Two Masterworks by Cornelis Kruseman, "Raphael of the North," Rediscovered

Posted by Eric Biggart on

Known to contemporaries as the “Raphael of the North,” Cornelis Kruseman (1797-1858) was considered the greatest Dutch painter of the first half of the nineteenth-century. His most important commission was four monumental paintings entitled Christ Blessing the Children (1853) Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1854), Christ Carrying the Cross (1851) and Christ Bewailed by the Women of Jerusalem. Until 1913, all four paintings were hung together at Castle Zeist, located outside the city Utrecht, which was home of the Moravian Church in the Netherlands. But, the works were separated and lost with the exception of one, The Lamentation, now located in the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam); where it is the only example of Kruseman’s work in the museum’s collection of religious Romantic painting.

The two paintings we have acquired, Christ Blessing the Children and Christ in the House of Mary and Martha have been in a private collection in California, where they have been stored for more than 40 years. The rediscovery of two of the four paintings coincides with recent combined efforts of the Netherlands Institute for Art History, Cornelis Kruseman Foundation, and Rijksmuseum to bring greater attention to Kruseman with a catalogue raisonnée and retrospective exhibition dedicated to his works, to be held in Amsterdam at the end of the year. (More here: http://www.iconclass.nl/rkdenglish/Projecten/cornelis-kruseman-1797-1857-raphael-of-the-north)

 

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Born in Amsterdam shortly before Napoleon’s annexation of the Kingdom of Holland (1806 - 1813), Cornelius Kruseman spent his first twenty years as a Dutchman living under French rule. Although the French occupation was temporary, for Kruseman it meant a long-time relationship with French art and artists. At age fourteen, Kruseman received a scholarship to study at the Amsterdamse Tekenacademie, a school for painters, sculptors, etchers, and architects that traced its lineage back to the Dutch Golden Age, including the workshops of Peter Paul Rubens, Johannes Vermeer, and Rembrant Van Rijn. His instructors were Charles Howard Hodges (British, 1764-1837), a British portraitist of European heads of State, and Jean Augustin Daiwaille (Dutch, 1786-1850), known for inculcating a love of seventeenth-century Dutch masters in his students.

Upon graduation, Kruseman travelled abroad first to France then Italy. In Paris, he frequented the studios of Jacques-Louis David, Horace Vernet, Antoine-Jean Gros, Jean-Baptist Isabey, and Ary Scheffer.  From Paris he went to Italy for several years.  His time in Italy eventually culminated in the publishing of a book-length account of his travels titled Aanteekingen van C. Kruseman, betrekkelijk deszelfs kunstreis en verblijf in Italië (i.e. A relation of travels and art in Italy by C. Kruseman). In it, he describes meeting Jean-Dominque Ingres (French, 1760-1867) and frequenting the studio of Betel Thorvaldsen (Danish, 1797-1838) where his friend Louis Royer (Flemish, 1793-1868) worked as an assistant to the sculptor. (While in Rome, Royer produced a portrait bust of Kruseman, now located in the Rijksmuseum collection.)

Upon returning to Holland, Kruseman established a studio in the Amsterdam, then the Hague. The combined success of his published account of travels through Italy and the post-war prosperity of Europe led to years of commissions for the artist. Kruseman specialized in religious scenes, and worked with clients in London, Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, and Geneva. (See “Timeline of Cornelis Kruseman.”) But in 1853, only five years before his death, Kruseman received arguably his most important commission: the four monumental paintings from the life of Christ for the Castle Zeist.

THE COMMISSION

Located just outside of Utrecht, the town of Seist was establish in the year 838 with the Slot Zeist (i.e. Castle Zeist) built sometime in the twelfth century. The Castle was eventually the home of descendants of the Prince of Orange, who represented Protestant Holland during the Reformation and wars with Spain.

THE PAINTINGS

Although he would return to the Netherlands to paint the works, the works were conceived and studies were executed in Rome, where Kruseman lived from 1841 to 1847. Krusemen then returned to his longtime studio and, possibly with the help of his son Jan Cornelius Kruseman, created the final works from 1847 to 1854.

Cornelis Kruseman (Amsterdam, 1797-Lisse, 1857) Christ Blessing the Children (1854) Oil on canvas. 120 x 77 in. Signed lower right, “C. Kruseman, 1853”

The first of these two paintings pictured above is Christ Blessing the Children, a theme taken from three of the four gospels (i.e. Matthew 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, and Luke 18:15-17). The account in Matthew describes Christ saying “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for such is the kingdom of heaven.”

