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Title The Prodigal Son
Collection Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum
Artist Bloemaert, Abraham (Dutch painter and draftsman, 1566-1651)
Date Earliest probably about 1610
Date Latest possibly about 1625
Signed yes
Description Amidst the details of life and work on a farm, the artist may have included the small boy leaning over the fence and the man in a red cap beside him as pointers towards the real subject of the painting. The man appears to point with his left hand towards the figure of the poorly clad prodigal son in his moment of illumination, as he kneels in front of the pigs' trough. A farm dog seems to be snarling at the poor swineherd. A sinister detail above the prodigal son is the bovine skull hanging from the thatched roof of the barn behind him.
Current Accession Number LEAMG:A344.1950
Inscription front ll 'A Bloemaert.fe.'
Subject landscape; figure; animal (dog, goat, pig)
Measurements 105.8 x 164.2 cm cm (estimate)
Material oil on canvas
Acquisition Details Given by the National Art-Collections Fund 1950.
Provenance Joseph Gillot sale, Christie's, London, 3 May 1872, bought by Colnaghi's; sold by P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London, to Sir Francis Cook; sold by Cook's heirs to the National Art-Collections Fund, 1949.
Principal Exhibitions Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1952-53; Exhibition of Dutch Masterpieces, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, 1956; The Primitives to Picasso, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1962; Gifts to Galleries, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 1968; Dutch Landscape Painting, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, 1982-83; Images of a Golden Age, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, 1989-90; Saved for the West Midlands: 100 Years of the National Art Collections Fund, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, 2003.
Publications Roethlisberger, M. G., Abraham Bloemaert and his Sons: Paintings and Prints, 2 vols, Aetas Aurea Monographs XI, Davaco Publishers, Doornspijk, 1993.
Notes

Abraham Bloemaert was born in Gorinchem on 24 December 1566; his Catholic family subsequently moved first to 's-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc) and then to Utrecht. His training was rather varied. Abraham was first taught to draw by his father Cornelis Bloemaert I (about 1540-1593), an architect and sculptor, but subsequently had five other masters. Abraham Bloemaert spent a few years in Paris (about 1582-85), where he encountered Mannerism; he never travelled to Italy. Although he settled in Amsterdam in 1591, he returned to Utrecht two years later where he died on 13 January 1651. His first marriage to a wealthy spinster, Judith van Schonenburgh, remained childless; after her death in 1599 he married Gerarda de Roij, with whom he had many children, four of whom became artists themselves.

Bloermaert specialized in landscapes, especially scenes of country life in which he often included biblical or mythological scenes; these works are characterized by an increasing naturalism, as he based his cottages, trees and other elements on actual studies from life. He was the foremost painter in Utrecht for many years, and had many star pupils such as Jan Both, Cornelis van Poelenburgh, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst. Through the latter's stay in Italy and the work of other Utrecht Caravaggists, Bloemaert began to paint works in the Caravaggesque style in the 1620s. Bloemaert was highly esteemed by his contemporaries and received several commissions from Frederick Henry, stadholder ('steward') of the Netherlands, as well as a visit from Rubens in 1627. Even at the end of his long life he still produced works of high quality. He was also a talented draughtsman, but it was the publication of Marcel G. Roethlisberger's catalogue raisonné in 1993 that raised the awareness of the size and quality of his large oeuvre.

The parable of the prodigal son is told in Luke 15. 11-32: the prodigal son is forced to work as a swineherd in a period of famine after squandering his wealth, and Bloemaert shows him at the crucial moment of repentance when he envies the swine their fodder and realizes that his father's servants back home live a better life than this. His thoughts are illustrated by his pose as he leans back from the trough, his right hand on his chest and his left extended in a telling gesture of feeling, and looks up over his shoulder towards the sky and the sudden brilliant ray of sunshine through the dark clouds, suggesting divine illumination.

The artist has encapsulated this biblical scene in the hustle and bustle of farm life, as he did with many of his other religious paintings, such as a nativity in Oslo. Far from being an obscure detail in one corner of the scene, the story is carefully placed on the edge of the most brilliantly lit part of the yard, with both the rays of sunlight and the father and son pointing the viewer to the real subject of the painting. The play of light and shadows, and the lively colour scheme with warm reds, browns and blues show the artist's mastery. Bloemaert's Mannerist style can also be observed in the gestures of the prodigal son and the pointing male figure, and in the naked child leaning against his mother in the foreground.

Bloemaert painted the subject several times, firstly in a print engraved by Jan Saenredam around 1603-5, but this is the largest known version, although another Bloemaert painting of the subject on canvas, measuring 165 x 215 cm, is said to have been sold in 1796. Smaller painted versions of the subject can be found, amongst others, in Berlin, Zurich and in the Ranger's House in Blackheath. The Saenredam engraving (42 x 62.5 cm) is very different in its composition: the farm buildings in the foreground are also much more prominent, and the prodigal son in the far distance does not show the moment of illumination.

Rights Owner Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum (Warwick District Council)
Author Sophie Oosterwijk
 

 

 

 

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