First major survey exhibition ever organised of Abraham Bloemaert’s work opens

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First major survey exhibition ever organised of Abraham Bloemaert’s work opens
A woman stands in front of the painting 'The Adoration of the Shepherds' (1623) displayed at the exhibition 'The Bloemaert Effect Color in the Golden Age' at the State Museum in Schwerin, Germany. The exhibition is the first large-scale retrospective of Bloemaerts work and runs from 24 February to 28 March 2012. EPA/Jens Buettner.

SCHWERIN.- With fifty paintings and forty works on paper, The Bloemaert Effect, Colour and Composition in the Golden Age is the first major survey exhibition ever organised of Abraham Bloemaert’s work. Thanks to the stunning generosity of our lenders – museums, art dealers and private collectors in the Netherlands and around the globe – we can provide a comprehensive overview that does justice to Bloemaert’s versatility and to his technical mastery.

Like the exhibition, the catalogue is organised on the basis of the hierarchy of genres recognised by Karel van Mander and other art theorists of Bloemaert’s day. At the top is history painting. A distinction is made between religious paintings, with major altarpieces carrying the greatest prestige, and paintings with mythological themes. Just below that is a broad category known as genre painting, which includes allegories consisting of a single figure. The catalogue closes with landscapes, including some with religious or mythological subjects as staffage, as well as Bloemaert’s few known still lifes. Each section includes paintings, drawings and prints, and sometimes two or more works are presented together. Within each category, the main organising principle is chronology, but because Bloemaert regularly returns to the same themes, works produced in different years are sometimes combined under a single catalogue number.

When Peter Paul Rubens visited Utrecht in 1627 on a diplomatic mission, he met his fellow artist Abraham Bloemaert, who was eleven years older. During that visit, Rubens praised Bloemaert’s ‘sublime draughtsmanship’. And indeed, Bloemaert’s study sheets bespeak such pleasure, such consummate skill and such astonishing workmanship that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that drawing was his greatest passion. He also left a large and impressive body of painted work, in which – aside from his use of colour – he does not present himself to the viewer as a man of grand gestures and violent passions. His work is monumental, but also reserved, and his compositions are often most striking upon closer scrutiny. It is more than a coincidence that Mary Magdalene’s moving gesture in The Lamentation of Christ, pressing the hand of the dead Christ to her face, is positioned at the exact centre of the painting.

The Bloemaert Effect will go further towards correcting popular misconceptions about seventeenth-century Dutch painting and drawing. There is more to the story than the well known Dutch masters Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer, more than Jan Steen’s genre pieces and the many familiar views of the Dutch landscape. There is also Bloemaert, an influential, internationally-oriented Utrecht artist with an oeuvre that, in all its facets, ranks among the greatest achievements of the Dutch school.

According to Greek mythology, the beginning of life, its duration and the moment of death are decided by the Moirae, three god-like incarnations of destiny. Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis measures out the length, and Atropos ends it by cutting the thread with her scissors. In 1604, Karel van Mander wrote that Atropos had no power over Abraham Bloemaert, because Fama, the goddess of fame, would see to it that his name lived on eternally. The painter was then forty years old, and what van Mander could not have known is that Lachesis was also on Bloemaert’s side, for he died at eighty-four, a very advanced age, especially in those days.

The painter was born in Gorinchem in 1566. His father was the sculptor, architect and engineer Cornelis Bloemaert. Six months after Abraham’s birth, the family moved to Den Bosch. In 1571 they returned to Gorinchem, and in 1576 Abraham moved to Utrecht with his father. Bloemaert’s time as an apprentice was chaotic and unsatisfactory, as he later told van Mander. For a short while, he worked with several masters, including Gerrit Splinter and Joost de Beer. In the 1580s he travelled to Paris, where he studied, in consecutive order, with Iehan Bassot (possibly the same person as Jehan Cousin the Younger), Maistre Herry and Hieronymus Francken. Around 1585 he returned to Utrecht. In 1591 he was living in Amsterdam, and in 1593 he again returned to Utrecht, this time to stay. He was involved in the founding of the city’s Guild of Saint Luke in 1611, when Utrecht’s painters left the Saddlers’ Guild, and he became dean of the new guild in 1618. He was also one of the initiators of the Utrecht drawing academy in 1612. Bloemaert was married twice, first to Judith van Schonenburch in 1592 and then to Gerarda de Roij in 1600. It is reported that fourteen children were born of this second marriage. Abraham Bloemaert died in 1651 and was buried in Utrecht’s Catharijne -kerk.

