The German Painters Of The Renaissance
HIGH above the throng of painter-craftsmen who crowd the stage of German art in the fifteenth century, tower their successors, Albert Dürer and Hans Holbein, the protagonists of German painting. It is when speaking of Dürer that we realise the lamentable gap in our National collection. That this, the greatest, the most typically German of all German artists, should be unknown to these walls almost amounts to a tragedy, though fortunately there is an excellent little " Portrait of a Young Man" from his hand at Hampton Court. It is much to be feared, indeed, that the day has now gone by when a chance of worthily filling the blank will occur. The best we may perhaps hope for is that a few fine copies of his most famous paintings should be admitted to hang in company with the small copies of Rembrandt and Velasquez in the lower rooms. Meanwhile, it is impossible to pass him by here without some few words of mention.
Dürer's native city, Nuremberg, had been in the fifteenth century almost as flourishing a centre of German painting as Cologne, and even to the present day many rude productions of this early period are preserved in her fine old churches. When Dürer was born in 1471, the old, free city was at the very zenith of her greatness, active, independent, and prosperous, vying only with Augsburg for the trade of the East. Unlike the majority of German and Flemish painters, whose lives and personalities are too often shrouded in mystery, Dürer stands before us to-day, after four centuries, a very real and living being. With the help of his journal and letters and the vivid portraits in which from time to time he perpetuated his own features —owing too to the fact that, like Rembrandt, he almost always dated his works-we may follow him from year to year, growing from childhood to youth, from youth to manhood and vigorous maturity. We seem to see the boy, the second of a quiverful of eighteen children, his father's favourite, too, learning the goldsmith's craft in the paternal workshop, instruction by no means wasted on the future engraver on copper ; then, having set his mind on becoming a painter, studying under old Wolgemut, the veteran Nuremberg artist, from whose manufactory paintings and woodcuts poured out to meet the rapidly-growing demand. After a somewhat rough and ready training the young man starts off on his travels, pilgrimages to Colmar, only to find the renowned Martin Schongauer dead and gone ; travels to the Tyrol, and perhaps even as far as Venice, but over those years of his life the veil has dropped. Returning home we read, still from his own record, how he dutifully married the wife for whose hand his shrewd father had been " negotiating," and then' set up his studio in the family house. For the next ten years Dürer was fully occupied with the great series of woodcuts into which he poured the whole wealth of his curious, fantastic, and powerful imagination, with engravings on copper and with numerous portraits and altar-pieces. One of the chief religious pictures of those early years, a period during which Dürer kept a band of pupils to assist him, is the so - called "Baumgartner" altar-piece now in Munich, the wings of which have only recently been freed from the additions of a later century—the landscape backgrounds, the horses and the helmets. The wonderful " Adoration of the Magi" in the Uffizi is perhaps the most perfect of his early works, and entirely from his own hand.
We may next follow our artist, whose grave, regular features and abundant curly hair are familiar to us from his own portrait in Munich painted in 1500, journeying across the Alps, stopping often on the way to note in his sketch-book some scene that specially struck his fancy, fully alive to the beauties of landscape; then dropping down to Venice, where, in the society of old Giovanni Bellini and the whole circle of Venetian painters, he woke up to a new aspect of life unknown to the simple German artists at home, who worked not for princes, nor even for dukes or signors, but for plain men like themselves. He became, in fact, as he himself expressed it, "a gentleman," and doubtless on his re-turn to his native town and the quiet burgher life, he appeared to the stay-at-homes as a man who had gone on a long quest and returned having found himself. For in Venice Dürer was much fêted and lionised, became, indeed, quite a prophet. As he himself complains, the Italian painters paid him the sincere compliment of copying his designs, and certainly his. strong, artistic personality was not without its influence on the rising artists of Venice, notably Titian himself. Dürer's most important undertaking during this Italian tour was the great altar-piece of the "Feast of the Rosary,"
which, shorn of its original beauty, now moulders away in an old monastery at Prague.