In Krusemen’s depiction, Christ sits at the center surrounded immediately by children, with adults on the periphery. They are outdoors, sheltered by a palm tree — a reference to Christ’s forthcoming entrance to Jerusalem on a carpet of palm branches laid down by followers. Christ holds one child on his lap, while reaching out with the left hand to bless another. In the foreground, there are two kneeling children. One kisses the hem of Christ’s garment, the other — a young boy beautifully modeled in a way that reveals Kruseman’s mastery of the human figure — offers christ a white flower and withholds a red flower; surely a deliberate symbolic choice by the artist perhaps referencing Christ’s blood sacrifice.

In the upper left, three of Christ’s disciples look on. The frontmost appears to be John the Beloved, with a ray of light passing through the trees and glancing his hand and forehead. A small vine wraps around the trunk of the palm tree, a symbol of Christ as the True Vine (John 15:5). In the background, crowds from far away are gathering to where Jesus sits.

Cornelius Kruseman (Amsterdam, 1797- Lisse, 1858) Christus zegent de kinderen (1841) 272 x 238 mm. Graphite and chalk on paper. Collection of the Rijksmuseum. Object number: RP-T-1914-11

Cornelius Kruseman (Amsterdam, 1797- Lisse, 1858) Christus zegent de kinderen (1841) 272 x 238 mm. Graphite and chalk on paper. Collection of the Rijksmuseum. Object number: RP-T-1914-11

 

Cornelis Kruseman (Amsterdam, 1797-Lisse, 1857) Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1853) Oil on canvas. 120 x 77 in.Signed lower right, “C. Kruseman, 1854”

The second painting, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, is rich in overt and suggested symbols. In contrast to the previous painting, by near which it originally hung, the figures are all in the interior of a home. The subject is drawn from Luke 10:38-42:

38 ¶ Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.
40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.
41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:
42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

While this is a subject that has been treated many times in the history of art, Kruseman does something arguably unique in depicting the narrative by explaining the source of Martha’s concerns. Behind Christ, to the right are the disciples and to the left an empty table with two servants working to prepare a feast. The empty table has potential multiple meanings, including the table where the Last Supper was held, a reference to the death slab left empty the by Christ raising of Lazarus (i.e. Mary and Martha’s recently deceased brother), or the foreshadowing of  Christ’s own resurrection with the linens left behind.

Despite these potential and fascinating references, one statement by the artist is clearly made in Hebrew, written on a scroll held by Mary. It reads:

דאַחַת | שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת יְהֹוָה אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית יְהֹוָה כָּל 
יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם יְהֹוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ:

It is a rough, but accurate Hebrew rendition of Psalm 27:4:

One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

Although there is no reference between Luke 10:42 and Psalm 27:4 in the LDS version of the King James Bible, protestant exegesis from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries often used the two verses in tandem.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (c. 1654) Oil on canvas. 62 1/2 x 55 3/4 in. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.

Kruseman’s origins and artistic influences, a combination of Dutch imagery, neoclassical aesthetics, and naturalism that were combined effectively to create a rich, symbolic tableaux. Kruseman would have been well aware of depictions of Christ in the house of Mary and Martha done by Dutch and Flemish artists. His version seems to share more than a little with Johannes Vermeer’s 1655 depiction of the same subject. (See Images). Both rely on a fundamental pyramidal structure, with hand and eye gestures leading the viewer carefully around the composition. Kruseman takes the composition to a new level of complication, by including figures in the background. These are kept from distracting the viewer’s gaze by being painted with less resolution and in a more restrained palette.  The figures in the foreground are heavily classicized in a manner that would be consistent with an influence of Raphael or Andrea del Sarto, figures in the background are painted in a way that is more that is more naturalistic — an observational approach to the figure that reveals a broad mastery of the human figure by Kruseman, rather than a purely academic rigidity.

From the way that the landscapes of each work blends from one to the other, it appears that Christ Blessing the Children (1853) and Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1854) were intended to hang together. The aqueduct winding from one scene to another is both a reference to Christ as "Water of Life" and also a device used in the classicized landscapes of Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin. As a painter based in Rome, Kruseman would not have only been familiar with their works and had access to the same landscapes their inspired their works; but, his inclusion of a classical landscape suggests he is both placing Christ within the Roman aesthetics of his time and also, in the minds of contemporary artists, Kruseman’s mastery of the classical tradition as an artist based in Rome for many years.


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