Schelte Adams à Bolswert was one of the primary engravers who worked in the studio of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). His job was to translate Rubens’ works into prints of ink, carefully constructed from the painstaking work of etching lines into a metal plate. Bolswert was a master of his craft, and the numerous prints he produced for Rubens have often been considered indistinguishable from the masters’ original works.
Bolswert was born in the city from which he took his name, Bolswert (also known as Bolsward), located in the Netherlandish province of Friesland. Along with his brother, Boetius Adams à Bolswert (c. 1580-1633), Bolswert had aspirations as an etcher. This artistic medium had been steadily growing through the 16th century to be seen as something of interest and use to artists. If their works could be reproduced in prints, they might be able to make more money off one single piece. Furthermore, with developments involving the printing press, the renown of an artist could spread further across Europe as their prints were disseminated.
The exact details of the early years of Bolswert’s career are a little hazy. It is known that he worked for a time in Amsterdam and Haarlem. He also found employment in the studio of Gérard Thibault in Brussels, working on his publication ‘Academie de l'Espée,’ a mountainous book which involved 16 engravers in total.
Perhaps it was this publication, as well as Bolswert’s other work, which brought him to the attention of Peter Paul Rubens. When Bolswert and his brother arrived in Antwerp, potentially to evade persecution for their Catholic faith during the Reformation, they found employment in the master artist’s workshop. Rubens required them to make prints of his work, done with great skill and uncanny imitation. It was quite the task, but one that Bolswert was more than adept to complete.
Were it not for the small signature marking each print, one would not be able to tell Bolswert’s works were not Rubens’ own. Bolswert wielded his burin, the tool with which markings are made, with such delicacy yet such confidence, he could eerily copy the master’s originals. His works have often been used as examples to later engravers of virtuoso skill. 18th-century French engraver Pierre-François Basan (1723-1797), highly praised Bolswert’s work in his dictionary of engravers, encouraging readers to look to Bolswert for the prime example of what a print should be.
Indeed, Bolswert was also greatly admired by his employer. In many cases, it has been agreed that there was minimal, if any, retouching done to Bolswert’s prints by Rubens. The master was clearly happy with his work. There is much about Bolswert’s style that suggests it suited the master well, for it echoed the style of his former etcher, Lucas Vosterman the Elder (1595-1675).
Yet Bolswert also elaborated on Vosterman’s style. He focussed on the precision and application of the lines which built up tone and depth in his pieces, creating a style that was regimented yet adaptable. The effect is to create works which have fluidity, a sleekness through uniformity, only using lines and not dots, as others did, which only adds to their sophistication. His works are just as masterful as his master’s.
Bolswert was particularly praised for his translation of Rubens’ landscapes. It is in these larger, sweepingly grand works that the incredible quality of his works can be best understood. Bolswert’s orderly lines can channel the many moods of nature, its many faces and personalities. Great storm clouds swell and cast a shadow down upon a tumultuous terrain. The elegant stretch of tree branches are languid lines, topped with a bushel of leaves and foliage.
After Bolswert’s brother’s death in 1633, he became the master etcher for Rubens until the artist himself passed away in 1640. For a short while after this time, Bolswert worked for Rubens’ student, and master artist in his own right, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Once again, Bolswert was able to adapt the artists’ style into prints with sophistication and clarity.
Van Dyck would die only a year later, in 1641. What became of Bolswert until his own death in 1659 is unclear, although it seems likely he would have continued to produce prints after the great masters. He is not known to have taken on any pupils.
There is also some evidence to suggest that Bolswert only had one eye, although there is little evidence to repute this.
Schelte Adams à Bolswert was a master of his craft, etcher to the master artists of the 17th century. An innovator in his craft, he produced works of sophistication, with clean lines which captured both the precision and excellency of Rubens’ works and the emotion.
Born in Bolsward (Bolswert), Friesland, Netherlands.
Lived and worked in Haarlem, Netherlands.
Moved to Brussels, Belgium.
Brother Boetius Adams a Bolswert died.
Died in Antwerp, Belgium.