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Abra­ham Bloe­maert (Gor­inchem 1566 – 1651 Utrecht) 

Studies of Hands and Legs from a Sketchbook (Recto: Studies of Hands; Verso: Studies of Hands and Legs), c. 1595 – 1605 

A lead­ing artist and famous teacher of draw­ing, Abra­ham Bloe­maert co-estab­lished a draw­ing acad­e­my in Utrecht around 1612 where stu­dents learned to sketch from live mod­els. Bloe­maert trained over 100 artists over the course of his career, and with his pub­li­ca­tions, he influ­enced gen­er­a­tions of artists. This dou­ble-sided sheet of hands and legs belonged to a larg­er group of draw­ings fea­tur­ing care­ful­ly arranged motifs that were later engraved. Meant for Bloe­maert’s Teken­boek (Draw­ing Book), the designs served as source mate­r­i­al for artists as well as amateurs. 

Four of the motifs on this sheet were includ­ed in the Teken­boek—one of the hands hold­ing a staff; the hand hold­ing a cloth; the hand with the out­stretched fin­gers; and the fold­ed hands on the reverse.

Abra­ham Bloe­maert had one of the longest careers of any Dutch painter in his era and was famed as a teacher of draw­ing. Along with Paulus Moreelse (1571 – 1638), he estab­lished a draw­ing acad­e­my in Utrecht around 1612, one of the first of its kind, in which groups of stu­dents could learn to draw from live mod­els under the mas­ters’ watch­ful eyes. It is esti­mat­ed that Bloe­maert had over 100 stu­dents, includ­ing his four sons who all con­tin­ued in the pro­fes­sion.1 Unsur­pris­ing­ly, given the length of his career, his com­mit­ment to draw­ing, and the didac­tic side of his pro­fes­sion, Bloe­maert left behind an unusu­al­ly large body of draw­ings, today num­ber­ing over 1700 doc­u­ment­ed works.2

This dou­ble-sided sheet comes from the so-called Giroux Album, a loose group of 136 draw­ings of var­i­ous sizes and sub­jects that once belonged to the French land­scape painter André Giroux (1801 – 1879).3 The major­i­ty of the sheets, like this one, con­sist­ed of agglom­er­ates of stud­ies of hands, limbs, fig­ures, or ani­mals, extracts of which were later engraved by Abraham’s son, Fred­er­ick (1614/17 – 1690). The prints appeared as part of Bloemaert’s famous Teken­boek (‘Draw­ing Book’), a large col­lec­tion of such motifs intend­ed for artists and ama­teurs which remained pop­u­lar well into the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry.4 It was not a man­u­al or trea­tise, per se, since no text accom­pa­nied the plates, but rather a visu­al com­pendi­um of Bloemaert’s stud­ies. The indi­vid­ual motifs on each sheet found through­out the now-dis­persed Giroux album were rearranged before pub­li­ca­tion, and not all of them were used.5 Fred­er­ick must have worked close­ly with his father around 1648 – 50 (when Abra­ham was in his early 80s) to final­ly real­ize the pub­li­ca­tion, which seems to have been issued ini­tial­ly in loose sets of prints around 1650 before later appear­ing in bound form. Four of the var­i­ous motifs found on the present sheet ulti­mate­ly found their way into the pub­li­ca­tion, in reversed form on the engraved plates: one of the hands hold­ing a staff at the top of the recto; the hand below them squeez­ing a cloth; the hand with out­stretched fin­gers in the lower right; and, on the verso, the pair of fold­ed hands at the bot­tom of the sheet Fig. 1, Fig. 2, Fig. 3.6

Frederick Bloemaert, Hands
Fig. 1

Fred­er­ick Bloe­maert, Hands (plate 53 of the Teken­boek, 1740 edi­tion), c. 1650. Engrav­ing, 215 × 173 mm. Lon­don, British Muse­um, inv. no. l,83.1.

Chart­ing the jour­ney of these stud­ies from their cre­ation to their ulti­mate appear­ance in print remains a some­what con­jec­tur­al exer­cise, begin­ning with the dif­fi­cul­ty of dat­ing draw­ings like this one.7 Mar­cel Roeth­lis­berg­er sug­gest­ed a two-decade range in the 1620s and 1630s for most of the Giroux album’s con­tents.8 For the Peck draw­ing, how­ev­er, Jaap Bolten posit­ed a much ear­li­er cre­ation in the years c. 1595 – 1605, which would make it one of the ear­li­est of Bloe­maert’s study sheets to sur­vive.9 His assess­ment was due to the sheet’s clear (and appeal­ing) Man­ner­ist style, with the ele­gant­ly elon­gat­ed fin­gers and tense­ly spread hands that one finds through­out Bloe­maert’s early oeu­vre. Fur­ther­more, one of the out­stretched hands (in the lower right on the verso) recurs in that of a shep­herd in a paint­ing of the Ado­ra­tion of the Shep­herds by Bloe­maert dat­a­ble to c. 1602 – 09.10

Frederick Bloemaert, Heads and Hands
Fig. 2

Fred­er­ick Bloe­maert, Heads and Hands (plate 19 of the Teken­boek, 1740 edi­tion), c. 1650. Engrav­ing, 215 × 172 mm. Lon­don, British Muse­um, inv. no. l,83.33.

