“Now Peter sat without in the palace: and a damsel came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee. But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest” (Matthew,
26, 69-70). A painting by Honthorst of this subject was acquired in 1971 by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.1
The damsel makes her accusation by grasping Peter's cloak; he denies it with a hesitant outstretched hand; a soldier accuses him with a pointing finger. Much play is made of gesture. Three further soldiers, two carrying pikes, gaze at the Saint incredulously. Peter's is the only foolish face. There is drama enough in the situation alone—a confident damsel who knows her dirty business; a guilt-ridden, cornered Peter; inquisitive spectators spoiling for a fight—but not content with this, Honthorst has to heighten the drama with light. In the dead center is a candle partly masked by a sleeve, providing the only illumination we need: striking sharply the two leading characters, more caressingly the faces of three soldiers. The fourth soldier in contre jour
is wrapped in shadow except for pinpricks of light on shoulder, sleeve, accusing hand, and belt. This soldier is dressed in rich red but since he is against the light, the only bright touches are in the crook of his left arm and in the folds of his trousers nearest the candle; there are delicate reflected lights in his right sleeve. The girl is dressed in blue-green with stripes on her white sleeves of the same tone as the dress. St. Peter's cloak is yellow ochre.The picture is neither signed nor dated but fits happily into Honthorst's oeuvre
after his return to Utrecht from Rome in 1620, and not later than the middle of the third decade. There is a certain smoothness in the handling which can be paralleled in the works of 1620-25, but is not to be discovered in the rugged Italian religious and genre scenes of the decade before. We could cite many comparisons but we will restrict them to three easily accessible reproductions in the standard work on Honthorst: Judson Figs. 14-16. The precise date of none of the three is known but no responsible student would nowadays deny that they belonged to this period. If this sounds inconclusive, we could point to similar contre-jour
figures: in the Munich allegory
(Judson Fig. 27) and in the Utrecht Procuress
(Judson Fig. 37), dated respectively 1623 and 1625. Nothing of the kind is to be found in the Italian scenes. A Honthorist of this subject in the Museum at Rennes, now correctly regarded as an Italian period picture,2
is quite different in conception. Here the composition is divided into two, the scene of the Denial taking place on one side, a card game on the other. The sensation it gives of dispersal is also helped along by the naked flame, which has not the power that a masked flame has to draw the figures together. There is here no attempt, as there is in Minneapolis, to unite the groups. The reason for this is that when in Rome Honthorst was firmly under the sway of Manfredi, only transforming Manfredi by waiting until the curtains were drawn and the candles lit. At Rennes, he is indebted to some such as Manfredi as the Denial of St. Peter
at Brunswick, where again the composition is divided into two distinct sections, the Denial and the gaming table. The same divisions are to be found in paintings of this subject by other Roman-based Caravaggesques like Valentin (Longhi Collection, Florence) and Tournier (Munich art market, 1972). All these artists are ultimately indebted to Caravaggio himself, whose Calling of St. Matthew
in S. Luigi no Northern Caravaggesque could escape, until he returned.3
A further reason for supposing that Honthorst painted the Denial
now in Minneapolis on his return North is that its style is reflected in the work of Gerard Seghers in 1620-28, when Seghers was back in Antwerp. It is true that Seghers spent many years in the South before then and could have encountered in Rome such Honthorsts as the one in Rennes. But during his eight Caravaggesque years in Antwerp he is more likely to have turned to the current Utrecht, than to memories of the Roman, Honthorst. And indeed we find that his numerous compositions of the Denial of St. Peter
are invariably closer to the Minneapolis than to the Rennes design, to the extent that the compositions are unified, never dispersed, and the artificial light source generally masked. I have reproduced almost all these in a recent article4
and need not do so again. It is more instructive to present an unpublished Seghers in a private collection in Madrid of an analogous theme of betrayal, in this case the Kiss of Judas,
which shows remarkable affinities with the new Honthorst and reinforces the point I made in my earlier article, that Seghers was deeply impressed by Honthorst's Utrecht style. Here is the same contre-jour
soldier with his arm outstretched, the same concentration on conflicting personalities, the same lighting effects, the same frieze-like movement of three-quarter-length figures strung across the canvas. Seghers even borrows from Honthorst those pop eyes peering over shoulders, those splayed fingers, that gripped pike. As far as quality is concerned, there is nothing to choose between the two. Both are outstanding Netherlandish productions in the Caravaggesque idiom, surpassed by nobody in those regions except Terbrugghen who, when he came to invent his version of the Denial of St. Peter
(The Art Institute of Chicago), went his own inimitable way, as a great artist has a habit of doing.Benedict Nicolson
has been editor of the Burlington Magazine
since 1947 and is the author of monographs on Terbrugghen (1958) and Wright of Derby (1968). His volume on Courbet's Studio of the Painter
in the Penguin Art in Context
series appeared in 1973, and he has recently published a monograph on George de La Tour in collaboration with Christopher Wright.Endnotes
Referenced Works of Art
- 71.78. The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund. Oil on canvas, 43 1/2” x 57”. It appeared at Christie's, 2nd July, 1906 (139) as in the possession of Charles Davis, dealer; bt. Johnson or Johnston as “Honthorst.” The Christie sale reference is given by J. Richard Judson, Gerrit van Honthorst—A discussion of his position in Dutch Art, The Hague, 1959 under No. 42 (described as “Jusdon” from now onwards). It was with Gorry in Dublin in 1926, and on the Dublin art market in 1971. It was acquired by Minneapolis from the Hazlitt Gallery, London.
- Exhibited in “Le Siècle de Rembrandt,” Petit Palais, 1970-71 (110), proclaimed by Pierre Rosenberg in his catalogue entry as an original of the Roman period.
- Caravaggio's own Denial of St. Peter with three figures (London art market) was in a private collection in Naples in the early seventeenth century and unlikely to have been accessible to Honthort, though as I hope to demonstrate on another occasion, could have been to Stomer when he painted his three-figure composition of this subject (private collection near Aix-en-Provence).
- Benedict Nicolson, “General Seghers and the ‘Denial of St. Peter’,” The Burlington Magazine June, 1971, Figs. 11-19.
- Gerrit van Honthorst. Dutch, 1590-1656. Denial of St. Peter. Oil on canvas, 43 1/2” x 57”. The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund, 71.78.
- Gerrit van Honthorst. Denial of St. Peter. Oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts. Rennes.
- Bartolommeo Manfredi. Denial of St. Peter. Oil on canvas. Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Brunswick.
- Gerard Seghers. The Kiss of Judas. Oil on canvas. Private Collection, Madrid.