The Genius Who Got Butter On His Tie

In John Patrick Shanley’s brilliant screenplay for Norman Jewison’s equally brilliant film “Moonstruck” (1987), the first scene opens in a funeral parlor in New York’s Little Italy, where the character of Loretta Castorini is trying to figure out the bookkeeping problems of an Italian-American undertaker. As he prepares some toasted ciabatta with butter, he pooh-pooh’s her concerns over his accounting errors by proclaiming that he need not worry about such things, for he is an artistic genius.  To this Loretta responds, “If you’re an artistic genius, how come you got butter on your tie?”

In the history of Western art there are quite a few geniuses who, as Loretta might put it, got butter on their tie, over the course of their careers.  Leonardo Da Vinci, an undeniable polymath of a genius, was oftentimes an absolute disaster as an artist, abandoning projects half-finished or employing techniques that were so highly experimental as to leave some of the projects he actually did complete either ruined or irreparable.  Rembrandt von Rijn was a notorious spendthrift, who was forced into bankruptcy for living beyond his means, and in order to protect himself from his creditors had to become registered as an employee of his common-law wife, and his son from his first marriage.

And then there is the Dutch painter Hendrik Terbrugghen (1588-1629), who was a brilliant artist, but one prone to spend a great deal of time thinking about deep and serious matters, which often left him depressed and limited his ability to work. This, combined with an untimely death and his style of painting going out of fashion for many centuries, has led to his being ignored for far too long by the general public. I have been thinking of him today as the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist, as Terbrugghen was often drawn to reflect upon St. Matthew in his work.

Terbrugghen must have been particularly fascinated with the life of St. Matthew, for he painted at least three completely different versions of Christ’s calling of St. Matthew of which I am aware. The story, as St. Matthew himself recounts it, is as follows:

As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed Him.

While He was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and His disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

St. Matthew 9: 9-13

In the Utrecht version of “The Calling of St. Matthew” reproduced below, painted when Terbrugghen was 33 years old, our eye is immediately drawn to the well-dressed young man at the right of the picture, who is wearing a rather luxurious hat. Yet if we take a look directly below him, in sharp contrast to the handsome dandy we see an unattractive figure, on whose right shoulder the young man is leaning. The egg-headed old man is wearing glasses, has lost much of his hair, and is probably suffering from horrible dental problems. He seemingly incongruously wears part of a suit of armor over his old, brown tunic, probably as a remembrance of when he was a brave young buck fighting for the Dutch in their wars of independence against Spain.

The juxtaposition of these two figures, one directly on top of the other, could not be more indicative of Terbrugghen’s attested melancholy. He himself, it is believed, had been a soldier in the early 17th century, before he turned seriously to his artistic career after a visit to Rome, but what his experiences were as a soldier in the myriad of battles that took place in Northern Europe during that time period we can only guess. Terbrugghen seems to be saying, by putting these two figures together, that no matter how healthy and positive your initial outlook on life may be, in the end there is nothing to look forward to but suffering, disappointment, and ultimately death.

If you are reasonably familiar with art history you will recognize from his work that Terbrugghen was clearly a disciple of Caravaggio – a man who had quite a bit of butter on his own tie, particularly after being accused of manslaughter. Yet unlike his artistic inspiration, who for good or for ill lived life to the fullest, Terbrugghen was a man who seems to have done and left little in the way of writing by or about him, and was described by a contemporary as a man afflicted throughout his life by “profound but melancholy thoughts.” It is believed by some scholars that Terbrugghen died of the plague when he was 42 years old – an end which, perhaps, was in keeping with his purportedly gloomy outlook on life.

Whether by plague or otherwise, art historians are agreed that Terbrugghen met an unpleasant end of some sort. It is also agreed that his output was not very high, in part due to the fact that he suffered from depression. While he was well-regarded by many of his fellow artists during his lifetime, and for a time his paintings commanded high prices, he was forgotten fairly quickly by most after his death, to the point that his son felt the need to write a pamphlet defending and promoting his father’s work. No doubt Terbrugghen would have found his slide into obscurity in keeping with his views on life.

That being said, even though Terbrugghen may not have been a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, we can still marvel at and enjoy his work today. It is very often the case that the true genius really does find himself hamstringed when it comes to trying to living an orderly, positive life outside of his own thoughts. Terbrugghen may not be a household name to most of us, but his beautiful studies of light and the sometimes melancholic aspects of his work have managed to survive the centuries and give him a far more positive reputation today than perhaps he himself believed would be possible.


The Calling of St. Matthew by Hendrik Terbrugghen (1621)
Centraal Museum, Utrecht

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