Art historians seldom let their personal predilections and aversions show through in their writing. An exception is the connoisseurship on Maerten van Heemskerck, one of the giants of sixteenth-century European art. His first cataloguer, Thomas Kerrich, set off an abusive trend in 1829 that prevails until our day, in a kind of historiographical bullying. Schwartz takes up the cudgels for Heemskerck.
Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574) was a great artist and a nice person. Born Maerten van Veen on a farm in the village of Heemskerk, he changed his name to that of his birthplace to lend his 600 fellow villagers a measure of his fame. When in 1532 he left for Rome from Haarlem, where he was established as an artist, he expressed his gratitude to the painters’ guild, which furthered his career, by donating to it a magnificent painting for its altar in the church of St. Bavo. It shows St. Luke, the patron saint of painters, performing the everday act that made him sacred to them – painting a portrait, but a portrait of Mary and her heroic baby Jesus.
Maerten van Heemskerck, St. Luke painting the Madonna, 1532
Oil on panel, 168 x 235 cm
Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum
Maerten van Heemskerck, Jacob Willemsz van Veen, the artist’s father, 1532
Oil on panel, 52.1 x 34.9 cm
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 71.36
He also painted a portrait before he left, of his father, Jacob Willemsz van Veen, with the charming rhymed inscription
Here am I by my son portrayed | Having lived seventy-five years, so it is said.
In 1570, comfortably married to a wealthy woman and having served positions of honor in the guild and for the Bavokerk, he erected an obelisk for his father in the churchyard where he was buried.
Obelisk in memory of Jacob Willemsz van Veen, adorned with a profile portrait and commemorative relief and inscribed with the date of Jacob’s death, 16 September 1535 (when Maerten was still in Rome), and his age at death, seventy-nine.
Heemskerk, now in the parish church and replaced by a copy, here in photos from MeMO (Mediaeval memoria online).
Having myself reached the age of Heemskerck’s father last month, this act of filial piety moves me all the more.
Maerten van Heemskerck, Self-portrait with the Colosseum, Rome, 1553
Oil on panel, 42.2 x 54 cm
Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 103
He was a good-looking dude, Heemskerck. He has always reminded me of my late uncle Lou.
After Heemskerk and Haarlem, Rome was his third home, to which he contributed one of the outstanding testimonies of his century: two precious volumes of first-hand drawings of Rome and its antiquities. A new book on the subject calls them “the earliest, most complete corpus of Netherlandish drawings of Rome now known to us,… something like a curated picture book of Rome” (Arthur J. DiFuria, Maarten van Heemskerck’s Rome: antiquity, memory, and the cult of ruins, Leiden [Brill] 2019, pp. 1, 7). The limiting qualification “Netherlandish” is unnecessary.
There are things about the art of Maerten van Heemskerck that rub some critics the wrong way. His attachment to Italian art, especially Michelangelo, which plays out in much of his manner and motifs, strikes some as a betrayal of his Dutch heritage, which they find manifested in his portraits and still-life details. G.J. Hoogewerff, in his authoritative five-volume history of Dutch painting in the sixteenth century (vol. 4, 1941-42), finds a schism in Heemskerck’s art between fantasy and description, mannerism and realism. “Description” and “realism” being the qualities of the true, down-home Dutchman, Hoogewerff found it regrettable that Heemskerck sometimes departs from these modes. So regrettable that he declared the artist to have suffered from a split personality. He gave his chapter on him the title “Maerten van Heemskerck and his double.” Listen to this:
We shall see that Heemskerck, a sincere and no-nonsense professional in daily life, becomes an entirely different creature, in standing and stance, the moment he puts on the uniform of the church painter. He then becomes a representative of a new mannerism and his art degenerates before long into an undisciplined reversion to alien forms.
I must say it upsets me nearly eighty years later to see an art historian for whom I have such high regard using the words “ontaard” (degenerate) and “onheemsch” (reprehensibly non-native) in a book published in the Netherlands under Nazi German occupation. That he applies these words to a North Holland artist, denying him full Dutchness out of distaste for his artistic choices, makes it all the worse.
Hoogewerff was not alone in his denigration of Heemskerck. In 1916 Max Friedländer wrote in Van Eyck to Bruegel of the artist’s “arbitrary bravura and superficial greatness”. In the fourteen volumes of his magisterial Early Netherlandish painting (1924-37), Friedländer denies Heemskerck even a paragraph, let alone a chapter, putting him down in a section called “Some problems” as the maker of work “rather painfully harsh, with a bare immediacy and hollow pathos” and giving one of his best paintings to Jan van Scorel. Jan van Gelder, one of my heroes in Dutch art history, attaches the following adjectives to Heemskerck’s religious and history paintings in his contribution to the standard textbook on Dutch art, published and republished from 1937 to 1963: “overfull compositions… excessively colorful,.. tumultuous,… with unrelieved pathos,… lacking truly deep feeling.” In 1987 my even greater hero and dear friend David Freedberg unloaded onto Heemskerck a shipload of dismissive judgments: an obstinate yen for strange, unorthodox forms; unpleasantly physical exaggerations and contortions; aberrations perhaps due to severe existential angst in a period that was in a neurotic crisis to begin with. Reiterating at a ninety-degree angle Hoogewerff’s supposition that Heemskerck had a split personality, he wrote: “The duality in his work between good Catholic altarpieces and prints full of critical allusions points in the direction of an agonizing rupture in his person as well as in his art.” (David Freedberg, “Aertsen, Heemskerck en de crisis van de kunst in de Nederlanden,” Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 35 , pp. 224-41)
Maerten van Heemskerck, Ecce Homo, 1544
Oil on panel. Center panel: 188 x 133 cm framed; left wing: 184 x 62.2 cm; right wing: 189 x 65 cm
Warsaw, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie
One of the Heemskerck creations illustrated by Freedberg shows what he and the rest were talking about. It is a triptych of the Ecce Homo in the National Museum in Warsaw, the subject of an exhibition at the Getty Museum, following restoration, in 2012. The donors conform closely to the descriptive-realistic-no-nonsense mode favored by Hoogewerff. The mockers of Christ are exaggeratedly contorted fnon-natives, while Pilate displays manneristic traits in his unwarrantedly feminine contrapposto and his campy pink-and-blue outfit; Christ shows the overly explicit musculature that annoys people. The perceived split in Heemskerck’s personality divides the wings from the central panel, with the patron saints bridging the gap. There is a case to be made for the functional relevance of all these elements, their styles and their combination, but I do not think that would convince the Heemskerck-bashers.
