Heemskerck et l’Humanisme. Une œuvre à penser

Heemskerck and Humanism. A work in reflexion
Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 6 October 2010 to 4 January 2011

1. Martin van Heemskerck (1498-1574)
Saint Luke Painting the Virgin, c. 1553
After restoration
Oil on panel - 205.5 x 143.5 cm
Rennes, Musée de Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Renne

Despite occupying only two rooms, the exhibition Heemskerck and Humanis, created by Ilja Veldman, a specialist on Martin van Heemskerck [1] and the curator Olivia Savatier is well worth an attentive look.

The artist’s masterpiece, Saint Luke Painting the Virgin (ill. 1), recently restored by the Centre for research and restoration of museums in France [2], holds court at the centre of the exhibition and justifies it. This painting, perhaps intended for the church of Saint Luke in Delft (or for Saint Luke’s guild in Haarlem ?), represents this traditional scene in a deep space formed by two successive rooms. In the foreground, Saint Luke’s cabinet room recalls that of a doctor and Greek scholar, presented as a humanist with his scientific volumes, his bottles, his armillary sphere ; but also the cabinet of the Evangelist and painter accompanied by his ox and an unwritten book at his feet. Behind this, the space looks out on a courtyard bathed in light, a model of the courtyard of the Palazzo Sassi in Rome where Heemskerck stayed between 1532 and 1536. There we see some Roman statues, Venus Genetrix, the Farnese Apollo and on the floor a relief of the Bocca della Verità. In the courtyard, a sculptor, a painter and a printer are shown at work. As suggested by the catalogue, a comparison with another painting of the same subject painted by the artist about twenty years earlier (ill. 2) and held at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem (alas, not in the exhibition) is an interesting exercise. The composition is very different but the allegory and the symbols –often obscure even for the best scholars – are just as present.

2. Martin van Heemskerck (1498-1574)
Saint Luke Painting the Virgin, 1532
Oil on panel - 168 x 235 cm
Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum
Photo : Frans Hals Museum

Surrounding the masterpiece from the Musée de Rennes is a selection of drawings, engravings and old printed books organized around three themes, “The study and the representation of the human body”, “Man and the cosmos”, “Lessons for everyday life”, groupings selected also for the catalogue. All taken from a short time period, the works here enable the viewer to establish a precise idea of what Michael Baxandall called the “mental equipment” of a Dutch artist, who traveled to Italy and then settled in Haarlem in the early 1540’s. There is notably the figure of Jérôme Cock, painter, engraver, printer and dealer from Antwerp. The groups of engravings on The Vicissitudes of Human Affairs, The Dangers of Human Ambition (ill. 3), etc., shed light on the spiritual and moral context in which the artist lived. The role of these engravings is essential in the constitution of the painted images and training the viewer’s eye. The comparisons between drawings and engravings are just as productive. Several sheets by Heenskerck are presented next to their engraved version, showing the delicacy of the stroke and the originality of the draughtsman’s composition, much less visible in the finished product. Some of them reveal many variations with the engraving, and are traces of an initial idea (ill. 4). The exhibition also presents three copies of the Vesalius (De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, published in Basel in 1543), on loan from various institutions and whose presence is justified by the representation in the painting, at the feet of the Virgin, of a book with its left page showing a text by Galen while the one on the right presents figures from Vesalius. The information provided by the juxtaposition of paintings, engravings and drawings is particularly rich.

3. Dirck Volkertsz. Coornhert (1522-1590)
after Martin van Heeskerck (1498-1574)
The Dangers of Human Ambition, 1549
Etching - 44 x 57 cm
Caen, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Martine Seyre/Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen

4. Martin van Heemskerck (1498-1574)
It is Easier for a Camel to Go Through
the Eye of a Needle than a Rich Man to Enter
the Kingdom of God
, 1563
Penciel, brown ink - 16 x 22.6 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre, Edmond de Rothschild’s collection
Photo : RMN/Thierry Lemage

5. Bartolommeo Passarotti (1529-1592)
Anatomy Lesson Taught by Michelangelo
to the Artists of his Time
, c. 1569
Pencil, brown ink, brown wash - 38.5 x 49.8
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN/Michèle Bellot

Two important drawings are also exhibited. The first is a sheet by Michelangelo which recently resurfaced and which we already mentioned on this site (see news item of 6/11/10). The second, attributed to Bartolomeo Passarotti (ill. 5), belongs to the Louvre and represents an Anatomy Lesson Taught by Michelangelo to the Artists of his Time. Roman, Florentine and Bolognese artists are seen in an ideal formation around the universally acknowledged principles needed for good painting and good sculpture corresponding to their time.

Even visitors unfamiliar with the artist will feel at home in this exhibition which is nonetheless particularly erudite thanks to the pedagogical materials provided by the museum, pertinent but not invasive : complimentary booklets available when entering, allow visitors (both adults and children) to elucidate the different symbols once they have seen the work.

Scholarly curators : Ilja M. Veldman, Olivia Savatier Sjöholm, Laura Fillion and Quirine van Aerst.

Collective work, Heemskerck & l’humanisme. Une oeuvre à penser, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, 150 p., ISBN : 9782901430476.

Claire Mazel
(in collaboration with Didier Rykner)

Claire Mazel, vendredi 10 décembre 2010


[1] His name varies in spelling : one often sees Martaen or Maarten, the latter is the one chosen for the exhibition.

[2] In fact, we regret that the catalogue does not present a chapter explaining the restoration.

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