Father of the Utrecht School of Painting
We do not know who first called Abraham Bloemaert the ‘father of the Utrecht school’, but the title is fitting. Thirty-three of his pupils are known by name, but more than one hundred artists are thought to have begun their careers in his studio. These include his own sons, Hendrick, Cornelis, Frederick and Adriaen. But the Caravaggisti Hendrick ter Brugghen, Jan van Bijlert and Gerard van Honthorst, the Italianate painters Andries and Jan Both, Cornelis van Poelenburch and Jan Baptist Weenix and the Leipzigborn Nicolaus Knüpfer also learned the essentials of their profession from Bloemaert. The sheer number of Bloemaert’s pupils and the many published prints after his drawings contributed to his wide-ranging influence on the painter’s and draughtsman’s arts. The idea of compiling a pattern book for training young artists may have come from Abraham Bloemaert himself, or from his son Frederick, who collaborated with his father on the project. Frederick engraved the plates after ‘inventions’ (designs) by his father and was the publisher of the first edition, which appeared around 1650. Numerous editions followed, with varying contents and sizes. The book was used by artists in the Netherlands and elsewhere until late in the nineteenth century. As van Mander predicted, Bloemaert’s name has lived on, and not just in Utrecht, but all over the world. In short, he is the embodiment of the Utrecht school of painting.

A Magnificent Painter and Masterful Draughtsman
The painted oeuvre of Abraham Bloemaert consists of more than 200 works. The estimated number of drawings is 1,700, and he provided the models for more than 600 prints. The bulk of his painted oeuvre is made up of history pieces, paintings with large figures depicting an episode from a story. These include biblical and other religious scenes, representations of themes from classical mythology and literature, and allegorical works. The greatest challenge was the ordinantie – the composition or arrangement of human figures. Since the fifteenth century, art theorists had regarded history painting as the apex of the hierarchy of painterly genres. For viewers to comprehend such a picture, they have to know the story. Although Bloemaert’s landscapes almost always include biblical or mythological staffage, they are not counted among his history paintings, because their primary subject is the natural setting – the staffage is secondary. Bloemaert’s oeuvre also includes genre pieces and studies of elderly people. According to van Mander, Bloemaert did not wish to trouble his mind with portrait painting. This genre, placed at the bottom of the ladder by theoreticians, is entirely absent from his oeuvre. Yet the dominance of history paintings in Bloemaert’s oeuvre ultimately damaged his reputation. The conventional wisdom in later times, particularly the nineteenth century, was that history painting was un-Dutch.This misunderstanding was corrected in 1980 by the exhibition Gods, Saints and Heroes, which refuted the idea that the Dutch masters of the Golden Age had focused exclusively on representing the world of their direct experience.

Bloemaert was a devout Roman Catholic. This explains why he was chosen to paint large, imposing altarpieces for clandestine Catholic churches in the Northern Netherlands and for churches in the south, which had remained Catholic. The most impressive of these pieces is The Adoration of the Magi from the Musée de Grenoble, originally intended for the high altar of the Jesuit church in Brussels, which is more than four metres high. The exceptionally large size of this painting is mirrored by the exceptional smallness of some others. Judith Showing the People the Head of Holofernes, from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, measures only 34.3 x 45.9 cm. Bloemaert’s patrons included not only church institutions, but also the court of the stadholder in The Hague, as well as Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, known as the Winter Queen. Bloemaert’s paintings attracted collectors’ interest from an early stage. Both Karel van Mander and the antiquarian Arnoldus Buchelius, two friends of the painter, mentioned seeing his work in the collections of connoisseurs around 1600.

Abraham Bloemaert’s paintings are diverse not only in size and subject matter, but also in style. This makes it difficult to categorise him. His early work thoroughly exemplifies the Mannerist style, which originated in Italy around 1525. Mannerist paintings are characterised by extreme idealisation. The true proportions of the human body give way to highly elongated forms, which are all the more striking for their long, slender limbs and small heads. These superhumans, with their abnormally twisted torsos and unnatural poses, inhabit mythological scenes that are often erotically charged. The palette emphasises pastel hues placed side by side to bring out contrasts between complementary colours; for instance, lemon yellow next to lilac next to pink and light blue.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, Mannerism swelled into an international movement. The major centres in the Northern Netherlands were Haarlem (home to Hendrick Goltzius and Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem) and Utrecht (with Joachim Wtewael and Abraham Bloemaert). The main European centres were considered to be the Fontainebleau School, to which Bloemaert must have been exposed during his time in France, and the court of Rudolf II in Prague (reigned 1576–1612). Bloemaert’s work seems particularly indebted to Bartholomeus Spranger (1546– 1611), who worked at the court in Prague. The most impressive painting produced by Bloemaert during his early career, partly in view of its large dimensions, is The Death of Niobe’s Children of 1591. The exhibition includes several magnificent examples of his early Mannerist work, including the Miracle of the Loaves of 1593, The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis of circa 1595, Joseph and His Brothers of 1595–1600, The Preaching of John the Baptist of circa 1600 and Moses Striking the Rock of 1596, as well as a much later Mannerist painting, the Mary Magdalene of 1619.

