At National Gallery, two paintings by one Dutch master add up to a sublime exhibition

By Jason Edward Kaufman
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 4:07 PM

One of the most admired Old Masters paintings in the United States is making a guest appearance at the National Gallery of Art. You've probably never heard of the painting or even the artist, yet experts rate it among the most prized artwork in the country.

The painting is "Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene, 1625," a religious scene by the Dutch artist Hendrick ter Brugghen. It is among the pictures that Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum, which is closed for renovation, loaned to the Phillips Collection for an exhibition that ended in January. Fortunately for Washington audiences, Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery, asked the Ohio college to extend St. Irene's visit to the capital to show her alongside the gallery's own ter Brugghen, "Bagpipe Player, 1624," a major recent museum purchase.

The entire exhibition consists of those two paintings tucked into the rest of the gallery's superb holdings of Dutch art. It may sound a bit skimpy, but focusing attention on two great pictures can offer an experience in some ways superior to the mega-shows that have become the norm, where visitors wind up rushed and skim many of the works on view - the artistic equivalent of speed dating.

So who was ter Brugghen (1588-1629) and what is so special about his St. Sebastian and St. Irene?

He grew up in the Dutch city of Utrecht, then went to Italy in his mid-teens to further his artistic education. In Rome he was influenced by several painters, particularly Caravaggio, and brought the fabled Italian's avant-garde style back to Utrecht.

Ter Brugghen and several of his townsmen became known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti. They painted religious and mythological scenes featuring realistic figures in contemporary dress, and made genre paintings of peasants, drinkers and musicians. These subjects were often depicted half-length and close up, cast in dramatic contrasting light and shadow ("chiaroscuro" in Italian) and set in a shallow, stagelike space - all pictorial innovations adopted from Caravaggio. This new approach had the power to bring the viewer into the action with compelling immediacy.

The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who visited ter Brugghen in 1627, deemed his work "above that of all the other Utrecht artists."

In my estimation, the St. Irene is his greatest work. It depicts the moment when the third-century Roman soldier Sebastian, having refused to renounce his Christianity, has been sentenced to death by emperor Diocletian, tied to a tree and shot by archers. Irene, a Roman widow, and her maidservant find him on the verge of death, remove the arrows and nurse him back to health. (His martyrdom came later when the persistent emperor had him clubbed to death and thrown into a sewer.)

The oil on canvas, around 5 feet high and 4 feet wide, is a masterpiece for several reasons. The tightly interwoven composition is remarkably harmonious and graceful, its structure an example of the classic pyramid, with Irene's serene face at the apex and Sebastian's feet defining the base. The emotional content is intense, with Sebastian slumped in near-death as Irene gently pulls an arrow from his side and her maid unties one of his hands.

The intimacy of their tender ministrations is underlined by the close alignment of the three figures' heads and the cruciform configuration of the maid's and Sebastian's hands. And the understated and beautiful palette, a blend of pallid greys and silvery greenish hues, casts the scene in a crepuscular light that lends a somber mood to the episode.

Scholars think it was painted for the chapel of a hospital in Utrecht. That makes sense. Irene is venerated by Christians for her virtuous care in attending the ill, and Sebastian, who recovered from mortal wounds, was invoked for salvation from the plague. Ter Brugghen painted this work just as an epidemic had begun to decimate the city, an outbreak that would count among its victims the artist himself, who died at the age of 41. (By 1634, his wife and three of their six children also had died.)

Since Oberlin purchased the painting from a French dealer in 1953, it has been in constant demand, traveling for exhibitions in North America and Europe. Its current display enables the National Gallery to highlight the recently acquired "Bagpipe Player," one of ter Brugghen's great genre pictures.

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