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The Bentvueghels (old Dutch for gang of birds) is a somewhat curious name for an artist group. And at the same time very appropriate, because the members formed a mess, with silly nicknames. But they could paint fantastically, as can now be seen in a large exhibition in the Central Museum.
Text and photos: Evert-Jan Pol
Many a painter traveled to Italy in the seventeenth century for the necessary inspiration. The same goes for the group of artists from the Northern and Southern Netherlands who settled in Rome around 1620 and united there in a brotherhood. They called themselves the Bentvueghels (pronounced bentveugels). The name refers to how the members saw themselves: as a ‘gang of birds’ who were not guided by applicable rules and conventions. In Rome they came together to draw and paint, but also to party together.
In Rome, a city that was both vibrant and dangerous, it was nice to be able to hang out with people who spoke the same language and had the same customs. The Dutch and Flemish artists sought each other’s company and support. They acted like young students in the fraternity. There was an exuberant hazing ritual, followed by an inauguration.
What such an initiation and inauguration looked like can be seen in three prints by Matthijs Pool, based on just as many paintings by Domenicus van Wijnen. It is on the first picture tableau vivant (living painting) that the Bent brothers performed for the new Bent member. The presentation of the so-called Bentbrief (a kind of certificate) is depicted on the second print. The new member had to kneel to accept that letter from the ‘supreme priest’ of the company. The third image represents the lavish banquet, for which the new Bentbroeder had to pay the undoubtedly high bill.
During the inauguration, the new member was ‘baptized’ and given his nickname. Because baptism is a holy sacrament for Roman Catholics, the artists sometimes got into trouble.
The Bent name was mainly based on the appearance, behavior, character or artistic qualities of the new member. Jan Asselijn, for example, was nicknamed crab. According to artist biographer Arnold Houbraken, he got it because of his “scorched hand, and crooked fingers”, with which he could barely hold a palette.
The Utrecht painter Jacob de Heusch was teasing his Bent brothers Print (Copia). They thought that he followed the work of his uncle Guilliam de Heusch too closely, making it almost impossible to distinguish their work from each other.
Some nicknames are easy to explain. This is how the Flemish artist Jan Miel was nicknamed Honey bee. He undoubtedly owed this to his last name. The Italian word for honey is miele. With other names, the origin is somewhat more obscure. Matthias Withoos became Calzetta bianca named. Literally this means white sock. Was he wearing white socks all the time? Or did hoos, which means boot, among other things, perhaps also used to mean stocking?
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Every Dutch and Flemish artist could become a Bentbroeder; membership was not subject to any conditions. The group was therefore a colorful group: some members were poor and others wealthy and successful. They helped, supported and competed with each other. And as a group they were not averse to a party. Some paintings in the exhibition show the members during exuberant bacchanals. The Bentvuegels were notorious for such drinking bouts, during which they made sacrifices in a playful way to Bacchus, god of wine. It is said that these celebrations eventually led to Pope Clement XI in 1720 banning such gatherings outside the Carnival.
But above all, the Bentvueghels were very talented artists. The exhibition in the Centraal Museum includes more than a hundred works of art that provide insight into the life and artistic practice of the Bentvueghels. Drawing outside was important to them. They copied buildings and sculptures from Classical Antiquity and also drew and painted cityscapes and landscapes. In the exhibition, for example, beautiful Italianate landscapes can be seen, by Jan Both (nickname unknown), Cornelis van Poelenburch (Satyr) and Jan Baptist Weenix (Ratchet).
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There is also attention Bambocciate, drawings and paintings that deal with Roman folk life. These works were very popular in Rome, much to the chagrin of the lofty Accademia di San Luca. Well-known Dutch Bambocciants were Jan Miel and Pieter van Laer. The latter owes its nickname to this: Il Bambooccio. The exhibition also contains history and genre paintings, mythological scenes, portraits and still lifes.
All these works – one even more beautiful than the other – hang in an extremely atmospheric setting, with beautiful vistas and in some places meter-high canvases as artistic partitions. And because the nicknames formed an important part of the Bentvueghels, they adorn the works like a kind of crown. Heremyt, Stirrup and Nestelghat; his and many other Bentbroeders are reviewed in this eye-catching overview of a crazy artist society.
The Bentvueghels. A notorious art society in Rome, until 4 June in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht