CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Dutch and Flemish drawings from the National Gallery of Canada

Exhibition: 24 July - 17 October 2004

Organizing museums

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada, and the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums


Joaneath Spicer*, Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, William W. Robinson, Goerge and Maida Abrams Curator of Drawings, Fogg Art Museum, with the aid of Odilia Bonebakker, doctoral candidate at Harvard, and David Franklin, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery in Ottawa

Museum press release, 27 July 2004

Seventy drawings by masters of the Dutch and Flemish schools from the late 15th to the late 17th century are currently on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum through October 17, 2004, as the Harvard University Art Museums present Dutch and Flemish drawings from the National Gallery of Canada. This traveling group of drawings, shown together publicly for the first time in the United States, is one of the preeminent collections of Netherlandish drawings in North America.

The exhibition celebrates a Toronto couple’s promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada of some 50 drawings by masters of the Dutch and Flemish schools. Works from this donation are shown together with the finest Dutch and Flemish drawings already in the National Gallery’s permanent collection. The drawings encompass the Renaissance through the Baroque periods and originated in Rome, Florence, Venice, Prague, Antwerp, and Haarlem. Artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Heemskerck, Jordaens, and Bloemaert are included. The exhibition showcases rare works such as a sheet of metalpoint studies by Gerard David, Four heads, c. 1490, copied from the central panel of the Adoration of the Lamb (the Ghent Altarpiece) painted by David’s predecessors Hubert and Jan van Eyck; a drawing of the head of a youth by Peter Paul Rubens, Study of a young man’s head, c. 1612-15; and a preliminary drawing, A little boy at his mother’s knee, c. 1632, by Anthony van Dyck, an artist who was a sensitive interpreter of children and one of the great portraitists of the Western tradition.

“The importance of collaborating with institutions around the world on access to distinguished collections cannot be emphasized enough,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “The opportunity to enhance our permanent galleries and special exhibitions with visiting shows like this allows our students and visitors both a wider vision and an expanded museum experience.”

“Although the Harvard University Art Museums has a renowned collection of Dutch and Flemish drawings,” said William Robinson, Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings, “this exhibition brings to Cambridge works by artists who are not well represented in our holdings. For example, the recent gift established in Ottawa a group of drawings unrivalled in North America by draftsmen who worked around 1600 at the Prague court.”

“The exhibition also highlights the professional training that is part of the mission of Harvard University and of the Art Museums,” Robinson added. “Odilia Bonebakker, one of the co-authors of the exhibition catalogue, was formerly an intern in the Museums’ Drawing Department and is currently a doctoral candidate in Harvard’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture.”

The 15th century

Very few Netherlandish drawings have survived from the 15th century. Preparatory studies on paper did not become commonplace in northern European workshops until the following century. Painters worked directly on the supports themselves, making preliminary drawings in charcoal that disappeared as the artists covered them with layers of paint. Most 15th-century drawings are copies from other works of art and served as aide-mémoire for the journeyman or the workshop. The sheet of studies by Gerard David is one of the very rare 15th-century Netherlandish drawings whose author is securely identified.

The 16th century

In the 16th century the Netherlands saw great religious and political upheaval. The Twelve Years’ Truce of 1609 divided the country into a Protestant northern Dutch Republic and a Catholic south, ruled by the Spanish. Despite the turmoil, the Low Countries remained the economic hub of Europe. Traditional religious themes and forms such as altarpieces and stained glass flourished alongside the new secular subjects of landscape, still life, and portraiture. Drawings of this period reflect the cosmopolitan character of Renaissance culture. Artists traveled to foreign destinations to hone their skills, consequently disseminating their ideas across Europe. The Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II attracted several innovative painters, printmakers, and goldsmiths from the Netherlands to his court in Prague, while several Netherlandish masters traveled to Italy to learn new approaches.

The 17th century

The civil war and partition of the Netherlands in 1609 fostered the development of two distinct artistic traditions. Responding to a demand from collectors and patrons, 17th-century artists in the Dutch Republic specialized in portraiture, still life, and landscape painting. Many produced finished drawings that were conceived as independent works of art. Dutch artists became known for their naturalistic approach based upon direct studies of landscapes and live models.

Religious subjects were still popular in Dutch art of the 17th century, although not as popular as in the southern Netherlands. There, the Counter-Reformation ideal of revitalizing the Catholic Church motivated collectors and patrons to commission large altarpieces and other devotional pictures for their churches and private homes. Flemish artists, following Italian Renaissance practices, produced figure and composition studies in preparation for these narrative paintings.


The Dutch and Flemish drawings exhibition is accompanied by a 187-page catalogue written by Dr. Joaneath Spicer, Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, with the aid of Odilia Bonebakker, doctoral candidate at Harvard, and David Franklin, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Other venues

Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada (21 May-1 September 2003)
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Beaverbrook Art Gallery (20 November 2004-20 February 2005)