At the Dentist's (detail)
Bij de tandentrekker, ca. 1625 (fragment) - Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Flemish Caravaggism sparkles at Ghent Rombouts exhibition

The big spring exhibition has just opened at the MSK, the Fine Arts Museum, in Ghent.  This year’s exhibition is devoted to Theodoor Rombouts, a contemporary of Rubens and a follower of Caravaggio. It’s the first exhibition of the artist’s work in modern times.

In his relatively short career - the painter died at the age of forty – Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637) displayed great versatility. Card players, musicians, pipe smokers, mythological figures, saints and other figures from the Bible all feature in his work.

MSK curator Frederica Van Dam says Rombouts was a successful artist, though his fame waned following his death.  Today, even in Flanders, the artist is no longer a household name.

“Rombouts enjoyed great respect during his lifetime.  He was successful. His works were in great demand.  However, unfortunately,  he had the bad luck of being at the height of his career when Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony Van Dyck were in their prime.  Following his death Rombouts’s style is often compared to that of Rubens and sometimes found lacking, while Rombouts primarily sought inspiration in the style of Caravaggio, the Italian painter whose works only start to gain great recognition in the 19th century”.

St Sebastian
Sint-Sebastiaan, ca. 1622-24 - Metropolitan Cathedral Museum Malta, Mdina

“He painted people of flesh and blood who communicate with expressive faces” says MSK curator Frederica Van Dam

The Backgammon Players
Triktrakspelers, 1634 - North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

A native of Antwerp Rombouts travelled to Italy and discovered the Caravaggio School.  This is clear from his “chiaroscuro”, the famous play of dark and light, Van Dam explains.  There is more: “Rombouts doesn’t glorify his figures.  These are people of flesh and blood.  People he could have passed in the street.  Often, they are seated around a table, where they converse using exceptional facial expressions and magnificent gestures”. 

Often figures are featured in costumes of glorious colour.  As the son of a tailor Rombouts was clearly familiar with the beauty of clothes.

A Company Playing Cards
Het kaartspelend gezelschap, ca. 1634-37 - Muzeum Narodowe, Warschau

Rombouts’s card and backgammon players seem to have come straight out of a play, but, says Frederica Van Dam, behind this playful game lurks and important message: “Here you see a figure looking at the cards and cheating.  Another figure, seated at the table, is being addressed by a match-maker, offering a romantic assignation in a brothel.  The moral of the story is clear: “card playing can lead to deceit and morally dubious behaviour”.

Many of Rombouts’s works clearly feature a multitude of musical instruments.  The painter represents them with great accuracy. You see the lutist pricking up his ears as he tunes the instrument.  At the museum you can also compare the items in Rombouts’s works with real musical instruments, packs of cards and a backgammon board.

The Lutist
De luitspeler, ca. 1625 - The John G. Johnson Collection - Philadelphia Museum of Art

The faces Rombouts depicts betray great expression.  Admire the faces of Christ and the money changers he throws out of the temple, the pain in the face of Prometheus, while an eagle pulls out his liver.  It’s his punishment from bringing the fire of the Gods to humankind.  Who doesn’t feel a shiver down his or her spine when you see the instruments displayed on the dentist’s table?

At the Dentist's (detail)
Bij de tandentrekker, ca. 1625 (fragment) - Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

MSK only owns three paintings by Rombouts but has managed to bring works from across the globe to Ghent for this exhibition.  One work has even made its way from Puerto Rico!

Rombouts was a native of Antwerp but had good contacts with Ghent.  Bishop Triest and Ghent city council commissioned works off Rombouts including the “Allegory of the Five Senses” and the “Allegory of the Court of Justice of ‘Gedele’”.  The latter was to hang in the Aldermen’s House Gedele, where magistrates similar to today’s justices of the peace meted out justice and decided the future of orphans.

The exhibition also includes Rombouts’s “Descent from the Cross” from St Bavo’s Cathedral that was especially restored for this occasion.

Detail “Descent from the Cross” (1628-30)
"De Kruisafneming", ca. 1628-1630 (fragment), Sint-Baafskathedraal Gent

Theodoor Rombouts. Virtuoso of Flemish Caravaggism runs till 23 April at the Ghent Fine Arts Museum, the MSK.

Christ driving the Money-changers from the Temple
Christus verdrijft de wisselaars uit de tempel, ca. 1625–32 - Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen,, foto Hugo Maertens.

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