The Golden Age
Pen and brown ink, brush in grey and brownish grey, heightening and corrections in white gouache (lead oxide formations in places), over a sketch in black chalk
Inv. No. 2878
44.3 × 69.3 cm
Abraham Bloemaert was one of the leading painters in Amsterdam, and later above all in Utrecht, in the early Baroque period. This large-scale pen and brush drawing of the »Golden Age«, executed as a finished picture, is his most significant work of graphic art. The composition – which may have been intended as a work of art in its own right or as the basis for an engraving – achieved substantial fame through its circulation in the form of prints as well as in a number of painted copies, a circumstance which may have been a factor in Johann Friedrich Städel’s decision to buy the drawing on the French art market, probably in the late eighteenth century. According to the Greek poet Hesiod’s account of world history – which served as a source to many other writers of classical antiquity – the human race originally lived in a state of peace and happiness in which, having no other needs, it found sustenance in the rich fruits furnished by bounteous Nature. This »golden« age was followed by successively deteriorating eras up to the present one, which is described as sombre and immoral. The vision of the paradisiacal »Golden Age« attracted artists and art admirers from the Renaissance onwards, either as a much-desired vision of the future or as a proclamation that it had returned, for instance with the accession of a new ruler. The sufferings of the Netherlands as a result of their war of independence against Spain may well have given rise to a longing for peace and happiness which would explain the success of Bloemaert’s composition. It shows lightly clad people of all ages scattered in loose groups in a landscape which, though in its natural state, unshaped by man, is in no way threatening. In the foreground a little boy is blowing soap bubbles into the air, a didactic reminder of how ephemeral the state of happiness is. These people, of whom some are gathering fruit, are surrounded by various animals, while Saturn, who presides over the Golden Age, looks down from a cloud. The poses of the figures reflect Bloemaert’s Mannerist background, whereas the emphasis he places on the naturalistic depiction of animals and plants points ahead to the realism of the Baroque.