There is no rea­son to sup­pose that the draw­ings in the Giroux Album were nec­es­sar­i­ly all made around the same time. These draw­ings col­lec­tive­ly seemed to have served as an ate­lier the­saurus, a slow­ly built-up col­lec­tion of motifs made for repeat­ed, long-term use by artists and assis­tants in the stu­dio that aided in the inven­tion or exe­cu­tion of com­po­si­tions.11 What is strik­ing about this and other such draw­ings by Bloe­maert is their care­ful­ly fin­ished nature, with the motifs attrac­tive­ly worked up with white high­lights, and a mise-en-page that sug­gests a dili­gent­ly planned arrange­ment. The term sketch­book as applied here may indeed be a mis­nomer, espe­cial­ly since motifs like these were not nec­es­sar­i­ly drawn from life. Stijn Alsteens point­ed out that such attrac­tive­ly fin­ished sketch­es would have appealed to early col­lec­tors (as they do to us today) pure­ly for the beau­ty of their drafts­man­ship.12 Most of these draw­ings nev­er­the­less appear to have remained in the stu­dio, at least until the end of Abra­ham’s career and the prepa­ra­tion of his Teken­boek.

Frederick Bloemaert, Hands and Feet
Fig. 3

Fred­er­ick Bloe­maert, Hands and Feet (plate 55 of the Teken­boek, 1740 edi­tion), c. 1650. Engrav­ing, 210 × 170 mm. Lon­don, British Muse­um, inv. no. l,83.25.

It has long been hypoth­e­sized that the orig­i­nal sequence of draw­ings in the Giroux Album reflects an ear­li­er but failed attempt to pub­lish the con­tents of Bloe­maert’s ate­lier the­saurus in print­ed form.13 If so, what foiled this first attempt remains unknown, but the num­ber­ing of these sheets in their upper-right­hand cor­ners by an appar­ent­ly early hand (10 and 11 in this case) might just as eas­i­ly reflect a posthu­mous order­ing by a fam­i­ly mem­ber or early col­lec­tor, rather than an ini­tial cull for poten­tial pub­li­ca­tion. The rea­son for their com­plete rearrange­ment in prepa­ra­tion for their appear­ance in the Teken­boek around 1650 appears to have been a desire to impose a bet­ter sense of order by group­ing the motifs more the­mat­i­cal­ly.14 It is notable that the Man­ner­ist style of this sheet was clear­ly curbed for the final pub­li­ca­tion, in which the fin­gers do not stretch quite so taut­ly or lan­guorous­ly. Such a style would have seemed retar­dataire by the mid-sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er attrac­tive it remains for us today.

End Notes

  1. For an overview of Bloe­maert’s life and art, see espe­cial­ly Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok 1993, vol. 1, 15 – 40, and 551 – 587; and for his draw­ing acad­e­my and pupils specif­i­cal­ly, idem, 571 – 575.

  2. Cat­a­logued in Bolten 2007; with sup­ple­ment, Bolten 2017a.

  3. For the Giroux Album, see Bolten 1993, 3 – 4; Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok 1993, vol. 1, 392; Bolten 2007, vol. 1, 361 – 362; and Bolten 2017a, 114 – 115.

  4. Bolten 1985, 253 – 256; Bolten 1993, Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok, 1993, vol. 1, 389 – 394; Nogrady 2009, 226 – 231; and Bolten 2017b. Early edi­tions of the Teken­boek are extreme­ly rare, with only a few exam­ples from the 17th cen­tu­ry still extant, prob­a­bly more due to use than lack of pop­u­lar­i­ty. It is best known and stud­ied today through the 1740 Ottens edi­tion (see Bloe­maert 1740).

  5. The final arrange­ment can be found in the set of draw­ings that com­prise the still-intact Cam­bridge Album; see Bolten 1993; Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok 1993, vol. 1, 390 – 391; and Bolten 2007, vol. 1, 362, and cat­a­logue nos. 1137 – 1313. The author­ship of the Cam­bridge Album draw­ings has been var­i­ous­ly assigned to either Fred­er­ick or Abra­ham himself.

  6. These appeared as plates 7, 32, and 24 in early edi­tions; and in the 1740 Ottens edi­tion as plates 53, 19, and 55. For the relat­ed draw­ings in the Cam­bridge Album, see Bolten 2007, nos. 1156, 1181, and 1173. For the prints, see Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok 1993, nos. T53, T19, and T55.

  7. Bolten 2007, vol. 1, 5 – 6.

  8. See the dis­cus­sion in Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok 1993, vol. 1, 389 – 392.

  9. Bolten 2007, vol. 1, 351, nos. 1095 – 1096.

  10. Berlin, Staatliche Museen, inv. no. 745; Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok 1993, no. 66; Utrecht & Schw­erin 2011 – 12, no. 21. This draw­ing’s cor­re­spon­dence with the paint­ing was first spot­ted by Bolten (see Bolten 2007, vol. 1, 351, no. 1095) though repeat­ing the date of the paint­ing found in ear­li­er lit­er­a­ture as 1604. Roeth­lis­berg­er point­ed out that the last digit is illeg­i­ble, but says that it could only be a 2, 3, 5, 8, or 9. The date of the paint­ing does not nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­vide a reli­able ter­mi­nus ante quem for the draw­ing, but a date in the same peri­od does seem a rea­son­able supposition.

  11. Bolten 2007, vol. 1, 361.

  12. S. Alsteens in New York 2009, 97, no. 45. For an oppos­ing view, see A. Elen in Utrecht & Schw­erin 2011 – 12, 38 (note 4).

  13. See the ref­er­ences on the Giroux Album as in note 3, above. Bolten recent­ly reaf­firmed this hypoth­e­sis in Bolten 2017b, 114 – 115, cit­ing his forth­com­ing intro­duc­tion to a fac­sim­i­le edi­tion of Bloe­maert’s Teken­boek.

  14. See the ref­er­ences for the Cam­bridge Album in note 5 above.