Cornelis van Haarlem, the “Dutch Michelangelo,” made history by painting it.
By Jonathan Lopez
The Dutch humanist and statesman Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) cultivated a keen appreciation of the visual arts, peppering his autobiography, De vita propria (circa 1631), with opinions and comments about contemporary painters, most notably Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, with whom he was personally acquainted. A champion of the younger generation, Huygens tended to be stingy in his assessment of the older one. While acknowledging that the great Mannerist master Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1562–1638) was “not an ordinary artist, nor someone of whom his homeland should be ashamed,” Huygens deemed Cornelis’ brand of rhetorically rich Italianate history painting manifestly inferior to more recent trends. “In his own time, he was considered a celebrity; that [his art] could have given pleasure in our own time as well is not something that he would have achieved easily.”
Until about 50 years ago, most art historians would probably have agreed with this halfhearted praise, relegating Cornelis to the status of a curiosity in the development of the Dutch school. But changing tides of taste and scholarship have led to a reassessment of many artists associated with Mannerism in the Netherlands—including Cornelis’ close friend Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617) and the talented Fleming Bartholomaeus Spranger (1546–1611)—allowing for a more measured understanding of such figures as trailblazers for important developments in the art world of the Dutch Golden Age. The current exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, marking the 450th anniversary of Cornelis’ birth, presents a judicious survey of the artist’s oeuvre, offering a splendid opportunity to take the measure of his achievements.
Born to a wealthy and influential merchant family, Cornelis might, under ordinary circumstances, have spent his childhood in an atmosphere of ease and comfort, but due to the Dutch Revolt, events took a different course. In 1572, when Cornelis was 10 years old, his parents were obliged to flee Haarlem as a result of the Spanish siege of that city. They left their son in the care of the painter Pieter Pietersz, who was the boy’s first teacher. The military occupation of Haarlem lasted until 1577; in 1579 Cornelis undertook a sea voyage to France, where he hoped to further his studies, but he found it expedient to abandon the journey in Rouen due to an outbreak of plague.
He then settled in Antwerp for about a year to take lessons from the history painter Gillis Coignet. Thereafter he returned permanently to Haarlem, where his family’s network of social connections helped establish him as a successful independent master from the very outset of his career. The first of his many official commissions was the group portrait Banquet of the Haarlem Civic Guard (1583), which depicts a municipal militia company of which Cornelis himself was a member. He was later named city painter of Haarlem and received a steady stream of orders for elaborate large-scale works from the town’s leading public and private institutions.
Around 1584 Cornelis made the acquaintance of Goltzius, primarily a printmaker at that point, and the pivotally important Karel van Mander, a multi-talented Flemish artist and writer who had recently settled in Haarlem to escape the repressive atmosphere of Spanish rule in the Southern Netherlands. Van Mander, who had visited Italy and was well versed in the principles of Italian art, would leave an indelible mark on the history of Dutch painting, becoming known to contemporaries as “everyman’s advisor” on questions of technique and aesthetic theory. Posterity remembers him best for his Schilder-Boeck (1604)—a book not about painters but about painting—and the didactic poem Den grondt der edel vry schilder-const (Foundation of the Noble Liberal Art of Painting), which advanced a vision of artistic creativity derived from the work of Leon Battista Alberti and other Italian authorities.
Van Mander propounded a twofold theory with regard to the importance of nature for the visual arts. He held that a painter must faithfully portray the nature of his subject—that is, its true character or essence—but asserted that the highest art consists in the ability to emulate nature itself by selecting and improving upon the most attractive aspects of all creation. In Van Mander’s view, the requisite faculty of discrimination could best be acquired by studying antique statuary or the work of great Italian artists who had steeped themselves in a similar tradition. Only after the eye had been trained with a proper standard of beauty could the hand be trusted to emulate the beautiful in art.
Van Mander, Cornelis and Goltzius collaborated to form what has sometimes been called the Haarlem Academy, which was not so much an institution of higher learning as a habit the three men developed of assembling together to draw from life—a term that could mean, in the usage of the period, either drawing from a living model or from sculptures. It was in the work of Cornelis that Van Mander’s system of ideas began to bear fruit, as Cornelis became the first Dutchman, in the words of former Rijksmuseum curator P. J. J. van Thiel, who truly succeeded as “a full-fledged modern history painter,” producing complex narrative figure groupings based on a rigorous understanding of anatomy and organic compositional principles.
Cornelis’s early history pieces included the Fall of Ixion (1588), a bravura depiction of eternal torment, and the monumental Massacre of the Innocents (1590), which was painted to decorate the Prinsenhof in Haarlem, where the familiar Biblical narrative assumed a contemporary political significance in light of the city’s recent suffering at the hands of an imperial power. Both of these works show the prevailing influence of Michelangelo in the initial stages of Cornelis’ development. But after 1591, when his colleague Goltzius returned from an extended tour of Italy under the spell of Raphael and Titian, Cornelis began to assimilate the harmonious classicism and refined color schemes of those masters in such compositions as Judah and Tamar (1596). Over the years, this classicizing trend led Cornelis increasingly to dispense with props or accessories and to focus on the deeper symbolic importance of the stories he portrayed, as in the luminous Bathseba at Her Bath (1596) and the late Venus, Bacchus, Ceres and Cupid (1624), in which complex narratives are conveyed with a striking economy of means.
The only other significant stylistic shift in Cornelis’ work occurred at the very end of his career, when he began to respond to Dirck Hals and others in Haarlem who were introducing modern, rather than classical, figures into their moralizing narratives to produce genre scenes. These final works—including Drummer and Flute Player, Six Children Playing Marbles and Men Drinking and Smoking with a Couple at a Table—are fascinating to contemplate, albeit somewhat peculiar. Cornelis retained his high rhetorical manner despite the shift to realistic subject matter, leaving his everyday dramas to play out in a kind of Never-Never Land that hovers uneasily between the real and the ideal.
In Cornelis’ heyday, before the turn of the 17th century, his large-scale narratives directly influenced contemporary artists including Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651) and Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), but his legacy is far larger than that. By opening up the terrain of Dutch history painting to an international stylistic dialogue, he set the stage for the greater accomplishments of Gerard van Honthorst, the Utrecht Caravaggisti and Rembrandt—transmitting to these artists a repertoire of subject matter and ambitions that offered an enduring recipe for success.
Cornelis’ personal life was marked by several interesting twists and turns. Sometime prior to 1603, he made an advantageous marriage to Maritgen Arentsdr Deyman, the daughter of a Haarlem burgomaster. After his wife’s premature death a few years later, Cornelis commenced an intimate long-term relationship with a younger woman who had entered his household as a servant. Probably due to class differences, the union was never formalized, but Cornelis legally acknowledged and dutifully raised the resulting children, only one of whom, a daughter, survived to adulthood. She eventually married a noted goldsmith, to whom she bore a child named Cornelis Bega—in honor of his illustrious grandfather—who became a genre painter of considerable accomplishment.
The elder Cornelis seems to have taken a special interest in the boy’s development, stipulating that all his studio equipment and life drawings (as well as a handsome fortune in gold and silver) be transmitted to the Bega household after his death. The drawings no doubt served young Bega well as instructional material, but alas, most of them have since disappeared. Only 13 securely attributed drawings by Cornelis van Haarlem are now known to exist, just a few precious reminders of the fabled Haarlem Academy.