Utrecht remained entirely uninvolved in the emergence around 1610 of the distinctively Dutch schools of painting that would dominate the country’s Golden Age. This is when many Dutch painters seem to have begun painting ‘reality’ – that is, their own environment and the everyday objects around them. In contrast, Utrecht had strong, longstanding ties with Rome. This Italian orientation led the new generation of Utrecht painters, most of whom had studied with Abraham Bloemaert, to journey south over the Alps. In Italy, they were galvanised by the revolutionary work of Caravaggio (1571–1610), and after returning to the Dutch Republic, they introduced their teacher to this new style. A small number of works painted by Bloemaert around 1621–1622 depart from his earlier oeuvre in their strong light-dark contrasts, one of the stylistic marks of Caravaggio and his followers. The Flute Player of 1621 is the best example of this category in the exhibition. The isolated half-figure of a musician, originally an Italian theme, emerged as a subject in Utrecht painting in the early 1620s. The Flute Player is the earliest painting in Bloemaert’s oeuvre with a single half-figure filling nearly the entire picture. In the 1620s, Bloemaert’s style evolved in the direction of Classicism, but without entirely relinquishing its Mannerist elements. In his introduction to the catalogue Dutch Classicism in Seventeenth-Century Painting, Albert Blankert correctly noted that a painting like The Adoration of the Magi of 1624, although Classicist in its composition and use of monumental figures, shows all sorts of Mannerist features. Spranger’s influence is unmistakable in the group of soldiers in the background and the unruly curls of the eldest king in the foreground. For this reason, Bloemaert was not included in the exhibition of Dutch Classicists in Rotterdam and Frankfurt in 1999–2000.15 Other examples include the Crucifixion of Christ of 1629, The Lamentation of Christ of circa 1625 and the two paintings of episodes from the story of Theagenes and Chariclea. It was not until the 1640s that Bloemaert embraced realism – for instance, in his studies of elderly men and women.

Bloemaert’s drawn oeuvre includes a large number of figure studies, preliminary drawings for paintings and for prints (cat. nos. 25 and 56), and drawings from nature. Sketchbook in hand, he would venture into the countryside to draw farms and other structures near Utrecht. This was an entirely novel working method, discovered around the same time by artists in other cities. Several of these drawings were later used as models for paintings. Van Mander saw them: the landscapes dotted with farms and animals, the sunny or overcast skies that Bloemaert painted over them and the narrative events, usually tales of travellers, that he added to his scenes.

Bloemaert collaborated with the most talented engravers of his day: Jan Saenredam (1565–1607), Jacob de Gheyn II (c. 1565–1631), Jan Harmensz. Muller (1571–1628) and Jacob Matham (1571–1631). Their engravings after his designs are phenomenally sharp and beautiful.

Even though the life and work of Abraham Bloemaert have been a topic of academic research for eighty-five years, and his oeuvre has been charted almost completely, his name is still not very familiar to the general public. His best known contemporaries are Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals. In the exhibition Nieuw Licht op de Gouden Eeuw: Hendrick ter Brugghen en tijd -genoten (‘New Light on the Golden Age: Hendrick ter Brugghen and Contemporaries’) in 1986–1987, Albert Blankert and Leonard Slatkes tried to make a major adjustment to this established public image. Specifically, their objective was to add ter Brugghen to the canon of the three Dutch masters. In the early decades of the seventeenth century, Utrecht was a hotbed of artistic activity, where all sorts of new styles and themes were being pioneered. Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals were influenced by the work of the Utrecht masters.

In the exhibition Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age (San Francisco/Baltimore/London) in 1997–1998, museumgoers overseas had their first encounter with this surprising and unparalleled internationally-oriented school of painting. The reviews in the British press spoke volumes: ‘This exhibition will be sure to change the perceptions of Dutch art for many British visitors’ and ‘It is as spectacular as unexpected’. In the United States, where the leading Utrecht masters of the early seventeenth century had been studied and collected since the Second World War, the Utrecht painters were described as ‘A Radiant Exception’: ‘These paintings are worth traveling a long distance to see’ (The New York Times).18Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerard van Honthorst were represented in this exhibition, with fourteen and eight paintings respectively. Nine paintings by Bloemaert’s associate and close contemporary Joachim Wtewael were exhibited, along with nine of Bloemaert’s own paintings, including six from American collections.

Less than half of Bloemaert’s paintings (about 90) are now in public collections. The Netherlands is in the lead, with 35. Germany, with 30, takes second place, and American museums come in third, thanks to a number of major purchases in recent decades, bringing the total to 24 pieces. The Centraal Museum has 14 paintings executed by Bloemaert himself, the world’s largest collection. The earliest acquisitions were purchases made in 1918 and the most recent one was in 1987. It is hardly surprising that Utrecht’s museum has the largest collection, considering all the effort invested, from the moment the museum was founded, in collecting the finest works of the Utrecht painters. In the early years, this policy could be pursued quite successfully, because there was little or no competition on the art market.

Bloemaert is represented in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam by three paintings, purchased in 1902, 1949 and 1950. The Mauritshuis in The Hague also has three, two of which come from the collections of Stadholder Frederik Hendrik and Prince William V (cat. no. 50). Only the Feast of the Gods was a deliberate purchase, made in 1973. Two paintings in Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, the Christmas Angel and the superb Crucifixion (cat. no. 9), came to that museum from the art collection of the Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands. In 2010 the Catharijneconvent purchased The Four Church Fathers at an auction in London. The iconography of this work made it an especially fitting addition to the museum’s collection.19 The Lamentation of Christ in Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, the only painting in that museum’s collection executed by Bloemaert himself, was a gift from the Friends of the Museum in 1937.

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