Old Master Drawings from the Museum Boijmans on show in Washington

Following earlier venues at the Fondation Custodia in Paris (Spring 2014) and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (2014-15), the exhibition ‘Bosch to Bloemaert: Early Netherlandish Drawings from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam’ is now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from 8 October 2017 to 7 January 2018. The exhibition features a large number of master drawings from the museum’s collection by artists including Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hans Bol, Petrus Christus, Jheronymus Bosch, Lucas van Leyden, Jacques de Gheyn II and Hendrick Goltzius.

The gap of three and a half years between the first and last venue of this exhibition is due to the strict limit on the amount of light the drawings may be subjected to. Because the drawings are highly sensitive to light, the lighting in the exhibition is lower than the usual 50 lux maximum: for certain drawings, such as those by Bruegel and Bosch, it is as low as 30 lux. For this reason and because of limited space, of the 140 drawings shown in Paris, only 120 were shown in Rotterdam and 100 are now on display in Washington.

Both the Fondation Custodia in Paris and the National Gallery of Art in Washington are prominent institutions in important capital cities, making the drawings available to an international audience. The drawings from the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen thus function as cultural ambassadors for the museum, Rotterdam and the Netherlands.

The exhibition was curated by Albert Elen, the museum’s senior curator of drawings and prints, together with Stacey Sell, associate curator of old master drawings at the National Gallery of Art. Here are Albert Elen’s six favourite works from the exhibition:

1. The Owl’s Nest

‘This is the best known of only eleven surviving drawings by Jheronimus Bosch. Unlike most drawings of this period, it is not a preparatory study for a painting or miniature but an artwork in its own right. Here Bosch masterfully demonstrates his skill with the pen: beautiful contrasts of light and dark, with heavy shadows in the tree and the birds, set against a minutely detailed yet briskly drawn landscape with figures, trees and a city in the distance. It is suspected that the motif has a deeper symbolic meaning, but precisely what is not known.’

2. February

‘This drawing is the second of twelve designs for a series of prints representing the twelve months. The series was acquired at the beginning of my tenure as curator thanks to financial contributions from more than twenty foundations and individual donors. Here Hans Bol depicts February, the month in which I was born, with skaters on a canal outside the fortifications of Antwerp: topography in miniature anno 1581, as my ancestors would have known it.’

3. Ulysses and Aeolus in the Cave of the Winds

‘Stradanus is the Latin name of Joannes van der Straet, an artist from Bruges who worked for most of his life in Florence. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen owns four of the seven surviving drawings from a series of twelve depicting episodes from the life of Odysseus. The execution is magnificent with blue washes and white highlights that reinforce the impression of an early form of comic strip. Homer’s classic epic poem is thus visualized graphically.’

4. One of the Seven Virtues: Caritas (Charity)

‘Pieter Bruegel is known for his innovative landscapes and depictions of everyday life, often in the form of allegories. This drawing is one of three in the museum’s collection that come from a series of designs for prints representing the seven virtues. This drawing depicts the female personification of Charity surrounded by groups of people feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, sheltering travellers, burying the dead, visiting prisoners and giving water to the thirsty. A wonderful drawing, which repays lengthy study.’

5. The Triumph of Saint Stephen

‘This is also a design for a print, one of three in the museum’s collection from a series of eight that depict the triumph of patience. Saint Stephen sits in full regalia on an elephant, which carries him triumphantly. The two men with stones are his executors. The drawing – and also the print – features many more hidden allusions to his martyrdom, which would have been familiar to Heemskerck’s contemporaries.’

6. Study of for the painting ‘The Lamentation of Christ’

‘Bloemaert’s motto was “nulla dies sine linea”, which means that not a day passed without his making a drawing. Bloemaert made so many drawings during his lifetime that more than 1500 sheets have survived. This drawing was acquired in 2014 shortly after the exhibition catalogue was printed. It is a detail study for the body of Christ in the painting ‘The Lamentation of Christ’, which is also in the museum’s collection together with the preparatory design. The two drawings give an impression of the creative process in the artist’s workshop leading to the finished painting.’