The wandering Death of Patroclus by Baburen settles down in Kassel

Dirk van Baburen (vers 1594-1624)
Achilles before the dead body of Patroclus, 1624
Oil on canvas - 204 x 287 cm
Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
Photo : Christie’s New York

28/3/09 – Acquisition – Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister – Although the different European schools are well represented at the Wilhelmshöe castle in Kassel, the collection’s prestige resides in its Dutch holdings, dominated by its nineteen famous Rembrandts. Among the works from the International Caravaggists, almost all of the Utrecht painters were present [1]. One of the few still missing was Dirk van Baburen, an artist who has few known paintings despite the fact that he appears regularly on the art market [2]. This lack has just been filled by the purchase of The Death of Patroclus (ill.), one of his most beautiful works. It created a sensation when it resurfaced in Paris at auction by the Etude Couturier & de Nicolay on 25 March 1987, under the title The Death of Uriah. It had belonged since the 19th century to the Achille-Fould family at the château de Paulliac in the Médoc region of France. The Louvre attempted to purchase it but the canvas was sold off for 10 million francs to the American art market. Subsequently, it went on loan to various establishments. Falling under an exception to the rule which predicts that the financial value of a masterpiece increases with time, as the subject was probably unpalatable to many amateurs and museums, the painting once again came up for auction at Christie’s New York on 4 October 2007 (lot 132) but sold for less than 1 million dollars (at the time 600.000 euros). Is the realism of the violence represented in modern films or in Picasso and Bacon, less bearable or else more palpable in ancient lore ?

Kassel finally paid less than one million euros thanks to help from several foundations and associations (Hessische Stiftung, Ernst von Siemens, Dierichs Rainer, friends of museums in Kassel…). In our news item of 11/1/08 announcing the acquisition of Young Man Singing by Baburen by the museum in Frankfurt, it was said : “Unfortunately, Baburen is sorely missing at the Louvre which permitted a large and beautiful painting by the artist (The Death of Uriah) sold for 10 million francs (about $2.000.000) in Paris to leave France twenty years ago (...) An excellent chance to bring it back to France for good was passed up.”. This is indeed cause for regret as the opportunity will not come up again soon [3].

A student of Paulus Moreelse, Baburen converted to the new somber Naturalist style when he arrived in Italy. In Rome during the 1620’s, where so many young geniuses were at work, he led a prestigious career under the patronage of Vincenzo Giustiniani and Cardinal Scipione Borghese. His Entombment for the Capella della Pietà at San Pietro in Montorio was highly popular and copied widely. He returned to Utrecht in 1620 or 1621 where he died, probably from the plague, three years later, in February 1624. Signed and dated that same year, Achilles before the Body of Patroclus is an ambitious and erudite painting, which stands out from the more commercial productions of singers and concerts requested repeatedly by clients. It depicts Achilles receiving the body of his friend Patroclus, fallen in battle. The Greek hero closes his right fist, the blood congested by his fury, while his left hand swears to revenge his death (let us remember that in the Ilyad even the gods are shocked by the violence of a vindictiveness so strong as to lead Achilles to desecrate the body of Hector) [4].

Version française

Michel de Piles, dimanche 29 mars 2009


[1] Honthorst, Ter Brugghen (Flute Player)…

[2] At the recent Tefaf in Maastricht, the art dealer Amells Konsthandell presented a Concert as an original, a replica of the painting in the Hermitage and which comes from the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum in Budapest (restitution of plundered goods).

[3] The only original work by the painter in France, a Drinker, belongs to the Musée Marmottan, where it is rarely displayed as this museum does not favor old masters. Nevertheless, this canvas can be added to the list of the many Baburen works found in German museums : Frankfurt, Berlin (Gemäldegalerie, Christ among the Doctors Giustiniani and a Musician, acquired in 2005)…

[4] The painting had been sold in Paris as representing the moment when David receives the remains of Uriah, but the main character in the biblical account is Uriah’s wife, missing from the scene on the canvas. Leonard Stackles suggested that the painting depicted Musius Scaevola before the body of Porsenna’s secretary, killed by mistake, instead of the Etruscan king. But the lack of a brazier in the picture makes it incomprehensible for the viewer. The secondary elements confirm the interpretation of Homer’s text : the king wearing a crown and seen standing, with the soldier behind him bringing the body, can be identified as Menelaus ; baton aloft, he is inciting a return to battle. The subject of the death of Patroclus is nonetheless rare before the Neo-classic period (Jacques Louis David, Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland) ; in the 17th century, painters preferred the episode where Achilles, disguised as a woman, hides among Lycomedes’ daughters.

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