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Abra­ham Bloe­maert, Dutch, 1566-1651

Studies of Putti, c. 1590-1600 

This dynam­ic sheet fea­tures nude babies, or putti, that twist, turn, fly, and tum­ble in all direc­tions. It is the largest and most involved draw­ing of putti to sur­vive by Abra­ham Bloe­maert and was part of his ate­lier the­saurus, a model book of motifs he kept in his work­shop for later use. It served as source mate­r­i­al for the artist and his many stu­dents and assis­tants and remained in his stu­dio for about fifty years. Such putti appeared reg­u­lar­ly in Bloe­maert’s Ado­ra­tion and Annun­ci­a­tion scenes paint­ed for his Catholic patrons in Utrecht.

Con­ser­va­tion treat­ment to remove old back­ing paper revealed pre­vi­ous­ly unknown sketch­es. The two draw­ings of putti rest­ing on coats of arms are ini­tial designs for a title page in Bloe­maert’s Teken­boek (Draw­ing Book), a com­pi­la­tion of motifs for artists pub­lished in numer­ous edi­tions into the eigh­teenth century.

This exu­ber­ant out­pour­ing of putti is one of the most dynam­ic and enter­tain­ing draw­ings to come from the hand of Abra­ham Bloe­maert. The putti fly or fall in a joy­ous jum­ble with vary­ing degrees of con­cert­ed action, but gen­er­al­ly with­out any spe­cif­ic sense of direc­tion. Given the image’s cen­trifu­gal ener­gy and near­ly uni­form field of fig­ures, it makes sense that an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry auc­tion house cat­a­loguer once described this sheet as A ceil­ing with lit­tle chil­dren” (Een Pla­fond met Kindert­jes).1

One might indeed assume that it was a design for a Baroque-era trompe-l’oeil ceil­ing paint­ing filled with putti, though no such work by Bloe­maert is known to have exist­ed. He did occa­sion­al­ly exe­cute archi­tec­tur­al paint­ing com­mis­sions, but more like­ly this draw­ing was a study sheet of the type that he kept in the stu­dio as part of his ate­lier the­saurus, or model book for his and his pupils’ use. Bloe­maert even includ­ed a sec­tion on putti in his famous com­pendi­um for artists, the Teken­boek (Draw­ing Book). None of the twelve plates in that pub­li­ca­tion are as large or con­tain near­ly as many fig­ures as in the present sheet, though a few do adapt some of the poses seen here.2

Putti were an impor­tant motif for a Catholic artist like Bloe­maert. He fre­quent­ly includ­ed them in var­i­ous Ado­ra­tion and Annun­ci­a­tion scenes, and they appear as well in other sub­jects in both his paint­ings and print designs.3

As for his draw­ings, only a small hand­ful of his stud­ies of putti sur­vive, none so large or involved as this, and none with fig­ures that can be direct­ly relat­ed to those in his paint­ings.4

Nev­er­the­less, he still had plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties to deploy var­i­ous putti in his art­works through­out his career, both in his home­town of Utrecht, which still had a large Catholic pop­u­la­tion after the Protes­tant-led Dutch Revolt (1568 – 1648), and else­where in the coun­try. Many of his putti-filled paint­ings were made for the schuilk­erken, or clan­des­tine church­es for Catholic ser­vices (often based in pri­vate homes) that dot­ted Utrecht and other cities in the Nether­lands.5

One does not oth­er­wise often encounter a glory” of putti like this in Dutch art, though Rem­brandt’s famous etch­ing of the Annun­ci­a­tion to the Shep­herds from 1634 is a notable excep­tion.6

In prepa­ra­tion for the present exhi­bi­tion, con­ser­va­tor Grace White removed an old back­ing paper onto which this draw­ing had been mount­ed, reveal­ing some new, pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished sketch­es on the verso Fig. 2.1.

Abraham Bloemaert, Sketches on the verso of no. 2017.1.7
Fig. 2.1

Abra­ham Bloe­maert, Sketch­es on the verso of no. 2017.1.7 [detail], c. 1648 – 50. Pen and ink, black chalk, and brush in brown and gray inks.

The two sketch­es of putti with coats-of-arms appear to be ini­tial designs, or primi pen­sieri, of titlepages for Bloe­maert’s Teken­boek. The two putti hold­ing a coat-of-arms sur­round­ed by two cir­cles was used as a fron­tispiece for Part Six of the Teken­boek, which treats fig­ures and fig­ure groups (rather than the sec­tion treat­ing putti, which actu­al­ly appears as Part Five with a dif­fer­ent fron­tispiece) Fig. 2.2.7

Frederick Bloemaert Title-page for Part VI of the Tekenboek
Fig. 2.2

Fred­er­ick Bloe­maert, after Abra­ham Bloe­maert, Title-page for Part VI of the Teken­boek, c. 1650. Engrav­ing, 205 × 158 mm.

A relat­ed draw­ing appears in the so-called Cam­bridge Album, a col­lec­tion of draw­ings by either Abra­ham or his son Fred­er­ick, used as prepara­to­ry stud­ies for the engraved plates of the Teken­boek Fig. 2.3.8

Frederick Bloemaert, Preparatory for the title-page of Part VI of the Tekenboek
Fig. 2.3

Abra­ham or Fred­er­ick Bloe­maert, Prepara­to­ry for the title-page of Part VI of the Teken­boek (Cam­bridge Album no. 121), c. 1648 – 50. Pen and ink, and black and red chalk. Cam­bridge, Fitzwilliam Muse­um, inv. no. pd.166-1963.f.125.

