National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 7 (IV:1), 1966

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Notes on Two Drawings by Abraham Bloemaert

by Pamela Osler
Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings

Résumé en français

Page  2 

The National Gallery has recently acquired a drawing by Abraham Bloemaert (1564-1651), the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (Fig. 3). It is signed and dated A Bloemaert fe 1597, paper with a watermark which seems to be that of a wreathed crown surmounting an inscription. The drawing, which was formerly in the collection of Dr Victor Bloch of London, (1) is handled with an elegance and dexterity that mark Bloemaert's very personal early manner and which of itself affirms the authenticity of the signature and date. The style, which is to be found in many drawings by other artists of the late sixteenth century, is typical of Late Mannerism in Netherlandish art, of which Bloemaert was the chief exponent in Utrecht where he lived for most of his life.

As far as is known Bloemaert never went to Italy but he was no doubt susceptible, particularly as a young man, to the widespread influences of Italian Mannerism. He was probably familiar with the mannerist drawings and engravings of Goltzius and Cornelis Cornelisz. of Haarlem who popularized the Italianized Flemish style of Bartolomeus Spranger. Certainly, if he was not aware of the work of these artists in his earliest years, he must have been while residing in Amsterdam from 1591 to 1593. There the pre-dominating influence was that of the Haarlem Academy which Goltzius and Cornelisz. helped to establish.

Before living in Amsterdam, Bloemaert spent some time in the studio of Hieronymous Franken when he was in Paris from 1580 until 1583. There he must have known the work of the School of Fontainebleau, as certain features of the Ottawa sheet suggest. The figures of the Virgin, St Catherine and St Agnes exhibit the languid grace and capricious elongation of form so much in evidence in the work of Primaticcio and Niccolo dell'Abbate, whose styles derive ultimately from Parmigianino and the Roman School of Mannerists. The densely grouped figures, barely contained within the spatial limits of the drawing, and the arbitrary and decorative use of light are also typical of Mannerism. At the same time the lively treatment of space and light foreshadows the Baroque, particularly in the playful putti swirling above the head of the Virgin.

Although Bloemaert's mannerist style owes a great deal to the influences of Italy it is also dependent upon northern traditions. The flickering line and the elegant refinement of the figures in the Ottawa drawing bring to mind the courtly aesthetic of Late Gothic. This aristocratic atmosphere in Bloemaert's work was at times expressive of an inner mysticism often found in northern art. A mystical feeling is particularly evident in the drawing Christ and the Adulteress (Fig. 2), signed and dated 1595, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In the New York sheet, this ecstatic mood is introduced by the imaginative treatment of elongated figures and by the strained and nervous poses of the hands and small heads. It is these characteristics that were further developed by Jacques Bellange (Fig. 1), whose style is the very quintessence of Mannerism.

Bloemaert's earlier work from about 1591 to about 1610, of which the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine is characteristic, was replaced later by a naturalism and realism more native to the Low Countries than to Italy as may be seen in another drawing, a Sheet of Studies (Fig. 4), also in Ottawa. Traces of his later characteristics are already latent in the earlier drawing, which has a hint of a more intimate domesticity in the figure of the angel who leans over the shoulder of the Virgin to peer with interest at the small, uncomfortable - looking Child in its Mother's lap. The mannered treatment in this drawing gives way to a more objective sensitivity in the handling of line in the two studies of a female head which, in its detailed realism and charming naturalness, suggests a portrait study.

Karel van Mander, who was a member with Goltzius and Cornelisz. of the Haarlem Academy, 'describes drawing and painting from life as a "side road or by way" of the arts'. (2) Bloemaert, like many Dutch artists at the turn of the century, is seen to follow sometimes in the path of imagination and sometimes in the path of realism. Van Mander also tells us, however, that 'Bloemaert never made portraits from life because he did not want to hinder his imagination by doing so'. (3) If this remark is true, the studies of the female head are a deceptive fusion of what is imagined creatively with what is observed.

In this connection it has been suggested that the ideas of the Italian Mannerist Federlgo Zuccaro, who spent some time in the Netherlands, may have influenced Dutch art of the early seventeenth century. He believed that 'the true artist should create a new, natural world through the imagination, and that he should make new representations in the spirit of other masters. He ought to do this so well that even connoisseurs would be deceived by his creative imitations'. (4) Regarded in this light, Bloemaert's change in style as seen in the two Ottawa drawings is no more than a shift in emphasis, from a highly imaginative and often over-wrought mannerist 'short-hand' to a more homely manner that delights in detailed observation creatively treated.

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