For all the seductions of the sunny south, Dürer remained faithful to his German instincts and attachments, and ere long we find him again in Nuremberg. To this day we may wander over the substantial house in which the now renowned artist soon established him-self, and entered on that brilliant stage of his career to which belong some of his finest paintings, among them the celebrated " Adoration of the Trinity" in the Vienna Gallery, of which a small copy may be found among the Arundel water-colours here. This great picture, painted about the same time as Raphael's " Disputa, served as a kind of glorification of the Catholic system, just before the old faith was to be assailed by the reforming party in Germany. Around the central group of the Trinity are ranged the saints of all ages, countries and conditions. Foremost of a band of female martyrs appears the Virgin, and opposite her S. John the Baptist introduces a company of saintly men, conspicuous among whom we notice Moses with his Tables of the Law, and David playing on his harp. The Pope, the Emperor, cardinals, burghers and women hover below. Coming down to earth we find an exquisite landscape stretching away to the horizon. The luminous sky, stained with the yellow and pink hues of sunrise, is reflected in the water and upon the ruddy roofs of a little town climbing up the hill. The tiny figure on the right is that of the painter himself, who loved to play a part in his own pictures. He holds a tablet bearing his signature and the date, 1511. Time has dealt kindly with this picture, for its colours are as fresh as when they were laid on four centuries ago. These bright blues, reds, greens and yellows, lavishly interspersed with gold, might seem to our eyes rather gaudy and garish when we compare them with the mellow richness of Venetian painting or the harmonious depth of Flemish colouring. Dürer, indeed, was never a great colourist, as were the van Eycks, Giovanni Bellini and Titian, with whom colour was of the very essence of their art. Dürer's power lay in his fertility of invention and his vigorous and expressive draughtsmanship. Thus he found engraving the most congenial form of expression, and during the latter part of his life he devoted himself almost exclusively to this branch of art. Dürer's marvellous prints, both the vigorous woodcuts and the delicate copper engravings, may be seen in the British Museum, where also many of his exquisite drawings are preserved, and thus, though it is impossible in England to know Dürer the painter, we have every opportunity of studying him in this even more characteristic phase of his genius.
We have already met Dürer, in the course of the journey he made in 1520 to the Netherlands, consorting with Patinir and Quentin Matsys in Antwerp, feasting with van Orley in Brussels, studying the great altar-piece in S. Bavon at Ghent, and on his passage through Cologne paying his silver pennies for a sight of Meister Stephan's " Dom-Bild." As he advanced in years he seems to have become more and more alive to the beauty of nature and the simplicity of great art, and his friend Melancthon tells us that he was wont to sigh over the crowded pictures of his youth, in which elaboration of detail prevailed over simple grandeur. Dürer, for all his Italian studies and his theorising on the subjects of proportion and anatomy, seldom succeeded in attaining beauty of form. He could not quite rid himself of the cramped grotesqueness, the knotted limbs and tortured draperies of medieval German art. His eye was open rather to the quaint, the fantastic, the homely and the characteristic than to the grand, the graceful or the flowing. Thus sensuous beauty finds little place in his sober, earnest, intensely expressive art.
Something of the grandeur and beauty of form, for which at the close of his life he was striving, is achieved however, in his last great work, the two panels at Munich representing life-sized figures of " Four Apostles." If in the " Trinity" Dürer embodied his conception of the Catholic Church, here he ranges himself decidedly among the Protestants. S. Peter and his keys are awarded a place behind S. John on one panel, while on the other S. Paul stands prominently in front of S. Mark. These pictures, also among the small copies in the Arundel Room, are known sometimes as the " Four Temperaments," S. John representing the Melancholic, S. Peter the Phlegmatic ; while S. Mark's animated expression vividly suggests the Sanguine, and the grand, severe features of S. Paul, the Choleric.
