Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Engravings of Jacobus Houbraken

Jacobus Houbraken
(25 December, 1698, Dordrecht, Holland-14 November, 1780, Amsterdam, Holland)

Jacobus Houbraken, Self Portrait

In 1709, Arnold Houbraken, a well known and highly respected painter, engraver, art historian and author, moved to Amsterdam with his wife, Sara Sasbout Souburg, and family.  Among their ten children, was Antonyna (b. 31 May, 1686, Dordrecht, Holland-d. 12 December, 1736, Amsterdam, Holland), who would become an accomplished engraver, specializing in cityscapes, portrait drawings, and scenes embellished with animals and people; her older brother, Jacobus, accompanied them, too.
Arnold Houbraken, engraved by his son Jacobus Houbraken

Once in Amsterdam, Arnold Houbraken worked on religious and mythological paintings, portraits and landscapes; he wrote and published books on art, and started his most ambitious work, De Groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en shildressen (The Great Theatre of the Dutch and Flemish Painters, with their Portraits), a biographical dictionary of more than 500 of the best Dutch and Flemish artists, as selected by the author. De Groote schouburgh begins in 1466, with Volume I being published in 1718; Volume III ends in the middle of the Seventeenth Century. Plans for a fourth Volume were derailed with the author's death on 14 October, 1719.  Arnold Houbraken left Volume III unfinished, and the task of completing De Groote schouburgh fell on the author's widow and 21 year old son, Jacobus Houbraken, who engraved most of the plates after his father's designs. Art historian, Charles Sumner calls these plates “a family of rare beauty.”

One of the most accomplished and sought after portrait engravers of the Eighteenth Century, Jacobus Houbraken was born on 25 December, 1698, in Dordrecht, South Holland. From an early age Houbraken studied and apprenticed with his father, and was greatly influenced by the work of the leading Dutch engravers and draughtsmen: Cornelis Visscher (1629-Bef. 1662), whose ability to model drapery, mastery of skin tone and hair detail greatly impressed the young artist; Houbraken was also influenced by the work of Cornelis Cort (1533-1578) and Jonas Suyderhoef (1613-1686), who mastered the crosshatching technique, and the creation of contrast between light and dark, and degrees of darkness without the need of additional lines.

Houbraken studied the great French engravers of the seventeenth century, three of them, in particular were Robert Nanteuil (1623-1678), Pierre Drevet (1663-1728), and  Gerard Edelinck (1640-1707).  Nanteuil's engraving of Charles le Brun's painting of Pompone de Bellièvre has been called "foremost among his masterpieces [...,] the most beautiful engraved portrait that exists;"1 Drevet, was the first to master the art of translating the richness of oils to black and white engravings, and Edelinck who, though born in Antwerp, settled in Paris where he benefited from the patronage of Louis XIV, revolutionized the engraving world with his rendering of light, shade, “color” and texture.  In time, Houbraken's talent would be so great, that he surpassed these masters in their ability to capture textures and tones, to imitate the flesh and hair, and to “paint” light and shade with the graver.

Outside of the Netherlands, Houbraken is best known for his work on, Heads of Illustrious Persons of Great Britain (Title page by C. Grignion after Hubert François Gravelot), in collaboration with historian Thomas Birch and artist George Vertue, and published by John and Paul Knapton, London. The First Edition, containing a two page brief biography of British luminaries from the 14th to 18th Centuries, and 108 copper-engraved portraits, 94 of which were by Houbraken, was printed in two volumes; Volume I was published in 1743, and Volume II, in 1752.

Concurrently with Heads of Illustrious Persons, Houbraken engraved the portraits for Jan van Gool's Nieuwe schouburgh der Nederlantsche kunstshilders (New Theater of Netherlands' artists), published in Den Haag (1750-1751). Houbraken also contributed plates, including portraits of the author, to De Gedichten van Pieter Langendijk (The Collected Works of Peter Langendijk) (Haarlem, J. Bosch, 1751)

From 1752 to 1759, Houbraken worked on historian Jan Wagenaar's (1709-1773) epic history of the Netherlands, Vaderlandsche historie (Patriotic History), published in 21 parts by Isaac Tirion, in Amsterdam. Aside from the plate depicting the author, after a painting by Jan de Kruyff (1766), Houbraken engraved plates the plates of Willem Frederick von Orange Nassau, Jacob von Wassenaer Obdam, E.M. Kortenaar, A. Van der Hulst, Kornelis Evertsen, Jan Evertsen, Johan Meerman, Erasmus, Aert van der Goes, and Konig Charles V.

Late in life, when he was eighty, Houbraken executed what some consider his best work: scenes from the comedy “De ontdekte Schijndeugd.”

Houbraken was fond of using round or oval frames under which he wrote information on the subjects' claim to fame. Below this, he wrote notes on the original portrait from which the copper-plate was made, and where the original was housed at the time of the engraving. The portrait frame was often embellished with drapes, cherubs and vignettes showing the sitter's accomplishments. In contrast, Houbraken's plates for Jan Wagenaar's Vaderlandsche historie are more restrained, almost austere.

Throughout his career, Houbraken engraved many religious and mythological plates, and close to 500 portrait plates.  Aside from being an impressive record, Houbraken's oeuvre is an important documentation of history in art, representing, in many cases, the only pictorial documentation of the sitter. 

Dutch and Flemish art historian and author, Alfred Wolfgang Wurzback, called Houbraken an “elegant, excellent engraver,” and the Thieme-Becker-Lexikon hails him as “the most important and most fertile portrait engraver of the 18th Century.”

Jacobus Houbraken died in Amsterdam, on 14 November, 1780.

D. Pardo-Rangel 2011

Detail, George Villiers,
Duke of Buckingham

1 The Best Portraits in Engraving
Charles Sumner


Institute of Netherlands History

The Tisch Library

The Grove Dictionary of Art

The Best Portraits in Engraving
Charles Sumner
Federick Keppel & Co.
New York, 1875

Niederländisches Künstler-Lexicon
Alfred Wolfgang von Wurzbach
Verlag von Halm und Goldmann: Wien und Leizig, 1906

Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers
Vol. III p.77
George C. Williamson
London: Bell & Sons, 1927

A Biographical and Critical Dictionary of Painters and Engravers...Vol. I
Michael Bryan
London: George Bell & Sons, 1886

Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler von Antike bis zur Gegenwart
Leipzig, 1907-1950

Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition


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