The effect is called trompe l’oeil, or »art intended to deceive the eye«.

The artist’s signature is fairly worn and the last digit of the year is unreadable. The dating of this picture has thus been a source of some debate among researchers. Nowadays the painting is generally dated to somewhere between 1625 and 1629. It is thus one of the artist’s later works.

Paintings of this type are sometimes included in series illustrating the five senses. Even when a solitary figure singing or playing an instrument was to be found, it was natural for Dutch viewers to interpret it as an allegory of hearing.

The young man is probably singing a madrigal. His facial expression and raised hand give the painting a vivid immediacy. A painting by Terbrugghen with a similar motif hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There too the singer wears a cap adorned with a plume, holds an open book in his left hand, and makes the same gesture with his right as his colleague in the painting in the Gothenburg Museum of Art.

Björn Fredlund from The Collection Gothenburg Museum of Art, Gothenburg 2014