Karel van Mander  

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"Venus en is niet anders als de verborghen begeerlijckheyt en lust/die de Natuere bestelt en ghevoeght heeft in alderley dieren/tot voortteelinghe."--Wtlegghingh op den Metamorphosis Pub. Ovidij Nasonis by Karel van Mander

"Dat ik aan inlichtingen over de levens van de beroemde schilders minder verkregen dan nagejaagd heb, zou men mij met een medelijdend hart gaarne vergeven, als men maar merkte of wist, hoeveel ijver en moeite ik er naar mijn vermogen of schier boven mijn vermogen aan besteed heb. Doch wie is er in staat alles te volbrengen, wat hij zich met goeden wil ernstig voorneemt? Het zijn er weinigen." --Karel van Mander, via the introduction to Flemish Painters.

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Karel van Mander (May 1548 – 2 September 1606) was a Flemish-born Dutch painter and poet, who is mainly remembered as a biographer of Netherlandish artists in his Schilder-boeck. As an artist he played an important role in Northern Mannerism in the Netherlands.



He was born of a noble family at Meulebeke in modern West Flanders. He studied under Lucas de Heere at Ghent, and in 1568-1569 under Pieter Vlerick at Kortrijk. The next five years he devoted to the writing of religious plays for which he also painted the scenery. Then followed three years in Rome (1574–1577), where he is said to have been the first to discover the catacombs. On his return journey he passed through Vienna, where, together with the sculptor Hans Mont, he made the triumphal arch for the royal entry of the emperor Rudolph. In 1583 he settled in Haarlem where he lived and worked for 20 years on a commission by the city fathers to inventory "their" art collection; work that he later published in his "Schilder-boeck". While in Haarlem he continued to paint, concentrating his energy on his favorite genre: historical allegories. In 1603 he retired to the castle of Sevenbergen in Heemskerk to proofread his book that was published in 1604. He died soon after it was published in Amsterdam at the age of 58.

Haarlem Mannerists

Karel van Mander is considered the founder of the Haarlem drawing academy, although it is very unclear what this involved at this period - it was certainly not a regular school offering classes, probably an informal discussion group which may have sat for life-drawing together. He was considered an established expert when he arrived in Haarlem.

He had an important effect on Dutch art when in 1585 he showed his friend Hendrick Goltzius drawings he had by Bartholomeus Spranger, then the leading artist of Northern Mannerism, who was based in Prague as Rudolf's court artist. These had a galvanising effect on Goltzius whose style was immediately affected by them, and also made engravings of them which were important in disseminating Mannerist style. Van Mander, Goltzius and Cornelis van Haarlem, became known as the "Haarlem Mannerists" and artists from other towns joined the movement.

He received budding artists in his home for evenings of communal drawing and study of classical mythology. After the iconoclasm, religious themes had gone out of fashion and mythology gained popularity, but few painters could afford a trip to Italy as van Mander had done. His purpose was to educate young painters in the proper artistic techniques; he was a firm believer in the hierarchy of genres. It was his firm belief that only through proper study of existing works that true-to-life historical allegories could be achieved.

His own works included mannerist mythological subjects, but also portraits and genre paintings influenced by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and looking forward to the next century, such as the Kermis in the Hermitage Museum. Relatively few paintings by him survive.


Karel van Mander's "Schilder-boeck" (Painter book), written in 17th century Dutch and published in Haarlem in 1604 by Passchier van Wesbusch, describes the life and work of more than 250 painters, both historical and contemporary, as well as contemporary art theory for aspiring painters. During his travels and stay in Italy, van Mander had read and was influenced by Giorgio Vasari's famous biographical accounts of painters in his book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, often referred to as the "Vite". It was published in 1550 and republished in 1568 with woodcuts, which is the version Van Mander probably studied. He set about translating this great work into Dutch and it was during this project that he was offered the commission to inventory Haarlem's art collection, a job that resulted in the Netherlandish chapters of his book. In both books, the lives of the painters are told in the standard "Vita di ..." manner of Catholic saints, extolling the virtues of the painters one by one in several chapters. In van Mander's book, many chapters on Greek and Italian painters were simply translated into Dutch from the Italian "Vite", but the original biographical details on Haarlem painters is unique and was the result of van Mander's commission.

At the time van Mander was writing, Haarlem was recovering from its period under Spanish occupation, and though officially all Catholic property had been seized by the state since 1572, the city fathers had agreed to let nuns and monks 'die out' in their convents and monasteries, rather than seizing all of their possessions immediately and putting them out on the street. Indeed, putting the monks and nuns out of business had resulted in many more poor on the streets already, and when the new poorhouse "Oudemannenhuis", or "Old men's home" opened its doors in 1609, most of its occupants were Catholics. After van Mander's book was published, the Haarlem council hired Frans Hals to restore the more important paintings from the inventory and in 1628 the collection was moved to the city hall. All of the art that was considered too "Roman Catholic" was sold to Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen on condition that he "remove them outside the city walls".

Karel van Mander's book also contains a translation of Ovid's stories from Metamorphoses, meant for the artist who needed themes to paint that were based on mythology rather than religion. Symbolism was very important in painting at the time, and the use of Ovid's characters, combined with proper use of artist symbolism allowed the artist to tell a specific story. The last chapters of his book describe the meaning of animals and other figures.


He was the master of Frans Hals, and it was through him that Hals received his art restoration commission from the Haarlem city council. However, Hals certainly disregarded van Mander's conventional belief that history painting was the highest of the hierarchy of genres. His book brought a glimpse of Italy to the North-Netherlandish artists, and influenced them to travel, if not follow the book's instructions on Italian painting methods. The school that van Mander founded based on this work, continued in Haarlem after him for centuries. Aside from his son Karel van Mander the Younger and Frans Hals, his registered pupils were Cornelis Engelsz, Everard Crynsz van der Maes, Jacobus Martens (landscape painter and father of the painter Jan Martszen de Jonge), Jacob Martsen (genre painter), Jacob van Musscher, Hendrik Gerritsz Pot, and François Venant.

Van Mander was famously influential on the art writing of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Amongst others, Cornelis de Bie (Gulden Cabinet, 1662), Joachim von Sandrart (Teutsche Akademie, 1675), Filippo Baldinucci (Notizie de' Professori, 1681), and Arnold Houbraken (Schouburg, 1720) used material from his Schilderboeck for their biographical sketches of Netherlandish painters. His book is still the most-cited primary source in biographical accounts of the lives of many artists from his lists, but of most interest to historians is his criticism of their work, especially when he describes the location and owner of the paintings, thus becoming a valuable source for art provenance. The Schilder-boeck is part of the Basic Library of the dbnl (Canon of Dutch Literature) which contains the 1000 most important works in Dutch literature from the Middle Ages to today.

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