Hendrick ter Brugghen was born probably in The Hague in 1588.1 His father, Jan ter Brugghen (1561–1626), was the first bailiff of the States of Holland.2 Hendrick’s grandfather, who came from a distinguished family from the provinces of Utrecht and Overijssel, was a Catholic priest and as such not allowed to marry. Hendrick’s father was therefore illegitimate. Because of this background, it was long assumed that Hendrick too was a Catholic, but his marriage on 15 October 1616 to Jacomijna Verbeeck (d. 1634), a lawyer’s daughter, took place in a Dutch Reformed church. Moreover, four of the couple’s eight children were baptized in Reformed churches. Unlike his brother and sister, however, Ter Brugghen never became a Protestant. His widow, though, did join the Reformed Church, but not until shortly after his death.
Ter Brugghen probably spent his childhood in The Hague. Between 1602, the last mention of him in The Hague, and 1613, the first record of him in Utrecht, the Ter Brugghen family is recorded only in Abcoude.3 Yet Jan must have settled in Utrecht before 1613, because his son trained as a painter under Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651), who lived in Utrecht continuously from 1593 until his death.4 After his apprenticeship with Bloemaert, Ter Brugghen traveled to Italy where, in his own words, he “executed art for innumerable years.”5 He must have left after April 1607, because in that month he served in the army of the Frisian stadholder Ernst Casimir I (1573–1632). According to his son Richard ter Brugghen (1616–1710), who published a Notificatie (Notice) with a biographical sketch of his father in 1707, Ter Brugghen worked in Naples and Rome, where he is said to have met Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), who lived there until 1608. The veracity of these facts is difficult to determine. Richard’s Notice was a somewhat propagandist pamphlet intended to bring about a reevaluation of his father’s work.6 In his son’s eyes, Ter Brugghen’s reputation had suffered greatly from Joachim von Sandrart’s negative assessment of his work in his Teutschen Academy.7 Sandrart (1606–88) dedicated just a few lines to Ter Brugghen in which he hinted that he was not a great admirer of the artist. Sandrart appreciated the way Ter Brugghen followed “natuur” (nature), but qualified this by describing it as “unangenehm” (unpleasant), suggesting that this was related to Ter Brugghen’s “tiefsinnige, jedoch schwermütige Gedanken” (profound, but melancholy thoughts), a judgment that was later interpreted to mean that Ter Brugghen suffered from melancholia.
Ter Brugghen spent the summer of 1614 in Milan. After a few months, and in the company of three other Utrecht painters, he embarked on a journey along the Gotthard Pass, arriving in Utrecht at the end of the year. In 1616 he enrolled as a master painter in the Guild of Saint Luke in Utrecht and, presumably because he was now financially independent, married Jacomijna Verbeeck. The couple took up residence in the artist’s home on the Korte Lauwerstraat. Little work from Ter Brugghen’s early years is known; the first painting that can be attributed to him with certainty dates from 1619.8 There are also indications that he made a second journey to Rome, which would have been between the summer of 1619 and the summer of 1621.9 He appears regularly in the Utrecht archives from 1622 on.
Ter Brugghen’s early work shows the influence of Northern Italian masters such as Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639) and Carlo Saraceni (1579–1620), especially in his use of color and choice of subject. In these years Ter Brugghen painted exclusively history pieces. An entirely new phase in his career dawned when Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1595–1624) and Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656) returned from their Italian travels in 1620. The work of both these artists revived Ter Brugghen’s interest in the art of Caravaggio (1571–1610). In 1621 he painted his first genre pieces—The Flute and Fife Players—which were followed by numerous scenes with musicians.10 The Flute and Fife Players, as well as other works painted shortly after in 1621, are so indebted to Van Baburen that it is entirely possible that the two artists operated a joint workshop.11 Such an arrangement would not have been for long, however, because Van Baburen died in 1624.
Ter Brugghen seems to have achieved considerable success by 1626. Around that time he moved to the Snippevlucht, a narrow street along Utrecht’s Oude Gracht, near the town hall. He rented a large house from Johan Wtewael, a solicitor and burgomaster of Utrecht and brother of the painter Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638).12 The Snippevlucht was very close to the inn run by Ter Brugghen’s brother Jan, het Casteel van Antwerpen, one of the finest in Utrecht. It is therefore not strange that Rubens chose to stay at Jan’s inn when he spent a few days in Utrecht in the summer of 1627. Sandrart, who was Rubens’s guide in Utrecht, later explicitly reported visits by Rubens to Van Honthorst, Bloemaert, and Cornelis van Poelenburch (1594/1595–1667), but did not mention Ter Brugghen. According to Arnold Houbraken, who derived his information on Ter Brugghen from the above-mentioned pamphlet about the artist, Rubens is said to have declared that he “traveled throughout the Netherlands in search of a painter, and had found only one, going by the name of Henrik Ter Brugghen.”13 Whether Rubens really said this is impossible to determine, but the two artists do appear to have met. Ter Brugghen must have been one of the other Utrecht painters whom Rubens purportedly wished to visit.14
Regardless of Rubens’s opinion, Ter Brugghen did not suffer from a lack of appreciation in his own day. Between 1618 and 1625 the stadholder’s court commissioned him to paint a portrait of the Roman emperor Claudius, to be part of a series of Twelve Roman Emperors by various artists.15 This commission may have prompted the poet Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) to include Ter Brugghen in his summary of the greatest artists of the Dutch Republic.16 Yet Ter Brugghen’s excellent reputation is apparent in other ways as well. In the 1630s, Charles I of England (1600–49) owned a painting of his depicting a viola da gamba player, while his sister Elizabeth Stuart (1596–1662), the widow of the “Winter King,” Frederick V of the Palatinate (1596–1632), in all probability commissioned Ter Brugghen to paint a mantelpiece. The high regard in which he was held is also clear from the prices people were prepared to pay for his work. In 1644, for instance, the famous Delft collector Boudewijn de Man owned a painting of Bacchus valued at 280 guilders.17
Ter Brugghen died at the age of forty-two on 1 November 1629, probably as a result of a plague epidemic that was raging in Utrecht in that year. He was buried in the Buurkerk. He left behind his wife, who was expecting their eighth child—a daughter, Henrickgen, born in March 1630. In 1708 Cornelis de Bie (1627– ca. 1714) described Ter Brugghen as one of the “most celebrated and talked about painters of his time,” and today the artist is widely regarded as the most gifted of the Dutch Caravaggists.