The Lusty Creativity of Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem

A lesser-known Dutch master with a penchant for male backsides created some of the greatest homoerotic paintings of all time

Article by Arthur Lubow

Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “The Massacre of the Innocents” (1590) at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. (Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

I was walking through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a few years ago when I bumped up against an enormous painting that stopped me in my tracks. “The Massacre of the Innocents”, a depiction of the slaying of male babies ordered by King Herod in Bethlehem, placed me cheek by jowl with the most provocatively positioned, beefy male posterior I had ever seen in Western art. The naked butt jutted out, forcing the viewer of the painting to gaze up at the massive glutes and thighs, much like the mother of the unfortunate infant under the murderer’s knife. By comparison, the bathing soldiers in Michelangelo’s “The Battle of Cascina” (1504) — the Renaissance standard when it comes to portrayals of muscular male nudes from the rear — were 40-kilo weaklings. I wrote down the unfamiliar name of the artist: Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem. And then I more or less forgot about him.

Until, on a visit last winter to the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, I encountered three Cornelis pictures (the largest holding by an American museum) and remembered my intention to learn more about this Dutch painter. I obtained the massive catalogue raisonné. I talked to academic experts. I studied his work, and also that of his colleagues — Hendrick Goltzius being the most renowned — and his predecessors. I came away with the conviction that in a flare of lusty creativity, from the late 1580s until the early 1590s, this underappreciated Haarlem Mannerist produced some of the greatest — and strangest — homoerotic paintings of all time. And that this glaringly obvious fact had been studiously ignored in almost all the art historical commentary on his work.

Partly that’s because in Western art, at least until the 20th century, the object of the male-on-male gaze is virtually always an adolescent boy. The most celebrated of these models are Caravaggio’s smirking street urchins, who are coquettishly aware of their allure, even when they’re dressed up as St. John the Baptist. The men in “The Massacre of the Innocents,” however, are manifestly men, going about their nasty business. Weirdly, the muscular infants are also little men. And the acts of violence flavour the eroticism with a sadomasochistic tang.

As I familiarised myself with Cornelis’s work from this early period of his career, his predilections became apparent. “The Massacre of the Innocents” is just one of his evocations of fleshy buttocks on naked he-men. A year later, he did a second version of the 1590 painting, in which another murderous muscleman wreaks havoc in the foreground, while a pointy plant tickles the crack of his bare bottom. A little earlier, taking another Bible story as an opportunity for an all-male display, Cornelis painted “The Fall of Lucifer” (1588), which is now one of the star attractions in the National Gallery of Denmark, in Copenhagen. Here, too, a male rump dominates the foreground, but most of the attention is placed on a bevy of hunky angels as they topple from the heavens, permitting Cornelis to focus from different angles on the nether regions that most captivated him: the buttocks, scrotum and perineum.

Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “The Fall of Lucifer” (1588-90), also known as “The Fall of the Titans,” at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) in Copenhagen.

Penises he very often obscured. Indeed, the most riveting detail in “The Fall of Lucifer” is the transformation of a penis into a dragonfly. In itself this bio-morphing isn’t so novel — when Cornelis’s Flemish predecessor Frans Floris painted his own version of fallen angels, he turned the genitalia of one into an eagle’s head. But Floris’s beaky protuberance is a symbol, whereas Cornelis’s dragonfly, with its bulbous head and thick body, is as much a male sexual organ as it is an insect.

As I tracked the paintings of Cornelis from this period when he exaggerated the musculature of nudes in a Mannerist mode known as Knollenstil, I grew to recognize certain familiar bodies and poses. Still, I couldn’t help but gasp in astonishment when I came across an oil-on-paper grisaille drawing in the Getty Collection. It portrays the customary brawny nude dude, seated with his back to us, his butt cleavage exposed. However, instead of cutting the throat of a boy, he is passionately kissing one he holds in a tight embrace. A fantasy, obviously, because the little fellow has the chest and thighs of a bodybuilder.

In our day, it’s the sort of provocation that can get you sent up the river. So was the creator of these images a louche outsider, a kind of Mannerist Tom of Holland? Hardly. Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem was the son of a prominent cloth merchant, born into the city’s elite. During his early childhood, Haarlem was a center of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. When his father, and possibly also his mother, fled the city in 1573, 10-year-old Cornelis, who showed a precocious aptitude for drawing, stayed behind as an apprentice to a successful painter, Pieter Pietersz. Very quickly he surpassed his master, winning important commissions. His uninterrupted social climb was cemented in 1600 by his marriage to the widowed daughter of the Haarlem burgomaster, a position equivalent to chief magistrate or mayor.

