Magazine article The Spectator

Masterpieces in Miniature

Magazine article The Spectator

Masterpieces in Miniature

Article excerpt

Adam Elsheimer: Devil in the Detail Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 3 December Richard Wilson The Curve, Barbican, until 14 January 2007

Regular readers of this column will be aware that I champion small exhibitions which combine judicious selection with sufficient breadth to give an adequate representation of the artist under discussion. With Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) there is no choice: the fullest retrospective must needs be a small exhibition. An artist who worked slowly, suffered from depression and died young, his total output was 34 paintings. Thirty of these have been gathered together at Dulwich, supported by a lavish publication from Paul Holberton Publishing (£35 hardback and £22.50 soft cover), which is the first decent book on Elsheimer in English for some 30 years. But Elsheimer, who painted on the ultra-reflective surface of copper, made tiny, immensely detailed pictures which do not reproduce at all well. They need to be seen to be fully appreciated.

The show begins with the 'Frankfurt Tabernacle', which deals with the finding and exaltation of the True Cross, a narrative in seven panels, and Elsheimer's most important commission, as far as we know.

A marvel of clarified complexity, it at once reminds us of its painter's friendship with Rubens, and distances itself from him.

Elsheimer was German, but had travelled to Venice in 1598, spending two years there studying Titian, Giorgione and Tintoretto, before moving on to Rome, where he died a mere ten years later.

Rubens got to know him in Rome, and was a great admirer of his work. ('He has died in the flower of his art, while his corn was still in the blade, ' he lamented. ) In fact, Elsheimer exerted a considerable influence over the key figures of the 17th century -- Rubens himself, Rembrandt and Claude Lorrain.

For such a small output, the effect was prodigious.

Although the exhibition is composed of figure paintings, from his earliest known oil, of a witch copied from Dürer, to the magisterial 'The Flight into Egypt' (see illustration, right) from the Kimball Art Museum, it is the landscape settings rather than the ostensible subjects which compel attention.

Get up close to these pictures and study them with the magnifier handed out with your ticket. The larger movement and rhythm of the figure groups is impressive -- look at the way red and blue play across another multi-part composition, 'Six Scenes from the Life of the Virgin' -- but it's the detail that is thrilling. For instance, the hanging vegetation in 'The Three Marys at the Tomb'; the drawing is exquisite. 'Aurora' contains a most lovely classical landscape prospect, evidence that Elsheimer's work is a dedicated northern celebration of the Classical south, tinged not a little with pleasurable nostalgia.

There is so little autograph work by Elsheimer that the show is bulked out with copies and engravings, though this only serves to emphasise his remarkable quality.

Though highly self-critical, he was not shy of attempting big dramatic subjects, such as 'Judith and Holofernes' or the 'Stoning of Stephen', and one of the largest panels here, 'Il Contento', is memorable for its extraordinary subsidiary scene, delicately depicted (and perhaps unfinished) at top right. Elsheimer was also fascinated by different light conditions (studying the effects of candles and torches) and is renowned for painting the first moonlit nocturnal scene in European painting, 'The Flight into Egypt'. This magnificent painting ends this small but delightful show, but hanging in the same room is another treat, 'Latona and the Lycian Peasants'. …

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