207 The Dentist Gerard van Honthorst Utrecht 1592–1656 Utrecht 1622 Oil on canvas · 147×219 cm Acquired from the Imperial Gallery, Prague, in 1749 Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, gal. no. 1251 HON T HOR S T CON F RON T S the spectator with a dramatic nocturnal scene. The only light source illuminating the gruesome spectacle is a candle held by a boy. The scene depicts an elegantly attired individual – a so-called tooth ex- tractor – bending over a man seated in front of him, about to pull his tooth with a pair of pliers. The patient’s eyes have rolled back in his head in anticipation of the coming agony, and his right hand, palm wide open, has shot up in a reflex of pain. Gathered around him are his visibly appalled – yet transfixed – companions, whose facial expressions and ges- tures convey their feelings and emotions. The bearded old man shown in profile in the left foreground is so engrossed in the proceedings that he fails to notice the boy, at the left edge of the picture, who is stealing his purse while feigning interest in the scene. To heighten the dramatic effect, Honthorst has chosen an extreme lighting situation: the as- sistant, who seems rather fancifully dressed given his humble station, shields the candle with his left hand, causing the light to fall directly onto the face of the dental patient. The boy’s hand mirrors that of the patient, and together they frame the gaping mouth and draw attention to the hand as a motif within the picture’s narrative, where it plays a quiet role in the shadows. The transition in the depiction of the figures – from strong, plastic modelling to flatly rendered profiles – transforms this genre scene into a painterly tour de force. Gerard van Honthorst was one of the leading expo- nents of the artists’ group known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti. Along with several artist colleagues, he spent five years in Rome where he closely studied Caravaggio’s painting, which made a strong impression on him. Honthorst, whose fondness for nocturnal candlelight scenes had already earned him the nickname ‘Gherardo delle notti’ in Rome, introduced a num- ber of Caravaggesque elements into his work upon returning home to Holland. This painting style – characterized by the stark chiaroscuro of an invisible or concealed light source, the liveliness of the figures, and the bold vivacity of the col- ours – was heretofore unknown in the Netherlands. After returning to Utrecht in 1620, Honthorst contin- ued painting in a Caravaggesque manner, but turned from religiously themed history painting to genre pictures. The lack of ecclesiastical patrons in the Calvinist north of the Netherlands necessitated a shift towards genre and portrait painting. From then on, ‘merry companies’ or mythological scenes defined his work. The pulling of teeth has a long pictorial tradition in Netherlandish painting. Starting with a copper engraving by Lucas van Leyden (1535), this particular subject was repre- sented throughout the 16th and into the 17th century. A shared commonality of these depictions is the underlying ref- erence to a Netherlandish proverb: ‘Ze hebben me daer een getrokken’ (You pulled one on me). Not only does it allude to the idea of thievery, but was understood to imply all kinds of trickery and deceit by a charlatan – supposed dentists in- cluded.  |  un