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Like so many artists in his time, Hendrick ter Brugghen travelled to Italy where he saw the work by Caravaggio (1571-1610). Inspired by the wondrous beauty of the work, he returned to Utrecht in 1614. In the years that followed he established a reputation as the most gifted and original of the north-Netherlandish Caravaggisti, as these followers of Caravaggio were known. His masterpiece The calling of Saint Matthew unmistakably bears the stamp of the Italian grand master. Ter Brugghen painted two versions of The calling of Saint Matthew. The immediate example for both works is the large piece that Caravaggio painted around 1600 for the Contarelli chapel of the San Luigi dei Francesi church in Rome. This painting was an immediate success upon its completion. Ter Brugghen adopted Caravaggio’s choice for the most dramatic moment of the story, as well as his arrangement of the figures around a table. The realistic rendering of the faces also reveals Caravaggio’s influence. What Ter Brugghen did not adopt is the dramatic illumination of the scene. It is particularly the strong light-dark contrasts, a style known as chiaroscuro, to which Caravaggio thanked his fame. Ter Brugghen also did not portray his figures full-sized, as did Caravaggio, but as half-figures. The foreground has been omitted, making the composition more compact. Finally, Ter Brugghen’s use of colour differs from Caravaggio. Whereas the Italian painter opts for warm brown shades, Ter Brugghen juxtaposes blue and violet, and pink next to creamy white tones. Ter Brugghen’s gentle illumination has no hint of Italian drama, but instead exudes cool northern harmony. It imparts to the painting the silver-like glow that has made it so famous. The calling of Saint Matthew is about Christ that appoints a toll collector as an apostle. Ter Brugghen painted precisely the moment of the calling. The work therefore belongs among a series of paintings dedicated to the theme of conversion or a sudden religious insight. Particularly during the first half of the seventeenth century, there was a strong demand among Catholic circles for paintings with this theme. It was the period in which the clandestine churches were being decorated, following their establishment from the year 1581 on, after the Reformation had banned Catholic services.

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