If anybody deserves to be designated “the father of the Utrecht school,” it is Abraham Bloemaert (1566-1651). A wildly successful teacher, Bloemaert attracted scores of students and shop assistants, an astonishing 33 of whom we know by name. Renowned Utrecht masters such as Hendrick ter Brugghen, Gerard van Honthorst, Cornelis van Poelenburg, and Jan Both learned the fundamentals of their profession while under his tutelage. Moreover, Bloemaert was a well-respected and highly prolific artist in his own right. His extant oeuvre includes more than 200 paintings and 1700 drawings, and he provided models for over 600 prints. Yet, his stellar record of achievement notwithstanding, Bloemaert remains little known by the museum-going public. The Bloemaert Effect, produced to accompany a similarly titled exhibition held in Utrecht and Schwerin in 2011-12, was surely conceived with an eye to improving this unfortunate state of affairs.
The book begins with five brief, easily digestible essays examining aspects of the Utrecht painter’s life and oeuvre. An “Introduction” by Liesbeth Helmus offers capsule accounts of Bloemaert’s stylistic development, reception over the ages, and place in the history of art. Marten Jan Bok follows with a “Life of Abraham Bloemaert” summarizing and updating his extensively documented biography of the artist published in Marcel Roethlisberger’s 1993 monograph on the Bloemaert family. Ghislain Kieft discusses a painting that possibly represents Bloemaert in the process of teaching, Albert Elen focuses upon the role of drawings in Bloemaert’s working process, Gero Seelig surveys Bloemaert’s activity as a designer of prints, and Elizabeth Nogrady points out Bloemaert’s importance in the production and popularization in Utrecht of the “artistic series.”
Considering the book’s provocative subtitle, it is surprising that none of the essays deal specifically with Bloemaert’s handling of color and composition. Extended reflection on these matters would have been useful at this point, I think, especially to readers coming to Bloemaert for the first time and interested in gaining a better handle on the Utrecht master’s “artistic personality.” As they stand, however, the essays offer a useful introduction to Bloemaert’s art and life in an accessible format.
The Bloemaert Effect concludes with a catalogue treating 76 paintings, drawings, and prints executed or designed by the master. Rather than ordering them chronologically, the catalog groups the pictures according to their place within the hierarchy of artistic genres conceived by early modern art theorists. Beginning with sections devoted to religious altarpieces, other religious works, and mythologies, that is to say, history paintings, it moves on to treat the “lesser” categories of genre, landscape, and still life. Although this method of organization nicely highlights Bloemaert’s substantial thematic range, it might puzzle readers interested in getting a handle on Bloemaert’s artistic development. The catalogue entries themselves are notably user-friendly: brief, well-illustrated, minimally footnoted mini-essays seemingly designed to appeal to a public largely unfamiliar with the history of art. Scholars hungry for extensive data will revert to more academically focused publications on Bloemaert by Roethlisberger, Seelig, Nogrady, and others.
In her introduction, Helmus voices the intention of the authors to present Bloemaert as “an influential, internationally-oriented Utrecht artist with an oeuvre that … ranks among the greatest achievements of the Dutch school.” If The Bloemaert Effect falls a bit short of attaining that lofty goal, it succeeds in meeting another honorable objective: making an important but still grievously under-appreciated painter accessible to an expanded audience.
David A. Levine
Southern Connecticut State University