Abraham Bloemaert was born on Christmas Eve 1566 in Gorinchem to Cornelis Bloemaert and Aeltgen Willems. Shortly after Abraham’s birth, Cornelis, a highly esteemed sculptor, architect, and engineer, moved the family to s’Hertogenbosch in the southern Netherlands to assist in the restoration of the Sint Janskerk, which had been damaged in the iconoclasm of 1566. The Bloemaert family stayed in s’Hertogenbosch until around 1571, when they returned to Gorinchem. Abraham’s mother died in Gorinchem sometime before 1576. By that year the family had moved again to Utrecht, where Abraham would remain for the rest of his life, albeit with a few short interludes.
Abraham’s early artistic training was inconsistent and patchy. His biographer, Karel van Mander (1548–1606), reported that the artist always regretted his lack of proper instruction. Besides his father, he had no fewer than six teachers of little renown, including the Utrecht artists Gerrit Splinter and Joost de Beer. In 1581 or 1582 he traveled to Paris, where he worked with “Iehan Bassot,” a certain “Maistre Herry,” and Hieronymus Franck. Abraham returned to Utrecht three years later and began assisting his father in his studio. In 1591, Cornelis took Abraham and another pupil, Hendrick de Keyser (1565–1621), to Amsterdam, where he was later appointed city engineer. Although Abraham was only in Amsterdam until 1593, it was there that he set up his own studio and produced his first major paintings.
Abraham permanently returned to Utrecht in 1593 after the death of his father. Not long thereafter he was appointed dean of the Saddler’s Guild, to which many artists also belonged. His wife, Judith van Schonenburch, a patrician woman he had married in 1592, died in 1599. Within just one year, Abraham married his second wife, Gerarda de Roij, the daughter of a local brewer. Of the eight children Gerarda bore, Hendrick, Cornelis, Adriaen, and Frederick all became artists. Van Mander recounted that Abraham trained each of his sons in an effort to provide young artists with better training than he himself had received. In 1611 Abraham became one of the founding members of the local Saint Luke’s Guild along with Paulus Moreelse (1571–1638), with whom he founded a drawing academy in 1612. Abraham may have had as many as one hundred pupils throughout his life, among them a group of artists who became leading members of the Utrecht school, including Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629), Gerrit van Honthorst (1590–1656), Cornelis van Poelenburch (1594/95–1667), Jan van Bijlert (1597–1671), Jan Both (1615/1618–1652), and Nicolaus Knupfer (1603–1655).
Abraham was a devout Catholic and an important painter of large altarpieces. During his career he worked for several large churches, including the Jesuit church in Brussels, the Sint Janskerk in Utrecht, and the convent of the Poor Clares in s’Hertogenbosch. In 1617 he bought a large and expensive house on the prestigious Mariakerkhof, the nucleus of Utrecht’s Catholic community. His religion proved to be problematic in 1618, the year Prince Maurits replaced the Utrecht city council with conservative Calvinists, or Counter-Remonstrants. Abraham had been elected dean of the Guild that same year, a post from which he was forced to step down for one of the Prince’s chief Protestant supporters, Paulus Morselee.
Abraham was held in high esteem throughout his long and productive career. In 1626 he was visited by Elizabeth Stuart, the former queen of Bohemia, and in 1627 by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). His paintings, engravings, and drawings mainly depict religious, mythological, and genre themes often set before elaborate landscapes. His Fondamenten der Teecken-Konst (Foundations of the Art of Drawing), illustrated by his son Frederick, was used in the training of young artists until the nineteenth century. Abraham, who remained active until his death in January 1651, was buried in Utrecht’s Catharijnekerk.