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 20,000-sheet file this Tuesday. The works are on loan from the Jean van Caloen Foundation, which manages the estate after the Belgian aristocrat Van Caloen, who built an impressive art collection in the first half of the last century. The drawings are made by artists from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, especially from Holland, Italy and France. The selection of seven sheets by Michelangelo and Jacob Jordaens, among others, which the Groening Museum only shows for 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 scale of the artist’s fame, and because it is the only Michelangelo drawing in a Belgian collection. The artist has made a smooth sketch in black chalk of the scene of Saint Stephen’s martyrdom. 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 around him are arranged in a much looser way.
All figures are stark naked: striking for the execution of a church official who almost always wears a deacon’s clothing in the visual arts. This indicates that the artist was dealing with a first attempt at a composition, not a detailed preliminary study. Such compositional sketches, in this case also for a painting or relief, which are no longer known or have never been executed, are rare among Michelangelo’s surviving drawings.
A figure study of a standing naked man in red chalk by Cristoforo Roncalli (ca. 1552-1626), a painter named ‘Il Pomarancio’ after his hometown in Tuscany, is quite a different character. The man is depicted frontally and comes, with a kind of vase in his hands, and the lifted right leg in greatly shortened, directly towards the viewer. It appears that the top was made as a studio for one of the figurative frescoes with which Pomarancio adorned the palace in Rome.
An intimate portrait drawn by the eighteenth-century French painter François Boucher shows a young woman in the middle (ca. 1730). On her somewhat chubby head, whose profile is drawn, she wears a simple lace hat. The scene is elaborated so detailed and executed so subtly in red and black chalk with highlights in white that in this case it does not appear to be a studio 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 sitting on a cloud and holding their respective attributes, harp and sword. Both wash pen drawings with 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 of a series of prints that were probably never made. Together with four drawings that Stradanus made of scenes from the passion of Christ, these sheets are a fine complement to the collection of the Bruges museums, which do not have drawings themselves, but still have prints and an oil painting of Stradanus.
Works from the foundation’s possession also fit into the existing collection in other ways. Drawings of 17th century members of the Quellinus artist family can e.g. found in pendants, and the sketchbook of the 19th-century painter of historical scenes Henri Leys (1815-1869) completes the collection of graphics that the museum acquired from this artist in 2014.. The public around the transfer makes part of a point about such connections, as if there should be some kind of justification for something.
With Michelangelo, no one cares for a second. There is not even any reference to the unusual fact that a marble Madonna and a child by his hand have been in Our Lady’s Church in Bruges for more than five hundred years.