Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656) has long been considered one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. After training in Utrecht, he traveled to Italy around 1615, where he embraced the radical stylistic and thematic ideas of Caravaggio. The immediacy of Caravaggio's religious and genre scenes, which are characterized by dramatic gestures and pronounced contrasts of light and dark, inspired a generation of "Caravaggisti" throughout Europe. These artists generally worked directly from posed models, as Caravaggio did, and brought their scenes close to the picture plane to suggest that they were an extension of everyday experiences. Honthorst, in particular, painted with verve and assurance, utilizing bright colors and strong chiaroscuro effects, and his life-sized sensuous figures dressed in exotic costumes gave a bold presence to his images.
When Honthorst returned to Utrecht in 1620 he was already a famous artist, and he was feted in his native city. His enthusiastic embrace of Caravaggism and his international renown also had great appeal at the court of Prince Maurits of Nassau in The Hague. The Prince of Orange, as he was known, was consciously trying to broaden the reputation of the court by improving his residences, building gardens, presenting musical soirées, and acquiring paintings.
Honthorst's The Concert is first mentioned in a 1632 inventory of one of the Prince of Orange’s palaces in The Hague. Although the painting may have been purchased by Maurits, it may also have been a diplomatic gift. Paintings were often given to the prince in appreciation for services rendered or in hopes of eliciting future favors. A possible source for such a diplomatic gift was the exiled king of Bohemia, Frederick I, who had moved to The Hague in 1621 with his wife, Elizabeth Stuart, after his Protestant troops were defeated by Catholic forces. Even in exile, the king and queen of Bohemia actively collected works of art and lived a sumptuous lifestyle with funds partially provided by the Prince of Orange. They were great admirers of Honthorst, and he eventually became their court artist.
Frederick and Elizabeth may have commissioned the painting and then presented it to the Prince of Orange in appreciation for his financial support. This hypothesis is based on the similarity between the concertmaster in Honthorst’s painting and an illustration of Frederick playing ball in a contemporary manuscript depicting courtly life in The Hague.
The Concert was much more than a decorative element in a courtly setting. It also had an underlying political message. Harmony in society, as well as in music, exists when the guidance of its leader is followed. This adage would have been appropriate for either the Prince of Orange or King Frederick I of Bohemia.
Until recently, the influence of Caravaggio on the art of northern Europe had not been represented in the Gallery's otherwise rich collection of Dutch art. The acquisition in 2009 of Hendrick ter Brugghen's Bagpipe Player, 1624, was a first step in addressing this gap. Together with the Gallery's Italian, French, and Spanish Caravaggist paintings, the works by these two masters convey the enormous impact of Caravaggio's style throughout Europe in the 17th century.