In this inter­me­di­ate draw­ing, the design is fur­ther devel­oped and inscribed with the shield shape that was even­tu­al­ly pub­lished. The sin­gle fig­ure of a putto blow­ing a horn on the verso reap­pears in a more fin­ished draw­ing bear­ing the date 1650 in the Cam­bridge Album Fig. 2.4.9

Frederick Bloemaert, Unused title-page design
Fig. 2.4

Abra­ham or Fred­er­ick Bloe­maert, Unused title-page design, prob­a­bly for the Teken­boek (Cam­bridge Album no. 97), 1650. Pen and ink with wash­es. Cam­bridge, Fitzwilliam Muse­um, inv. no. pd.166-1963.f.101.

It remained unused in the Teken­boek, though it could have been an idea for a fron­tispiece design.

The coat-of-arms with the three blank shields con­sti­tutes the bla­zon of the Guild of St. Luke, the tra­di­tion­al painters’ guild. The sym­bol like­ly orig­i­nat­ed from the tra­di­tion of painters (schilders) dec­o­rat­ing medieval heraldic shields (schilden).10

Bloe­maert must have taken par­tic­u­lar pride in this emblem of the guild, since he was one of the found­ing mem­bers of Utrecht’s own Guild of St. Luke in 1611, and was its dean in 1618.11

Bloe­maert also drew a few other fron­tispiece designs using the guild’s coat-of-arms, obvi­ous­ly an impor­tant emblem for the famous painter and edu­ca­tor.12

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, these sketch­es demon­strate that this sheet remained in the artist’s pos­ses­sion over the greater course of his career, from the early 1590s when he drew the mas­ter­ful mass of putti on the recto and signed it, until the late 1640s, when prepa­ra­tions began for the pub­li­ca­tion of the Teken­boek. The verso seems to have been casu­al­ly used for the sketch­es, no doubt with the putti on the recto serv­ing as inspi­ra­tion for the sub­ject at hand, though no sin­gle putto seems to cor­re­spond exact­ly. The strong ver­ti­cal-run­ning cen­ter­fold is like­ly indica­tive of it being stored in an album dur­ing its time in the work­shop. Of the two other sketch­es on the verso, the one reclin­ing” putto in between the two coats-of-arms does appear to be by Bloe­maert’s hand. The other one (a fly­ing putto, not vis­i­ble in Fig. 2.1) is sim­ply traced through from a fig­ure on the recto, though with a few addi­tions, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to say whether this is the work of the mas­ter as well.

End Notes

  1. Sale, Van de Sch­ley & De Win­ter, Ams­ter­dam, 16 Sep­tem­ber 1760 (see under Prove­nance, above).

  2. For putti in the Teken­boek, see Bloe­maert 1740, pls. 107 – 18; Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok 1993, nos. T107 – T118.

  3. For remarks on Bloe­maert’s uses of putti gen­er­al­ly, see Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok 1993, vol. 1, 407, under no. T107.

  4. Bolten 2007, vol. 1, 342 – 45, vol. 2, 374 – 77, nos. 1060 – 72.

  5. For Bloe­maert’s com­mis­sions for the schuilk­erken, see Van Eck 2008, 19 – 49; and Nogrady 2009, 181 – 220.

  6. Bartsch, no. 44; and New Holl­stein (Rem­brandt), no. 125.

  7. Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok 1993, no. T119.

  8. Bolten 2007, no. 1270. For some rea­son, the final engraved design does not appear in the rare, early print­ings of the Teken­boek from circa 1650, though it does in the Viss­ch­er edi­tion from circa 1685; see Bolten 2007, vol. 1, 388, under no. 1270 for the list of edi­tions in which it appears. For the com­pli­cat­ed print­ing his­to­ry of the Teken­boek gen­er­al­ly, see Bolten 2017b, 50, 52 (note 7).

  9. Bolten 2007, no. 1246.

  10. For the coat-of-arms of the Guild of St. Luke (relat­ed to a set of designs made for the Haar­lem guild chap­ter in 1631), see Tav­erne 1972 – 73, 67 – 69.

  11. For Bloe­maert and the guild, see Roeth­lis­berg­er & Bok, vol. 1, 570, 581. Bloe­maert was removed from his posi­tion as dean in 1618 dur­ing the dra­mat­ic, wide­spread purge insti­tut­ed by the Prince of Orange of all civic posi­tions by any­one who did not pro­fess hard-line Calvin­ist (specif­i­cal­ly Coun­ter­Re­mon­strant) sym­pa­thies, which affect­ed a num­ber of Protes­tants in such roles, and cer­tain­ly all Catholics such as Bloe­maert. His son, Hen­drick, would later serve as dean of the guild in 1643, after reg­u­la­tions relaxed around hav­ing Catholics in such positions.

  12. See, for exam­ple, Bolten 2007, nos. 628 (c. 1648 – 50), 633 (dated 1647), and 1066.