AMAM Masterpiece Spotlight: Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene.
This work -one of the most important Northern Baroque paintings in the United States - is a strikingly sensitive vision of physical suffering. The third-century Saint Sebastian, shot with arrows by his fellow guardsmen for having converted to Christianity, was tended by the Roman widow Irene and her maidservant; none of the arrows had pierced a vital organ and they were able to bring him back to health. Here, left for dead, with his now gray, bloodless arm tied by a leather strap to a tree, he slumps forward as the women, fully absorbed in their work, tenderly begin to nurse him.
Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre, published the painting in 2006 in his book Only in America: One Hundred Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections. Having conducted a survey of curators and art historians, Oberlin’s painting was found to be cited more often than any other as meeting that extremely high standard-and, as a result, it is the book’s front cover image. The AMAM owes its purchase to the connoisseurship of the museum’s former director Charles Parkhurst, who first saw the work at a dealer in New York in the spring of 1953. After discussion with Oberlin art professor Wolfgang Stechow, he agreed to move forward on the purchase. The dealer was then in touch with Samuel Kress, for whom it had been reserved, to gain his approval. The painting might equally have gone when it was earlier in the hands of another dealer to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or to the museum in Utrecht. The Rijksmuseum, however, did not have available dollar funds while the Utrecht museum did not act quickly enough, due in part to a misdirected letter.