Willem Janszoon Blaeu


Artist Biography:

Willem Janszoon Blaeu and his two sons, Joan (1596-1673) and Cornelis (dates uncertain, but he died in approximately 1642) were possibly the most influential of all Dutch cartographers during the flowering of the profession in the Netherlands in the first half of the 17th century. Willem was born at Alkmaar in 1571 and worked initially as a clerk in the family herring trade. However, he was not happy with his occupation and left home in 1594 to study mathematics and astronomy under Tycho Brahe, the famous Danish astronomer. He then established a business in Amsterdam in 1599 as a globe and instrument maker. His business flourished and his reputation grew. He was the first map-maker to produce single sheet maps of many European countries. In 1605 he made a wall map of the world, encompassing 20 sheets, each 8 feet across. This map was by far the most accurate of the period and made an outstanding contribution to knowledge of world geography. His map remained the most accurate until 1648, when his son, Joan, who also became a famous map-maker, updated it. His major achievement however was the production of his first atlas in 1630. Using some plates from the Mercator Atlas which he bought from Jodocus Hondius II, he was able to publish a 60-map volume with the title Atlantis Appendix. Five years later he published the first two volumes of his major world atlas, entitled Atlas Novus or the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which was planned to include the most precise and up-to-date maps of the entire known world. At approximately the same time, he was appointed Hydrographer to the East India Company. When Blaeu died in 1638, his business was inherited by his two sons, Joan and Cornelis. Cornelis died fairly soon after his father, but Joan continued with his father’s ambitious plans and eventually the whole series of 6 volumes of the eminent Blaeu atlas was completed by around 1655. As soon as it was completed, he began an even larger task, the Atlas Maior, which was eventually published in 11 volumes in 1662 and contained nearly 600 double-page maps and 3,000 pages of text. Blaeu’s Atlas Maior remains perhaps the most magnificent work of its kind ever published; the engraving was of an exceptionally high quality and the elaborate cartouches and pictorial additions made the maps not only relatively accurate but also decoratively extremely appealing. The name ‘Blaeu’ was actually a family nickname which Willem took up after confusion had occurred between himself and his great rival Johannes Janssonius.

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