Far from stirring up controversy, his paintings were coveted by the establishment. The second version of “The Massacre of the Innocents” was made for a grand official residence, the Prinsenhof. Another Prinsenhof commission resulted in “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” (1592-3), a mythological scene that covered an entire wall. These were the most prestigious assignments in the city, garnered by an artist not yet 30.

Even more intriguing than the support of the civil authorities is the early patronage of Jacob Rauwaert, a rich Amsterdam collector and dealer more than thirty years Cornelis’s senior, who had apprenticed with Maarten van Heemskerck, an originator of Knollenstil, before redirecting his energies from making art to buying and selling it. Rauwaert provided the financial underpinnings for the group of Italian-influenced artists that was later termed the Haarlem Academy. The eldest of the three artists at its core was Karel van Mander, a painter who came from Flanders in 1583, having previously spent three years in Rome. He made his mark in Haarlem as a critic and theorist. Goltzius, a draftsman of genius, won fame through his engravings. Cornelis was the ambitious and productive young painter with a gloriously theatrical bent.

Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “Two Male Nudes” (circa 1590) at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

In addition to “The Fall of Lucifer,” which, considering the execution time required, was probably commissioned, Rauwaert owned at least 15 paintings by Cornelis, including two other major canvases: “Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon” (1588) and “Hercules and Achelous” (1590). The “Dragon” — which occasioned a magnificent engraving based on its design by Goltzius, his first collaboration with Cornelis, dedicated to their patron — portrays the dreadful beast sinking its teeth into the face of one chap and its claws into the meaty, decapitated body of another. “It doesn’t look like he’s being devoured,” said Aaron Hyman, assistant professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University, when I remarked on the painting’s sadistic relish. “It’s more like he’s being tortured.” In Rauwaert’s third important Cornelis painting, “Hercules and Achelous,” the hero is seen grasping the horn of a river god that has taken the form of a bull.

These large paintings would have been displayed in the reception rooms of Rauwaert’s grand Amsterdam house. What did visitors think about all these lovingly limned male limbs? Probably nothing at all. Like the art historians who followed them centuries later, they would have remarked only on the thematic content. When the American art historian Julie L. McGee published a pioneering biography of Cornelis in 1975, she saw in “The Massacre of the Innocents” simply the theme of religious persecution, timely for Protestant resistors (Cornelis himself was raised Catholic) to Spanish rule. Pieter Van Thiel, in the compendious Cornelis catalogue raisonné that was his life achievement, ignores any homoerotic content in the oeuvre and writes, risibly, that a tepid late painting provided “evidence that he possessed more libido than he usually showed.” A more recent article by Lisa Rosenthal, an associate professor of art history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, analysed “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” of 1592-3 as a commentary on civic virtue. In the four centuries since Cornelis’s death, only Hyman, in a 2016 essay, has addressed the randy elephant in the room.

Hendrik Goltzius, after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, “A Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus” (1588). (Courtesy of The Rijksmuseum)
Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon” (1588) in the collection of the National Gallery, London. (© The National Gallery, London)

Like these art historians, visitors to Rauwaert’s house in the late 16th century would have known that the downfall of Lucifer was a biblical tale. The stories of the followers of Cadmus and the defeat of Achelous they would have read in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” a book that was translated into Dutch in 1552 and became the most popular classical text in the Low Countries. (Van Mander called it the Bible of painters.) The most sophisticated callers might have remarked on the flesh tones of the disgraced angels in “The Fall of Lucifer.” While many are ruddy-colored, as the convention dictated for a male nude, others with equally formidable muscles are pale-skinned. Would connoisseurs have presumed that Cornelis was dividing his troupe between sodomites, who take the active role in sexual penetration, and passive catamites? If so, they would have taken it in stride. “The people who would have been sensitive to these variations in the colour of flesh were people intimately familiar with Book 10 of ‘Metamorphoses,’ with stories of Jupiter and Ganymede, and Hyacinthus and Apollo,” said Walter Melion, a professor of art history at Emory University who has written extensively on Van Mander and Goltzius. “They all knew this literature of man-man and man-boy love. It’s amazing what is licit among a group of elite educated men who are steeped in poetry and the visual arts.”

