Abraham Bloemaert was born in Gorinchem on Christmas Eve 1566. His parents were Cornelis Bloemaert (ca. 1540–93), a Catholic sculptor who had fled nearby Dordrecht, and Aeltgen Willems.1 In 1567 the family moved to ’s-Hertogenbosch, where Cornelis worked on the restoration of the interior of the St. Janskerk, which had been badly damaged during the Iconoclastic Fury of 1566. Cornelis returned to Gorinchem around 1571, but not for long; in 1576 he was appointed city architect and engineer of Utrecht. Abraham’s mother had died some time earlier and his father had taken a second wife, Marigen Goortsdr, innkeeper of het Schilt van Bourgongen.
Abraham would have attended the Latin school in Utrecht. He received his initial art education from his father drawing copies of the work of the Antwerp master Frans Floris (1519/20–70). According to Van Mander, who describes Bloemaert’s work at length in his Schilder-boek, his subsequent training was fairly erratic.2 His first teacher was Gerrit Splinter, a “cladder,” or dauber, and a drunk. The young Bloemaert lasted barely two weeks with him.3 His father then sent him to Joos de Beer (active 1575–91), a former pupil of Floris. According to Van Mander, however, De Beer was “not the best of painters.”4 Bloemaert continued his training with Coenraet Strick, the bailiff of Hedel Castle, an entirely unknown painter who, as noted by Van Mander, “could but little paint.”5 The plan to apprentice him to the famous Anthonie Blocklandt van Montfoort (1534–83), another pupil of Floris, had to be abandoned because of the artist’s sudden death.6 His father then sent him to Paris, but here too he met with bad luck. After a six-week stay with “Jehan Bassot,” a certain “Maistre Herry” took him under his wing for eighteen months. Shortly thereafter Bloemaert joined the Paris studio of Hieronymus Francken (1540–1610), who had also studied under Floris,7 before returning to Utrecht around 1585, bitterly disappointed with his fragmented training.8
In Utrecht Bloemaert initially worked for his father, and when Cornelis was temporarily appointed master builder of Amsterdam, Abraham went with him.9 Though his father soon returned to Utrecht, Abraham remained in Amsterdam. He took rooms and a studio in the former Clarissenklooster, and in October 1591 was registered as a burgher of Amsterdam. On 1 May 1592 he married Judith van Schonenburch, who came from a prominent Utrecht patrician family.
In Amsterdam Bloemaert rapidly rose to become a respected painter whose work found its way into distinguished collections. Van Mander’s friend Jacques Razet owned several pictures by him, including three “large, circular tronies of Venus, Juno, and Pallas Athena.”10 The paintings were probably the same type as Bacchus and Ceres, painted on circular panels, which Bloemaert’s friend Aernout van Buchell (1565–1641) discovered in the possession of an Utrecht art lover in 1590. The latter two pictures have survived and were recently identified. Previously attributed to Floris, both are now considered to be Bloemaert’s earliest works.11 Another important collection was that of the Amsterdam banker Sion Luz, who owned Bloemaert’s celebrated Death of the Children of Niobe of 1591.12 This Mannerist painting clearly reflects the influence of Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611), court painter in Prague. Spranger’s work had become known in the Netherlands through Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617), who made engravings of his drawings and designs in Haarlem as of 1585. Bloemaert’s Marriage of Peleus and Thetis from around 1593 derived directly from Spranger’s famous Marriage of Amor and Psyche, of which Goltzius had made a print in 1587.13 When visiting friends in Haarlem and Amsterdam in 1602, Spranger may also have met Bloemaert.14
When Bloemaert’s father died at the end of 1593, Abraham returned to Utrecht and remained there until his death. Along with Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638) and Paulus Moreelse (1571–1638), Bloemaert was to become one of the leading Utrecht painters of his generation. His prominent position is reflected by the fact that less than six months after his return he was appointed dean of the Saddlers’ Guild.15 He received the status of burgher and moved with his family into a former priest’s house on the Nieuwe Gracht. His wife died there of the plague at the end of 1599. Bloemaert remarried within a year. His new wife, Gerarda de Roij, the daughter of a brewer, bore him fourteen children, including four sons—Hendrick, Adriaen, Frederick, and Cornelis—who all became painters.
Bloemaert was also a noted teacher; the names of thirty-three of his pupils are known today, but it is possible that between 1590 and 1650 dozens more aspiring artists could have found their way to his studio.16 In 1612, together with Moreelse, he founded an “academy” where artists could receive drawing lessons. His pupils included the acclaimed Caravaggisti Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629), Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656), and Jan van Bijlert (1597/98–1671). Cornelis van Poelenburch (1594/95–1667), Jan Both (ca. 1618–52), and Jan Baptist Weenix (1621–60/61), who became renowned painters of Italianate landscapes, also learned their trade from Bloemaert, as did his four artist sons.
With the exception of his son Hendrick (1601–72), not a single other pupil continued to work in Bloemaert’s style after training with him. Conversely, one pupil had a major influence on Bloemaert’s own work. After Van Honthorst returned from Italy in 1620, Bloemaert became briefly influenced by the dramatic Caravaggesque use of light and shade, as can be seen in his Supper at Emmaus from 1622.17 Flute Player, painted a year earlier—a subject he and ter Brugghen had previously introduced to Utrecht and which was greatly imitated—also displays a Caravaggesque influence.18
Although Bloemaert’s work was dominated by Mannerism for a long time, around 1610, again influenced by Goltzius, he developed his own style with distinct, classicizing features. This shift, incidentally, was already visible in earlier works such as Adoration of the Shepherds of 1604.19 In this painting, the Sprangerian poses have already given way to more naturalistic attitudes. And yet Bloemaert’s work would always retain Mannerist traits, as can clearly be seen in the 1624 Adoration of the Magi in which the group of soldiers in the background could also pass as a separate work by Spranger.20 More than two hundred paintings by Bloemaert are known today, the vast majority of which represent religious or mythological scenes. After 1600, however, he also painted the first of his characteristic landscapes with ruined, picturesque villages. The narrative, depicted on a small scale, played merely a supporting role in these paintings. Although Bloemaert’s style changed several times in the course of his long career, he always retained his distinct palette of rich colors, ranging from lemon yellow and bright blue to an acidic green and pink. He generally reserved light pastel tints for his landscapes.
Bloemaert’s reputation extended beyond Utrecht. In 1610, 1615 and 1622 he received painting commissions from the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch for the high altars of the Clarissenkerk, the cathedral, and the Jesuit church. Around 1624 he also painted a monumental altarpiece for the Jesuit church in Brussels.21 Thereafter, he was regularly commissioned to make devotional works for clandestine churches in towns in the provinces of both Holland and Utrecht.22 The stadholder’s court in The Hague also took note of his immense talent. Between 1618 and 1625 he painted a portrait of the Roman emperor Domitianus as part of a series of Twelve Roman Emperors that the court had ordered from a number of artists.23 A joint commission in which he also participated around 1635 was the Il Pastor Fido series for Honselaarsdijk Palace.24 He had previously painted independent works to decorate the same palace. In 1625 he had been asked to portray three episodes from the story of Theagenes and Chariclea, which he worked on until 1628.25 During this commission, in 1626, he was visited in his Utrecht studio by Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I of England and exiled Queen of Bohemia, who requested a portrait of her dog.26 Bloemaert’s considerable reputation is also illustrated by the fact that Rubens paid a visit to his studio the following year while on a diplomatic mission to the Northern Netherlands. Rubens took the opportunity to visit several cities for his own pleasure, including Utrecht.27 It is therefore hardly surprising that Constantijn Huygens, a great admirer of Rubens, included Bloemaert alongside Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) and Jan Lievens (1607–74) in his summary of the Dutch Republic’s most important painters.28
Bloemaert continued to paint steadily throughout the last twenty years of his life. His largest project during this long period, however, was the preparation of a teaching manual. His son Frederick printed a selection of his father’s countless drawings and published these in 1650 under the title Artes Apellae liber etc.29 Entitled De Teeken-const in later editions, this book immediately came to occupy an important position in drawing instruction, one it maintained until well into the nineteenth century. Bloemaert died at the age of eighty-six on 13 January 1651, and was buried in the Catharijnekerk in Utrecht next to his wife, who had died two years earlier.