The amount of works on paper in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges has increased by about ten percent in one fell swoop. No fewer than 1,930 drawings and 25 sketchbooks were added to the existing file of 20,000 sheets this Tuesday. The works are on loan from the Jean van Caloen Foundation, which manages the estate of the Belgian aristocrat Van Caloen, who built up an impressive art collection in the first half of the last century. The drawings were made by artists from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, especially from the Netherlands, Italy and France. The selection of seven sheets by Michelangelo and Jacob Jordaens, among others, which the Groeninge Museum will be showing for only six days on the occasion of the transfer, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Unmistakable eye-catcher is a drawing from 1525-1530 by Michelangelo, if only because of the magnitude of the artist’s fame and because it is the only Michelangelo drawing in a Belgian collection. The draftsman has made a smooth sketch in black chalk of the scene of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. According to legend, this early Christian priest was killed by stoning. The kneeling saint is the most elaborate figure in this drawing; the men with stones in their raised hands surrounding him are arranged in a much looser manner.
All figures are stark naked: striking for the execution of a church official who in the visual arts almost always wears the clothes of a deacon. This indicates that the artist was dealing with a first attempt at a composition, not a detailed preliminary study. Such composition sketches, in this case also for a painting or relief that is no longer known or has never been executed, are rare among Michelangelo’s surviving drawings.
A figure study of a standing naked man in red chalk by Cristoforo Roncalli (circa 1552-1626), a painter who was called ‘Il Pomarancio’ after his birthplace in Tuscany, is quite different in nature. The man is depicted frontally and, with a kind of vase in his hands, and his raised right leg in greatly shortened, comes straight towards the viewer. It appears that the top was made as a study for one of the figure-rich frescoes that Pomarancio graced the palazzi with in Rome.
An intimate portrait drawn by the eighteenth-century French painter François Boucher shows a young woman in half (circa 1730). On her somewhat chubby head, the profile of which is drawn, she wears a simple lace cap. The scene has been worked out in such detail and done so subtly in red and black chalk with highlights in white, that in this case it does not seem to be a study for a painting, but a work of art in itself.
Encased in oval frames about six inches high are two representations of the ancient gods Apollo and Mars, each seated on a cloud and holding their respective attributes, harp and sword. Both wash pen drawings in brown ink were made around 1595 by Jan van der Straet from Bruges, better known as Johannes Stradanus. The two drawings will have been part of a series of mythological figures, as examples for a series of prints probably never executed. Together with four drawings that Stradanus made of scenes from the Passion of Christ, these sheets form a fine addition to the collection of the Bruges museums, which do not have drawings themselves, but do have prints and an oil painting study by Stradanus.
Works from the foundation’s possession also fit in with the existing collection in other ways. Drawings by seventeenth-century members of the Antwerp artist family Quellinus, for example, can be found there as pendants, and the sketchbook by the nineteenth-century painter of historical scenes Henri Leys (1815-1869) completes the collection of graphics that the museum acquired from this artist in 2014. . The publicity surrounding the transfer makes quite a bit of a point about such connections, as if some sort of justification had to be found for something.
At Michelangelo, nobody cares for a second. There is even no reference to the exceptional fact that a marble Madonna and Child by his hand has been in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges for more than five hundred years.