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Johannes Craco (Utrecht 1743/1745-1807 Amsterdam)


with attributions ‘craco’ and ‘J/ Craco’ and with inscription ‘X […] 8’ and ’15’ (verso)
black chalk, grey and brown wash, touches of white heightening, graphite framing lines
17 x 11.7 cm

Private collection, The Netherlands.

Craco’s start in life was challenging; when still a toddler his father passed away which prompted his widowed mother to move back to Utrecht. [1] Soon after, she too passed away (in 1747) leaving the young Johannes as an orphan. When Craco was around 15 years old, he was admitted to the ‘Fundatie van Renswoude’ boarding school in Utrecht, a then newly established foundation for orphaned boys, called élèves, where they could develop their artistic (and mathematical) talents. When Craco was admitted, the foundation had just opened its newly built premises on the Agnietenstraat which was especially designed (and very lavishly built and furnished) for the foundation. Besides lessons in mathematics, French and English, Craco received two-hour drawing lessons four days a week. His teacher was Hendrik van Velthoven (1728-1770), who specialised in portrait painting, and Craco followed his master’s example and specialised in portraits too. His first known portraits drawings date from around 1765, [2] and these were highly praised by Cornelis Ploos van Amstel. [3] His artistic talents were evidently appreciated by the regenten of the foundation as they commissioned Craco to produce a ceiling decoration as well as four overdoor paintings in the regentenkamer in the foundation which are still in situ today.
Several portrait drawings by Craco that he executed during his years at the foundation have survived. [4] They are part of a series of large portrait drawings showing élèves from the foundation, executed by different hands, which are still kept at the foundation and which provide a fascinating insight in the late 18th century cultural climate in Utrecht. Craco himself was portrayed in a (badly damaged) drawing from this series too; he is shown with brushes and a maulstick in his hand while directly looking at the viewer and wearing the foundation’s uniform.
In 1770, Craco received the first price for drawing at the Utrecht Stads Tekenschool and a month later he left for Paris with a stipend of 800 guilders a year. There he had to secure a good teacher, which he found in the person of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1804). He remained in Paris for four years and returned to Holland in 1774 where he settled in Amsterdam. He stayed there for the rest of his career and remained active as a painter and draughtsman until his death in 1807.
Despite the fact that he worked as an independent artist his entire adult life, very few works by his hand have survived. The present portrait, as such, is a rarity and it was most likely executed after the artist had established himself as an independent artist; he is no longer wearing the uniform from the foundation of Renswoude, but fashionable clothes and wig, while looking confidently at the viewer. A drawing, on which the artist still seems to be working, is laid down on the table before him. Another self-portrait, executed in oil later in the artist’s career was sold at auction in 1998. [5]

[1] M. Langenbach, 'Onbekend Talent. Leerlingen van de Utrechtse Fundatie van Renswoude 1761-1795', Zutphen, 1991, p. 25.
[2] M. Langenbach, 'op. cit.', p. 25.
[3] 'ibid.', p. 25.
[4] 'ibid.', no. 6, ill; no. 7, ill.; no. 13, ill.
[5] sold at Christie’s, Amsterdam, 18 March 1998, lot 81.

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