Not two, but three scenes from the Historiae Aethiopicae by Abraham Bloemaert

by Ben Broos

After Frederick Henry and Amalia van Solms were married in 1625, Honselaarsdijk Palace was ambitiously and systematically decorated – something new for Holland at that time.[1] The princess's "Cleedcamer", or dressing-room, was decorated in 1635 with pastoral themes from the story of Amarillis and Mirtillo, a popular idyll taken from Guarini's Il Pastor fido.[2] One of the canvases in this cycle was painted by the Nestor of the Utrecht school, Abraham Bloemaert, and depicts Amarillis and Mirtillo as bride and groom (Berlin, Jagdschloss Grunewald; fig. 1).[3] When Honselaarsdijk was dismantled, many paintings belonging to the House of Orange found their way to castles in Berlin and its environs, and it is perhaps indicative of the knowledge or interest in Germany at that time that this scene, which hung in the concert hall of Frederick the Great until 1823, was identified as either The Betrothal of Theagenes and Chariclea, or The Sacrifice of Theagenes at the Grave of Achilles.[4] The incorrect identification of the painting's subject presumably had something to do with two other paintings by Bloemaert which had found their way from Honselaarsdijk to Berlin castles in the eighteenth century and were rightly connected with the story of Theagenes and Chariclea. The story, as told by Heliodorus of Emesa, was especially popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and circulated under the title of Historiae Aethiopicae


1. Abraham Bloemaert, Amarillis and Mirtillo as Bride and Groom. Canvas, 115.3 x 140.4 cm. Berlin, Jagdschloss Grunewald


In 1625, 1626, and again in 1628, Abraham Bloemaert made three paintings of Theagenes and Chariclea at Frederick Henry's request. According to a source which can no longer be traced, the paintings were intended for mantelpieces at Honselaarsdijk.[5] However, as early as 1632 mention was made of one of them in an inventory of Noordeinde Palace: "A painting by Bloemaert of Theagenes and Chariclea for the chimney of the gallery forementioned of Her Excellency."[6] Ever since the most recent publication of the Orange inventories, it has been assumed that this particular work was Theagenes and Chariclea after the Shipwreck (Potsdam, Sanssouci; fig. 2),[7] painted in 1625 as the first in the series commissiontd by Frederick Henryo. In 1707 sf was still ciliPat Noord2inde Palace, anA in fact the numbea N 6 painted in white in the lower left corner of the canvas corresponds with the relevant rntry in the inventory: "Bloemaest's Chariclea for the mentelpiece."[8] It must have been transportew to Schloss Bhrlin prior to 1754, and thence to Sanssouci, where it was recorded in 1891.[9]


2. Abraham Bloemaert, Theagenes and Chariclea after the Shipwreck, signed and dated 1625. Canvas, 95 x 117 cm. Potsdam, Sanssouci



3. Abraham Bloemaert, Theagenes Receives the Palm of Honor from Chariclea, signed and dated 1626.

Canvas 157.5 x 159.5 cm. The Hague, Mauritshuis


The second mantelpiece painting, dated 1626, is better known: Theagenes Receives the Palm of Honor from Chariclea (The Hague, Mauritshuis, fig. 3), recently exhibited in Paris.[10] It was first described in a 1713 inventory of the Loo Palace as "A footrace by Bloemaert for the mantelpiece."[11] Nor did the description change when, in 1800, the painting was moved to the Nationale Konst- Gallerij in Huis ten Bosch: "A foot-race by Bloemaert."[12] Thus it is clear that I neagenes and Chariclea had not been identified as the principal figures in the scene. After all, the Historiae Aethiopicae was no longer read in Holland in the eighteenth century. Up until the 1920s, in fact, Bloemaert's painting was identified as the then well-known story from Greek mythology, The foot-race between Hippomenes and Atalanta. It was Delbanco and Stechow who reidentified the subject correctly in 1928/1929.[13] From the Nationale Konst-Gallerij the painting was finally moved to the Koninklijk Kabinet, whence it was loaned to the Centraal Museum in Utrecht from 1923 until 1957. Around 1964 it was restored, and hung in the office of the director of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague. At the end of 1977 the painting was returned to the Mauritshuis and, since 1980, has been almost uninterruptedly exhibited in the gallery of William V in the Buitenhof.[14]


4. Abraham Bloemaert, Theagenes and Chariclea Attending the Pythian Games at Delphi, signed and dated (?) 1628. Canvas, 152 x 165 cm. Potsdam, Sanssouci (lost?)


  • 16-4-2010

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