Dossier:Painters and Drebbel

From Cornelis Drebbel
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Haarlem, Goltzius

During his whole life Drebbel has had close contacts with painters and graphical artists.It all started around 1590 with his training time in Hendrick Goltzius studio. In that period Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem together with Hendrick Goltzius, his good friend, the painter and writer Karel van Mander and other artists, started an informal drawing school that has become known in art history circles as the Haarlem Academy or "Haarlem Mannerists". Probably this was a very informal grouping, perhaps meeting to draw nude models, and certainly to exchange artistic views. As a result of their trips abroad, they were quite familiar indeed with the trends in Italy and elsewhere. Jacob de Gheyn II and Jacob Matham were active students in that period, as well as Claes Jansz Clock and Petrus Overraat. Drebbel must also have met Goltzius' teacher Dirck Volkertsz. Coornhert.

Van Manderen was at the origin of three of Drebbel's engravings:

The Judgement of Solomon
Esther and Ahasverus

Others, such as Feeling (from the Five Senses) and the Seven Liberal Arts were made after Hendrick Goltzius.


Drebbel 1604
Concerning portraits of Cornelis Drebbel, there are only a few realistic ones. Most of them served as an illustration to his books. The first one was made in 1604 by another Gotlzius pupil (Christoffel van Sichem). Others are dated 1608 (Henrichen von Haestens's book), 1621 (slightly modified copy of van Sichem 1604) and 1628 (Burggrav's book). Furthermore there is Drebbel's selfportrait from Stolcius' Album Amicorum in 1623. All the other portraits seem to be artist impressions of the former. Did Antony van Dijck meet Drebbel during his stay in London in 1620? Drebbologist Hubert van Onna still has doubts about one of his paintings. Is this really Mark-Antoine Lumagne? Read more here.


When Drebbel moved to England in 1604 Robert Peake the Elder was appointed picture maker to the heir to the throne, Prince Henry. Isaac Oliver had become a painter of James I's court, painting numerous portraits of the queen Anne of Denmark and Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, and John de Critz held the post of Serjeant Painter to king James I of England whereas Marcus Gheeraerts became a favorite portraitist of James I's queen Anne of Denmark. We didn't find detailed accounts about their contacts with Drebbel but it seems quite probable that they have worked together. It is well documented for example that John de Critz painted "bravely" for court masques, dramatic spectaculars which required elaborate scenery and scenic effects, where Drebbel was also involved.

Perpetuum Mobile

Among Drebbel's inventions, the Perpetuum Mobile was the one that attracted the attention of many draftsmen-scientists and painters. In the first years after its announcement the focus was laid on "technical drafts" giving an idea of its components and function. This slideshow displays those from John Speed (1604), Antonini (1612), Heinrich Hiesserle von Chodaw (1607? or 1612), Thymme (1612), William Sanderson (?), Jakob Fetzer, Joachim Morsius.

In the 1620's, after Drebbel's stay in Prague, his fame spread around Europe and his Perpetuum Mobile became a 'desiderata' to many influential people. This was the era where Cabinets of Curiosities / Kunstkammer became popular and where various famous painters chose these Galleries as a subject. Among them:

Consequently we've been able to identify at least 13 representations of the Perpetuum Mobile on paintings made between 1620 and 1650.

Amongst those painters Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) apparently was the most actively involved with Drebbel's instrument. In a letter written 1623, the French intellectual Nicholas Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) asked Peter Paul Rubens to procure him a Perpetuum Mobile from Antwerp , and the instrument was duly delivered in 1625. According to Tierie: "There was most probably an instrument in Brussels, too — the one, perhaps, which was made by Drebbel for the Archduke Albert of Austria, from whom he had received a present of a microscope. A few particulars regarding this apparatus have come down to us. De Peiresc writes to Rubens, the painter, on June 29th, 1623, hereby proving that the principle was known to him: `Monsieur Rubens will not forget, when passing through Brussels, to go — if it suits his pleasure — to take another look at Drebbel's instrument showing the ebb and flow of the sea, and to take very accurate note of its measurements, especially of the little hole, through which the water is poured and of the space taken up completely by the water as by the air; and further he should ask the care-taker, whether the water has to be renewed often or not, or whether a little of the water should be replaced by fresh ; where the instrument should be placed, in a dry or a damp place and whether this difference of place would do any damage.'"