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A rare look at an Old Master

St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Art is exhibiting what appears to be a first: the works of a 16th century Dutch master who is just now getting his own show.

By MARY ANN MARGER, Times Art Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Some art exhibits add to the body of scholarship; others give pleasure to the layperson. And some, such as the Abraham Bloemaert show now at the Museum of Fine Arts, do both.

By the numbers, this is a small show: just 18 paintings and another 40 or so graphics. But whoever equates quality with quantity? Here are canvases resplendent with the lore of long ago, yielding pleasure and imparting knowledge.

You haven't heard of Bloemaert? No surprise; he is little known in the United States. So far as anyone at the Museum of Fine Arts can determine, this is the first show of his paintings anywhere. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented his graphics at the time it acquired Moses Striking the Rock, which is on loan for this show.

About 230 of Bloemaert's paintings and more than 600 engravings are known to exist today. Only 14 paintings are in American public institutions, including one at the Museum of Fine Arts. When the museum realized that a board member also owned one, the impetus for the show was born.

Thus the museum's Christ and the Samaritan Woman and Dr. Gordon and Adele Gilbert's Cain Slaying Abel are displayed beside works from across the nation and from abroad.

Abraham Bloemaert (BLOO-mart) was born in Holland in 1566, two years after the death of Michelangelo and 40 years before the birth of Rembrandt. A founder of the Utrecht School, he was considered one of the most renowned Dutch painters. He enjoyed an affluent lifestyle and saw both his students and four sons go on to become artists in their own right.

The Netherlands of Bloemaert's time was the most prosperous nation in Europe. Throughout the continent commerce was growing and scientific discoveries were shaking up people's beliefs. Elsewhere, new lands were being colonized.

Bloemaert's practice of Catholicism, in a land predominantly Protestant, affected his work. The southern Netherlands, including Flanders, had remained Catholic, but the northern country, including Utrecht, where he lived, became the Protestant Dutch Republic.

No longer dependent on the church for patronage, many artists turned to commissions from a rising middle class as well as the aristocracy. Genre painting -- everyday scenes and subjects -- became popular.

This was the era of the Old Masters, the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. Styles, influenced by artists who studied in Italy, changed from the linear, static works of the Renaissance to the painterly, dynamic works of Baroque.

Utrecht, though, remained a center for Catholicism in the northern Netherlands, even after its practice was forbidden there after 1580. Those who continued in the faith had to hold Mass privately. Bloemaert nevertheless was able to execute commissions for large altarpieces in both the northern and southern Netherlands. Many of his engravings were produced for Catholic clientele.

Dutch Old Masters are known for finding a narrow range of expression and staying with it; Bloemaert was the exception in both subject and evolution of style. His themes include the secular, mythological and religious.

Two terms are used to describe his style: mannerism and, after 1610, classicism. Both existed during the era broadly termed as baroque.

In mannerism, figurative proportions are gracefully exaggerated for the sake of a more elegant composition. Skin color also takes on an unrealistic tone. And though not for the sake of aesthetics, violent acts, as in Cain Slaying Abel, were popular among the mannerists. In Landscape with Vertumnus and Pomona, circa 1600, the couples' arms pull away from each other while a bare tree trunk curves gracefully behind them. Gourds, in keeping with their role of protecting gardens and ripening fruit, form a decorative, monochromatic motif in the foreground.

Classicism is more straightforward and realistic than the ornate, dramatic expression associated with baroque. Works on view include Angelica and Medoro (1630), from an ancient legend, and the rustic, romantic Farmhouse Landscape (1620).

Symbolism, richly evident throughout the Renaissance and baroque periods, appears in The Four Evangelists, the largest work in the show. Each figure is depicted with his attribute: Matthew, a man (often with wings, as depicted here); Mark, a lion; Luke, an ox; and John, an eagle. The painter's palette at St. Luke's feet reminds us that he is the patron saint of artists.

After 1620, Bloemaert's works show the influence of Caravaggio, the Italian master of chiaroscuro (contrast of light and shadow), evident in the dramatic lighting of Boy with the Rumbling Pot. The extent of Italian influence also appears in landscapes with distant mountains, unknown in his flat homeland claimed from the sea.

Unlike his contemporary in Antwerp, Peter Paul Rubens, Bloemaert did not use assistants to finish works from his design. But he did employ a master printer to execute his many engravings, in a tradition continuing today. Thus people throughout the Europe of his time were able to see his work. Often artists would copy his engravings into paintings.

He died in 1651 after a long and prolific career.

The museum has organized shows of lesser-known artists and groups before. Some, such as Jimmy Ernst (1998) and Stephen Scott Young (1993), generate broad popular appeal. Others, such as Gari Melchers (1990) and Croatian naive (2000), place the museum on the international stage. They ask: Does this artist or group deserve more acclaim?

If the answer is yes, the museum has performed a valuable service, one that will add to the body of knowledge of art. But if the answer is no, the museum's reputation suffers.

Marcel G. Roethlisberger of Geneva, the world's foremost Bloemaert scholar, states in the show's catalog essay that to present an exhibit of such a little-known artist is far more daring than to assemble a blockbuster of well-known artists or schools.

Bolstered by the lending support of the Met, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., and other prestigious collections here and in Europe, this effort is unquestionably sound.

If you've ever wished to see the Old Masters, consider this risky initiative on the part of a modest local museum.

And enjoy the show.

Abraham Bloemaert and his time

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