High Drama in the Ordinary
Boy with a Roemer of Wine by Candlelight, ca. 1623
Hendrick ter Brugghen (Dutch, 1588-1629)
Oil on canvas, 26¼ x 22 7/16 in.
Private Collection, L.74.2011
At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a piece that captures the pure essence of the Baroque Age is Dutch artist Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Boy with Roemer of Wine by Candlelight. This oil on canvas piece, created in 1623, shows off the distinctive traits of the “Utrecht Caravaggisti,” artists that studied in Utrecht, Netherlands, and were followers of Caravaggio.1 This is evident from the extreme shadows; brassy, realistic colors; and somewhat unusual (for the time period) subject matter. The picture features a young boy pointing to a glass of red liquid, presumably wine.
The composition of this particular piece is successful due to the slightly off-center position of the subject as well as the diagonals created by the position of the child’s head, hands, and the negative spaces which engage the rule of thirds. The circular shape created by the hands and the circular shape of the head help to create unity. These aspects keep the balance of the piece on point. Along with this, the color and value create a very mysterious attitude. This attitude contrasts strongly with the subject’s playful expression. While the smile contrasts with the very dramatic lighting, it also complements the wonder and question in the piece.
In my opinion, one of the reasons this piece is so strange and great is in part due to the uncertain connotation behind the piece. Why was this portrait done? The painting is just a small portrait of a young boy who is smiling and holding a glass of what appears to be wine. The subject matter is not an extremely bizarre one, but interesting nonetheless. This idea of a young boy who looks 10 or 12 holding a glass of wine is uncommon but not unheard of seeing that Ter Brugghen was fond of painting drinkers.2 What is weird is the way the light falls on his face creating strange shadows causing the viewer to be sucked in. It can be a bit off-putting at first glance, but once viewed for a while this painting can trap the eyes. These are all factors that contribute to interrupting the meaning, one that has yet to be figured out. This spectacular piece is a mixture of high drama and the ordinary which work together to give the viewer something different using something unexceptional.
1. VMFA Docent Manual, Southern Baroque and Tapestries, VMFA, Richmond.
2. M.E. Wieseman, “Hendrick ter Brugghen,“ Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, accessed April 11, 2013, www.oberlin.edu/amam/TerBrugghen.htm.
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The Baroque era took place in the 17th century; do you know what that looks like written out in years?
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