Pompeo Batoni (1708-87), Thomas Kerrich
Oil on canvas, 74 x 60.7 cm
Sale London (Christies) 3 July 2012, lot 35
But the twentieth-century dissing of Heemskerck is not what I started to write about. What grabbed my attention was the freedom that Heemskerck’s greatest admirer of earlier centuries, Thomas Kerrich (1748-1828) — artist, antiquary, librarian, collector and clergyman — allowed himself in writing his catalogue raisonné of the prints designed by Heemskerck, by far the bulk of his work. When the book came out in 1829 it was the most ambitious catalogue of an artist’s graphic oeuvre ever published.
A low standard for artistic appraisal is set in the “Advertisement” for the catalogue by the publisher who brought out the book a year after Kerrich’s death, but which I think was his idea.
In his entries, Kerrich calls ‘em like he sees ‘em, in frank judgments that express some of the same criticisms we have encountered above, though with more approval interlaced into the opprobrium. One example will serve for many.
Cornelis Bos after Maerten van Heemskerck, The brazen serpent, 1539
Engraving and etching on paper, 21.8 x 33.5 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-OB-7307
Luca Bertelli after Michelangelo, The raising of the brazen serpent by the Israelites, ca. 1560-90
Engraving on paper, 33.4 x 43.8 cm
London, British Museum, 1980,U.1481
It is in the wrong light [that is, the shadows fall on the left]—outrageous drawing; but capitally grand. Some of the attitudes seem to be hardly within the powers of the human frame—but just possible: e.g. that of the man with the halbard kneeling on one knee. The views and fore-shortenings great and masterly. The outline in general very incorrect, and charged beyond all bearing; and, in many places, uncommonly hard. The figures are all naked and ostentatiously anatomical… Heemskerck had M. Angelo’s Picture of the same subject in his mind when he designed this: can it be by Cornelius Bos?
Michelangelo’s “Picture” is a lunette in the Sistine Chaptel, which Heemskerck of course knew. Kerrich’s supposition is surely correct, as is his guess that the unsigned print was made by Cornelis Bos.
On Christ driving the buyers and sellers out of the Temple: “There is some outrageous drawing and foreshortening in this print. The figure of Christ lamentably bad.” Christ before Herod: “In this also the head of Christ is so very bad and so rudely executed, as to destroy the whole effect of the picture; which is, otherwise, exceedingly fine.” The Resurrection: “The style of drawing in this print is very great; but the countenance of the principal figure is so lamentably inferior, as to make it a disgrace to the whole composition. The figures are left-handed: one of them is asleep.”
Some further judgments, interspersed among compliments of a high order: “in total defiance of decency and probability,… unaccountable absurdities (p. 60), … more ridiculous than any thing ever seen before (p. 61), … there are things in this print too ludicrous, and too gross and foul to be defended (p. 64)…, the figure of the King is intolerably bad, the upper part of it especially; and the head is detestable” (p. 75). I have to admire Kerrich for the unembarassed courage of his prejudices. (Could I be jealous? Naaa.) He is also the man who donated that self-portrait of Heemskerk in front of the Colosseum to the Fitzwilliam Museum, leaving us eternally in his debt.
Photo: Mark Bink
Maerten van Heemskerck has not yet lived down the antipathy he evokes. He is the greatest Dutch artist never to have had a survey exhibition devoted to him. The Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar defied this lack last year with a spectacular display in the Grote Kerk of the largest Dutch paintings of the sixteenth century, the wings of Heemskerck’s overwhelming St. Lawrence altarpiece from the cathedral of Linköping, Sweden, brought back to the church for which it was made. The enthusiastic response gives hope that the balance will be redressed in our time. And what is that balance? The case of Maerten van Heemskerck poses an aesthetic challenge yet unmet. In order to appreciate his art at its full value we would have to judge it not against the standards of decorum, anatomical correctness, psychological hygiene and Dutchness deployed by the critics above, but on terms that emerge from his sometimes ugly art. If we can be that good to Michelangelo and Francis Bacon, why not to Maerten van Heemskerck?
© 2019 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 29 July 2019
Today I received my copy of a festschrift for David Freedberg in which I wrote an essay, “Emotions in art from Giambattista della Porta to David Freedberg,” in Tributes to David Freedberg: image and insight, edited by Claudia Swan, London and Turnhout (Harvey Miller Publishers) 2019, pp. 301-11. By way of advertising this truly outstanding volume, I have put up a watermarked pdf on the Schwartzlist. See the table of contents and buy the book.
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P.S. A reader let me know that in 2022 the Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar and the Frans Hals Museum are collaborating on the monographic Heemskerck exhibition that I complained had not yet been held. Excellent news.
I should have mentioned that the first book to take Maerten van Heemskerck fully seriously, by Ilja Veldman, was published by me in 1977. If I may cite my own blurb of forty-two years ago: