PARIS.- Following upon the exhibition of French drawings from the Darmstadt Museum last fall, the Louvre continues its exploration of drawings held in collections outside France. This year, the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts is lending more than seventy sheets from its remarkable collection of Netherlandish drawings. This selection of sixteenth-century works, a period that is very well represented in the collection of the Budapest museum but little known to the French museum-going public, offers visitors a unique opportunity to take the full measure of the subtlety and richness of this difficult and long-neglected art.
Netherlandish drawing of the sixteenth century has only recently attracted renewed interest. Highly prized by connoisseurs around 1900, the art of this period then suffered a long period of neglect, as subsequent generations were drawn more to the Primitives active in the fifteenth century, including van Eyck, van der Weyden and Memling, as well as the great masters of the seventeenth century, the age of Rubens and Rembrandt.
The Budapest Museums Collection of Prints and Drawings
The Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, which celebrated its centennial in 2006, boasts a fine and extensive collection of old master drawings, one of the highlights of which is a truly exceptional group of Netherlandish works. The prestigious collection amassed by the Esterházy princes and especially by Prince Nicholas II (Miklós Ferdinánd) in the early years of the nineteenth century, which became public property in 187071, accounts for the major portion of these holdings. With the acquisition of the collection of prints and drawings assembled by the Hungarian painter István Delhaes and bequeathed to the state at his death in 1901, the museum added another significant body of works to this department. Today the collection held in Budapest includes some 325 Netherlandish old master drawings, fully catalogued in 1971 by the departments curator at that time, Teréz Gerszi.
Netherlands in the Sixteenth Century: Historical Context
It is widely known that the sixteenth century was a turbulent period for the Netherlands. In the early 1500s, Bruges and Ghent were certainly among the most prosperous and magnificent of European cities, rivaling Florence, Genoa and Venice. Ruled by the dukes of Burgundy from the late fourteenth century, the Netherlands joined the Hapsburg empire following the marriage of Mary of Burgundy with the archduke Maximilian of Austria and would thus recognize the latters grandson, the emperor Charles V, as their sovereign.
The Reformation, Protestant iconoclasm and wars of religion later shook these provinces, which rose against Spanish rule in 1568. This was the beginning of a rebellion lasting eighty years, at the end of which the region was divided in two. The Calvinist northern provinces gained their independence and created the United Provinces of the Netherlands, better known as the Dutch Republic, while the Catholic southern provinces remained under Spanish rule and consequently lost must of their prosperity, clearly demonstrated by the rapid decline of Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp and the concomitant rise of Haarlem, Amsterdam and Leiden.
Art in Upheaval
Art in sixteenth-century Netherlands reflects these tumultuous times. The period saw the juxtaposition of many different artistic currents and influences, from Romanticism to Mannerism, not to mention the first stirrings of realism. Political instability, the Reformation and the long years of war meant that artists often had difficulty finding work. Commissions for works on religious subjects dried up entirely while the attentions of aristocratic patrons were firmly focused elsewhere. The birth of new genres, most notably landscape art, was certainly related to these circumstances.
Many artists went abroad to seek their fortunes. An ever increasing wave of young Netherlandish artists traveled to Italy in particular, to study the works of earlier artists as well as to glean lessons from contemporariesfor example, Michiel Coxcie, who returned to Brussels greatly influenced by the work of Raphael, and Frans Floris (Frans de Vriendt). Other artists remained in Italy for their majority of their careers. Known as the Fiamminghi, this group included Jean de Bologne in Florence, Hans Speckaert in Caprarola and Rome, and Denys Calvaert in Bologna.
Still other artists left the Netherlands to earn their livelihood in Germany and Austria: Friedrich Sustris, Gaspar de Witte and Joris Hoefnagel in Munich, Pieter Stevens, Roelant Savery, Paulus van Vianen and Hoefnagel again in Prague, where the emperor Rudolf II welcomed these artists with open arms. Finally, when the war with Spain had laid ruin to their native lands, many Flemish artists found refuge in Westphalia, in the region of Cologne and Frankenthal. Most of them never returned to the southern provinces of the Netherlands, but many later emigrated to the independent northern provinces. A diaspora of sorts had in fact been created, with the result being that instead of speaking of Netherlandish drawing we should almost be referring to these artists as truly European: the exhibition presents works executed in Bologna, Prague, Munich and Rome as well as in the Netherlands itself.
A Remarkable Selection
The selection of drawings presented in the exhibition is therefore remarkable for a number of reasons, two of which are especially of interest:
1) Genuine masterpieces of European landscape drawing are brought together, forming a particularly representative grouping of works in this genre, notably the compositions of Jan Brueghel, Hans Bol, Jacob Savery and Abraham Bloemaert, rare specimens of exceptional beauty that display considerable stylistic variety. Among other highlights, the selection includes several sheets by Frederick van Valckenborch, most remarkably those executed during his travels along the Danube, and by Tobias Verhaecht, revealing the latters immense talent as an observer of the real world in imaginary compositions. Landscapes by the Master of the Budapest Sketchbook, whose works have survived only in the Budapest collection, are also displayed. Furthermore, the exhibition includes a large group of alpine landscapes by Paulus van Vianen, lovely sheets taken from the unequaled sketchbook of Salzburg views by this major talent who was employed by the court of the emperor Rudolph II in Prague.
Vianen was the first draftsman of his time to depict landscapes with documentary veracity, thanks to his comprehensive and exacting study of nature. This artists works, together with the refined watercolors by his compatriot Pieter Stevens, are among the veritable treasures to be found in the graphic art collection of the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.
2) The other key feature of the exhibition is that it presents drawings by artists whose works are considered as rarities. This group includes character heads by Cornelis Engebrechtsz of Leiden, one of the last exponents of late Gothic traditions, the study for a mans attire by Lucas van Valckenborch, the allegories by Dirck de Quade van Ravesteyn, and works of mythological inspiration by Hans Mont and Adriaen de Vries, two sculptors active at the court of Rudolph II in Prague.
Thus the exhibition offers visitors an opportunity to discoveror rediscovera selection of more than seventy drawings by the greatest sixteenth-century Netherlandish masters. This exhibition offers a unique window on Netherlandish art, ranging from biblical or mythological compositions to allegories and genre scenes, allowing visitors to intimately explore both its apparent simplicity and its immeasurable depths. The works presented also provide ample evidence that this abundantly creative period, during which drawing was the principal focus of artistic experimentation, produced a consistent flow of graphic works of exceptional quality, originating not only in the cities of Italy but also in those of the Netherlands.