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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Abraham Bloemaert

The Four Evangelists, 1615, Abraham Bloemaert
(The figure in the upper right corner is an angel.)
As an undergraduate at Ohio University, required reading in one of my courses was Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. Although I had long been an avid "futurist," I was also an art major. I didn't immediately see the relevancy of the book to my course of study. However, since the future in 1970 is now largely the past in 2016, I now think of Toffler's book as second only to the Bible as the most important book I ever read. In a nutshell, the book accentuated not so much the changes coming in the future but the ever-increasing pace of change. The book dealt not so much with technological but more with social change, the former very often leading to the latter. A major premise invoked was that people were very adaptable to change so long as it occurred at a modest pace, but that as change accelerates (as it has since 1970), or is held back by political blocs (as in the 1850s), until it does, inevitably, occur, it comes with a jolt. The American Civil War is an example. Blood is shed, people die. In the past, those who could not adapt simply died of old age before their mindset reached a critical mass. Today, that's not the case. Advancements in science and medicine not only allow them to live though numerous bouts with death, but to thrive physically (not to mention driving up the costs of healthcare). In the meantime, they also VOTE. Moreover they often vote in an attempt to, not just block the all-too-rapid changes they see as threatening to themselves and the country, but to undo changes in the recent past. They can't (or won't) adapt rapidly enough. To put it bluntly, we, myself included, are living too long.
None of these are self-portraits.
The 1609 painting is by Paulus Moreelse.
The Netherlandish painter, Abraham Bloemaert was born in 1566, during what we've come to call the Mannerist period in art. Obviously he didn't start painting while still in the cradle, so most of his painting career fell in the very earliest years of what we now call the Dutch "Golden Age." In fact one might say he helped bring it about. Abraham Bloemaert died in 1651 at the age of eighty-five (a very rare achievement at that time). Of course, the pace of change then was not what it is now. But wait. During the course of Bloemaert's exceptionally long life, he lived through the Eighty Years' War of the Netherlands against the Spanish occupation. The northern provinces of the Netherlands switched to Protestantism. Bloemaert, being Catholic, chose to remained so. Bloemaert during his lifetime created some 200 paintings, 1700 drawings and 600 prints. His paintings are mostly history paintings, often with biblical subjects. Most of his paintings were made for Catholic institutions: legitimate churches in the south, but clandestine ones in the north. Bloemaert, it would seem, could be held up as a model of a man who spent his entire life coping with a changing world (and sometimes jolting changes), not just in terms of his country, religion, and social status, but his art as well.

Niobe mourning her children, 1591, Abraham Bloemaert
(an early Mannerist work).
Bloemaert was born in Gorinchem (southern), Habsburg Netherlands, the son of an architect/sculptor, who moved his family to Utrecht in 1575. His son's artistic training was somewhat "hit and miss." He worked under six different masters. For one he was also a houseboy. He absorbed the Mannerism of the School of Fontainebleau (second-hand Italian Mannerism), which stayed with him for life. Except for a short period in Amsterdam, he lived in Utrecht, where he became so important that Peter Paul Rubens paid him a visit in 1627. Around 1600, landscape painting became increasingly vital to his art, although over time, his subject matter became increasingly incidental--all but unnoticeable. Bloemaert's landscapes incorporated Mannerism's restless light effects and strong contrasts. And in Bloemaert's case, they also included a richly colored palette, with lots of movement and detail. His The Four Evangelists (top) is a prime example. (The ox, and angel, along with the nearly hidden eagle, and lion, are symbols associated with each apostle.) The brilliant ultramarine (lapis lazuli) pigments in St. Luke's robe must have cost a small fortune at the time.

Disciples At Emmaus, 1622, Abraham Bloemaert
As much as the social and political climate in the Netherlands changed during Bloemaert's lifetime, such was his importance as an artists that he found himself presiding over the equally radical Caravaggisti invasion from the south which, while not as destructive as the long religious war he endured, was no less jarring to the staid Mannerist sensibilities with which he'd known in his youth. In the 1620s Bloemaert's pupil, Gerrit van Honthorst, brought Caravaggio's style back to Utrecht from his studies in Italy. Bloemaert adapted. He developed a decorative synthesis of Caravaggio's contrasting light effects along side his bright, acid, Mannerist colors. His 1622 Disciples at Emmaus (above) is heavily laden with Caravaggio elements of light, detail, and composition.
Venus and Adonis, 1632, Abraham Bloemaert
As seen above, Bloemaert also adapted to the new content and fresh ideas from the south, turning out mythological and religious subjects that were radically new to Dutch art. With fourteen children to support as the result of two marriages, Bloemaert had to be exceptionally prolific. He designed tapestries, stained-glass windows, and made between 1,500 and 1,700 drawings, while at the same time, in 1611, co-founding Utrecht's Guild of Saint Luke. Bloemaert was so widely influential through his engravings, he came to teach an entire generation of Utrecht's best artists, including Hendrick Ter Brugghen and Cornelis van Poelenburgh, many of them important names in the evolving Dutch "Golden Age."

Shepherd Boy pointing at Tobias and the Angel,
ca. 1625-1630, Abraham Bloemaert
Two Boys Singing from a Sheet
of Paper, 1625, Abraham Bloemaert


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