The "Artful and Celebrated" Maerten van Heemskerck
Highly regarded by his fellow artists, Maerten van Heemskerck (1498–1574) was an important contributor to the development of Renaissance painting in the Netherlands. His forceful pictorial style fused the Northern tradition of verisimilitude with a bold palette and expressive physiognomies inspired by ancient sculpture and contemporary Italian painting.
Much is known about Heemskerck's career, thanks to his biographer, the Dutch painter Karel van Mander (1548–1606), who described him as "artful and celebrated" (constigh vermaert) in 1604. Based on interviews with Heemskerck's family and friends in the early 1580s, Van Mander recounted that young Heemskerck, son of a prosperous farmer, left the village of Heemskerck (northwest of Amsterdam) against his father's wishes to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. His ambitions led him to the Haarlem studio of Jan van Scorel (1495–1562) in the late 1520s. Van Scorel had achieved fame for his sculptural style developed over the course of about four years in Venice and Rome. Heemskerck quickly absorbed and then modified Van Scorel's Italianate manner, becoming an adept painter of portraits and religious subjects, before following his master's example and embarking on his own trip to Italy in 1532.
In Rome, Heemskerck was one of a small group of artists from the Netherlands, part of the second wave of painters from the North who incorporated the lessons of ancient and modern Rome into their work. In the mid-1530s, Heemskerck was attentive to the expressive figures and rich palette of Raphael (1483–1520) but was particularly stimulated by the stylish painters of his own day: Michelangelo's (1475–1564) Sistine chapel ceiling, with its robust physicality and brilliant palette, was an inspirational modern monument.
Heemskerck also made numerous drawings of ancient buildings in and around the Forum, as well as the antiquities assembled by eminent collectors. His sketches provide valuable insight into the artistic and archaeological interests of Renaissance Rome.
Heemskerck returned home to Haarlem in about 1537 and immediately became one of the region's leading painters and an influential print designer. His style was distinctive and aggressive and unlike any of his predecessors or contemporaries. The Ecce Homo altarpiece exemplifies his style of the mid-1540s, when restless energy infused his figures, exaggerated expressions grabbed the viewer's attention, and vibrant color combinations tantalized the eye. It vividly juxtaposes the dynamic style of his religious subjects with the elegant approach to portraiture for which he was admired by contemporaries.
During the relatively calm and prosperous years of the mid-1500s, Heemskerck executed numerous large altarpieces for guilds and more modest works for private across the region. He lived long enough, however, to see the destruction of many of his works by Protestant iconoclasts in 1566 and to experience the uncertain circumstances for artists in the years that followed. A generous philanthropist, he died at age 76 and was remembered by Van Mander as a "special light for art in his time."