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Essay – Dirck van Baburen – Laughing Democritus

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Essay - Dirck van Baburen - Laughing Democritus

Leonard J. Slatkes considered this picture a workshop repetition, although not by the same hand as our picture. However, since the canvas lacks both a monogram and date, I am more inclined to see it as a later copy, for the simple reason that it lacks a monogram and date.

Laughing Democritus surfaced on the Swiss art market in the spring of 2020 after having not been seen in public in decades. The present writer had only been familiar with it from old black-and-white photographs that he had studied while completing Leonard J. Slatkes’s unfinished monograph on Hendrick ter Brugghen (, later followed by Franits 2013. In both monographs, Laughing Democritus and its pendant Weeping Heraclitus were attributed to the supposed joint studio of Terbruggen and Baburen. I was not wholly comfortable with this hypothesis of the masters’ possible common studio but left it in place in 2007 to accede to what would have been Slatkes’s wishes. Nevertheless, in my Baburen monograph of  2013, Laughing Democritus and Weeping Heroclitus were once again included a catalogue section dedicated to Terbrugghen’s and Baburen’s supposed shared atelier--only in this instance the number of paintings placed into that category was greatly diminished. Presently, I no longer believe that the two masters shared a studio. Particularly helpful for my reevaluation of this tenuous hypothesis was Julia van den Burg’s Bachelor of Art History thesis completed in 2009 at the University of Amsterdam under the auspices of Marten Jan Bok. Van der Burg challenged the very existence of a joint workshop between Terbrugghen and Baburen. Her probing analyses of, among other things, the physiognomic features of figures in select paintings by these two artists led her to conclude that the potential number of common models between them was nominal and, surprisingly, if anything, Terbrugghen and Honthorst seemed to have shared more motifs and hence enjoyed a closer working relationship.

In November 2019, Koller Auctions solicited my opinion about the authorship of Laughing Democritus. The high density jpeg accompanying their query allowed me to see the picture in color for the first time. However, the canvas was dirty and obscured by discolored varnish. For that reason, I opined that it must have originated in Baburen’s workshop. My recent inspection of a jpeg of the picture in a cleaned state (but before it had been retouched and revarnished) has now led me to confirm its authenticity. Monogrammed and dated 1622, Laughing Democritus bears all the hallmarks of Baburen’s influential style as it evolved after his return to Utrecht in late 1620 or early 1621. The bold, palpable naturalism of the painting, the half- length rendition of the philosopher, whose form is abruptly truncated at the edges of the canvas, and the raking light that enhances his plasticity were all devices that Baburen had already begun to incorporate into the history paintings he made during his years in Italy. Only in Utrecht, these devices were further adjusted to place them at the service of  paintings characterized by vigorous, schematic brushwork, stylized garments composed of broad, flat planes of color, and expansive figures whose emphatic earthiness easily transcends those of his Italian antecedents.

As for specific Utrecht-period paintings to which Laughing Democritus can be compared, the use of delicate peach-colored tones to articulate the effects of streaming light on the white cloth under the figure’s hat and on his shoulders finds a parallel in the undergarments of the three protagonists in Baburen’s Amsterdam Chaining of Prometheus of 1623. More significantly, the figure’s striking off-the-shoulder garment with a blue striped sleeve recalls that of the Utrecht Youth Playing a Mouth Harp of 1621 and the Cleveland Merry Violinist of 1623. This fanciful garb, which ultimately owes something to the early work of Caravaggio, can be properly catego­rized as all'antica.

The aforementioned pendant to Laughing Democritus is Weeping Heraclitus, which is likewise inscribed T. B. fecit Ano 1622. The pictures are nearly identical in size and share complementary compositions. Their subject matter is linked as well and flourished in early seventeenth-century Netherlandish art. Although the real Democritus (ca. 465-ca. 360 B.C.) and Heraclitus (ca. 540-ca. 480 B.C.) were counted among the more important of the pre-Socratic philosophers, it is only their later legend, as told by Cicero (106-43 B.C.) and other Roman sources, which provided the impetus for this important theme in the visual arts, especially in The Netherlands after 1600. According to these sources, when the two philosophers viewed the follies of the world, Heraclitus wept while Democritus laughed. The theme of the weeping and laughing philosophers began its post-classical history with Marsillo Ficino (1433-1499), the famous Florentine humanist, who appears to have actually owned a painting of Heraclitus and Democritus together, flanking a globe representing the world. A fresco by Donato Bramante of circa1485-1490--perhaps the earliest surviving painting of our two philosophers in this manner--once part of the decorations of the Casa Panigorala in Milan, may reflect the arrangement of Ficino's lost work.  This fresco, and thus the theme, was well known during the sixteenth century and was described by the Milanese painter and theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo (1538-1592) in 1584.

In the Northern Netherlands, Karel van Mander (1548-1606) reports that Cornelis Ketel (1548-1616) painted the two philosophers no less than three times between 1599 and 1602. Ketel, however, used both compositional types, one with both figures on a single panel, as well as a pendant pair of paintings, each with one of the philosophers. Terbrugghen himself followed suit, painting Laughing Democritus and Weeping Heraclitus on two separate occasions, once together and once in pendant pairs. Those latter pendants, now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are signed and dated 1628 (figs. 4 and 5). By contrast, our picture and its pendant are monogrammed and dated 1622. They are therefore highly significant because they are earliest known pendant depictions of Laughing Democritus and Weeping Heraclitus in Utrecht. They thus serve to corroborate further Baburen’s reputation as a thematic innovator.