One of the greatest influences on the Haarlem Academy was the Flemish painter Bartholomeus Spranger, who worked in Prague in the court of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Bohemia. Rudolf II, a libertine bachelor with advanced aesthetic tastes, reportedly took male as well as female lovers. Prints made to Spranger’s designs, including masterly engravings by Goltzius, circulated throughout Europe. “One reason that the very explicit painting is going on in Haarlem is because it is licensed by the emperor,” Melion said. “A lot of those prints have dedications to very important people associated with the court of Rudolf II.” Many of Spranger’s best paintings are erotically charged scenes of men and women that deal formally with the question of hiding and revealing sexuality. “Extreme torsion is Spranger’s trademark,” Melion said. “The eros is to a great extent in what the body shows and conceals by turning. It’s a way of dealing with a taboo subject — explicit sexuality — because it reveals and conceals at the same time.”

The two male figures in the Getty drawing are torqued to the breaking point. The provenance of the drawing is unknown. That is “often the case,” I was told by George R. Goldner, the curator who acquired it for the Getty at an auction in Paris in 1984. Some experts, primarily Van Thiel, attributed the work to another artist, Jan Muller, who favoured the extravagant dimpling in evidence here. But Muller is not known ever to have worked in oils, and in general, he exaggerated the Knollenstil to the point of caricature.

In the late ’80s, William W. Robinson, who is an emeritus curator of drawings at the Harvard Art Museums, suggested the piece might be a depiction of Jupiter and Ganymede. When I remarked to him that it lacks any of the usual iconography — an eagle for Jupiter, a cup for Ganymede — he agreed. “I probably would feel differently now,” he said. “There was a sense 30 years ago that anything with a finished appearance like this had a subject, however arcane and undecipherable.”

Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “The First Family” (1589) at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper in France. (Courtesy of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper)

In fact, what the drawing refers to is not Ovid but the Bible — and, more specifically, to a Cornelis painting, “The First Family,” now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Quimper, France. In that 1589 canvas, Adam and Eve are depicted with their two sons. Although this is post-Eden, all are naked. Eve is offering her breast to the younger child, while Adam clasps the alarmed-looking older boy. The pose of the naked man in the painting is similar to the one in the drawing, down to the rock on which his bare butt is resting. But the body of the toddler, softly cherubic and mostly obscured in the painting, is muscular and completely exposed in the drawing. In addition to the passionate embrace, there is a subtler allusion there, too: the man’s large hand melds with the arm of the boy. “One limb elides into another limb — that is a way of indicating coitus,” Melion told me.

So who received this beautiful finished drawing, and would have appreciated how Cornelis had transformed the scene of a father dandling his son to one of a man engaged in sexual intercourse with a boy? The question may never be definitively answered. “We have very little information on who the audience at this period for drawing was,” Robinson said. There are few known finished drawings (as distinct from working or preparatory sketches) by the Haarlem Mannerists or Spranger.

My informed conjecture leads me to believe it had to have been Rauwaert. As Hyman pointed out, coded references to gay relations lurk in the Cornelis works that the Amsterdam merchant owned. In “Hercules and Achelous,” beneath the bull’s balls Cornelis placed a miniature scene of Hercules’s previous slaying of the serpentine Hydra. The pink tip of a snakelike tail, which has curled to form a circular opening (“a not-so-subtle reference to penetration,” Hyman said), extends toward the flushed buttocks of the hero. The engraving of the dragon that Cornelis and Goltzius made as a gift for Rauwaert “has the same circle, penetrated forcefully by its own leg,” Hyman noted. The homoeroticism in “The Fall of Lucifer” is far more blatant. “How is it that people can look at these paintings and not see this?” Hyman said. “There are tropes that cover it up. It’s ‘classical antiquity’ or it’s ‘the massacre of the innocents.’ It’s literally hiding in plain sight. You have to inhabit the space where you’d want to see it. Otherwise you can overlook it.”

Rauwaert died in March 1597. The change in Cornelis’s style in the mid-1590s to a more decorous, less vigorous mode is usually attributed to the influence of Goltzius, who returned to Haarlem in the winter of 1591-2 from a sojourn in Italy with a new and infectious enthusiasm for the paintings of Raphael, Correggio and Veronese. But what was the impact of the loss of Rauwaert as a patron? Impossible to know. Surely, though, for a few years, when the youthful Cornelis produced what would be the greatest paintings of his long career, he was in perfect sync with his chief patron. Rauwaert, whose widespread generosity toward artists was reported by van Mander, once gave Cornelis a present of a diadem of pearls. It may have been in appreciation for the engraving made in collaboration with Goltzius. But I can easily envision Rauwaert retreating to his library, opening a drawings cabinet fashioned from ebonized oak, lifting out an exquisite rendering of muscular man-boy love, and pondering how best to thank the artist who made it for him.