Signed and dated 1631, An Allegory of Winter is one of the earliest known paintings by Hendrick Bloemaert, son of Abraham Bloemaert (1566-1651), and represents the culmination of all that he had learnt in his father’s studio during the 1620s, and absorbed on a recent sojourn to Italy (1627-30). This picture is one of only a small number of genre subjects that the artist executed in the early 1630s, before specialising in portraits and religious subjects, for which he is now best known. The figure types, scale and lighting recall the work of his father’s most celebrated pupils, Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629) and Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), however,
the overall effect is markedly different.
Roethlisberger states that Hendrick’s Allegory of Winter was derived from the figure of Winter warming his hands over a brazier in a series of the Seasons designed by his father in the late 1620s, and later engraved by his brother, Frederick (fig. 1) (op. cit., p. 456). While series of the Seasons, together with the Months, the Elements and the Senses, had long been a popular theme in Netherlandish art, Abraham is credited with developing the traditional personifications into more inventive genre scenes. Although the overall subject is the same, Hendrick’s treatment is quite distinct from that of his father’s. The figure of Winter has been transformed from an anonymous, lone peasant with his eyes cast down, warming himself over a brazier in the doorway of a dilapidated barn, into a finely robed gentleman, seated at a carpet draped table, served with wine and fat bread, and attended by a female servant. Hendrick’s handling of the theme is in fact closer to a picture executed by Abraham in circa 1625-30, in which the subject is also distilled to a half-length figure, more affluently dressed in a similar fur hat, but still solitary and with his head downcast (fig. 2) (Paris, Louvre; ibid., pp. 268-9, fig. 566), in contrast to Hendrick’s more arresting, frontal figure of Winter. The sensitively observed faces of the elderly gentleman and female servant in Hendrick’s painting may derive from one of the numerous sheets of head studies, taken from various different angles, executed by Abraham in connection with his drawing academy and readily available in his studio
for use in compositions for paintings.
Hendrick would also have been aware of the treatment of the subject by his elder Utrecht contemporaries, Honthorst (fig. 3) (c. 1620; J.R. Judson, op. cit., 1999, p. 158, no. 187) and ter Brugghen (c. 1627-8, lost; L.J. Slatkes & W. Franits, The Paintings of Hendrick Ter Brugghen 1588-1629 Catalogue Raisonné, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 2007, p. 249, no. R51), which both represent an Allegory of Winter through a male and female figure. Roethlisberger (op. cit., p. 269) and Nicolson (op. cit., 1958, p. 118) both credit Honthorst with the invention of this type of image in the north. Whilst Honthorst and ter Brugghen’s compositions are full of movement and exaggerated expressions, lending them an urgent and momentary Fig. 3 Gerrit van Honthorst, Allegory of Winter (present whereabouts unknown) quality, Hendrick’s image is far more restrained and sombre, and its message in turn is more intense and enduring. The composition, with its strong horizontal and vertical accents (running along the arm of the chair and edge of the table; and through the upright figure of Winter), is almost classical in its stability. The figures themselves have a static quality: the old man is seemingly arrested in movement as he holds the viewer’s gaze, and the old woman in turn is obediently poised, awaiting further instruction from her master. The old man’s wise expression and attire, which recalls that of a seventeenth-century scholar, add further gravity to the scene. It was precisely these perceptive qualities that ensured Bloemaert’s subsequent success as a painter of portraits and religious subjects.
The formula was clearly successful as Hendrick treated it twice in 1631, the other version, of horizontal format, was formerly in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (destroyed; Roethlisberger, op. cit., p. 457, no. H28, fg. H34). It is not clear which version came first, but one cannot be described as a copy, or even derivation of the other, since the subject is essentially reconceived.
Note on the provenance
William Angerstein was the grandson of John Julius Angerstein, whose celebrated collection of Old Masters at 100 Pall Mall, London, was purchased by the British Government following his death in 1823 and formed the nucleus of the National Gallery, which opened at his house in May 1824 as the country’s first publicly owned collection. This picture was offered in William Angerstein’s sale at Christie’s in 1883. It was later acquired by Victor Alexander Bruce, 9th Earl of Elgin and 13th Earl of Kincardine, politician and viceroy of India.