To sum up Dürer's achievements and position in German art in a few words is a well-nigh impossible task. As Melancthon said " Painting is the least of his accomplishments, though he excelled in that." He was a man so various, a genius so versatile, that when we turn from his paintings to his woodcuts, from his engravings on copper to his drawings, and then refer to the scientific treatises in which, like Leonardo da Vinci, he embodied his researches, we can only marvel at the indomitable energy, the creative force and the technical skill of this extraordinary being.
Of the numerous pupils and assistants whom Direr gathered about him, few are to be seen here. Hans Baldung Grün is, however, well represented by two of his best and most characteristic pictures—the "Dead Christ" (1427) and a "Portrait of a Senator" (245). When Baldung came to Nuremberg he was already a painter, and seems to have stood to Durer, his junior by one year, as much in the relation of friend as pupil. The nickname Grün or Grien, which is often tacked on to his name, is supposed to have been bestowed on him by his fellow-students either from his habit of wearing green clothes or because he was fond of introducing green into his pictures. Darer speaks of him in his diary as " Grünhans "—" Green Jack," as we might say.
The " Pietà " here is among Baldung's most successful essays in colouring, and we may guess from this that colour was not his strong point. It was painted at his best period, when he was engaged upon his great altarpiece of the "Coronation of the Virgin" at Freiburg. The composition of this " Pietà," like that of Lambert Lombard's rather spiritless version in Room IV. (266), recalls the treatment frequently adopted for this subject by the painters of northern Italy. In Bellini's pathetic "Dead Christ" in the Brera, the Saviour is supported in an upright position in the tomb by the Virgin and S. John in much the same way as here. Baldung, however, has varied the theme by introducing the Trinity, the figure of God the Father sustaining the lifeless form of His Son, while the golden-haloed Dove, emblem of the Third Person, hovers in the sky. At first sight this is indeed a most unattractive picture, for the faces are not only wholly devoid of beauty and majesty but are further disfigured and distorted by sorrow. The Virgin's mouth is drawn down in the very unpleasant though expressive manner by which the German painters suggested grief. Neither in the head of the dead Christ nor in that of the Father can we detect much of divine majesty. The painter could not rise beyond a purely human conception of his subject. The fussed and fretted draperies certainly do not make for dignity or grace, but they are very typical of German art. There is little attempt at naturalism in the sky, for the heads are relieved against a heavy dull yellow ground and framed in by solid grey clouds with hard edges. The donor of the panel and his family are introduced in miniature kneeling before the red marble tomb. He is evidently some rich merchant, for his coat-of-arms displays three money bags and a bar of gold. It is perhaps by its massive solemnity and earnest sincerity that this picture makes its appeal, certainly not by any beauty or grace of form. But even Dürer, with all his artistic endowments, failed, as we have noticed, to invest his figures with much of physical beauty.
The "Portrait of a Senator" (245) was painted a year or so later. In common with many pictures of this century it bears Dürer's well-known monogram, a later addition, forged in those days when every possible and impossible production was foisted upon the great master, the result, perhaps, of desire out-running discrimination. Though in this portrait Baldung comes very close to Dürer, his inferiority is shown in the far less delicate finish of hair and fur. The beard has been painted with great elaboration and a wiry touch, but the fur is rather slurred over. There is no doubt as to the authorship of this interesting portrait, which, in pose, expression, and indeed almost in features, resembles Baldung's signed " Portrait of the Margrave of Baden" in Munich, dated a year later. The expression is one of thoughtful melancholy, sad, dreamy eyes looking away into the distance. The senator seems to be attired in his official robes and chains of office, the warm-coloured, reddish brown cloak disclosing a white shirt tied with narrow bands of black. Suspended from a link of the massive gold chain hangs a gilt badge—two birds on a branch with two swords between them. Another pendant is in the form of a miniature Madonna and Child. The flesh is brown and very thinly painted, and the back-ground is of that beautiful, rich peacock blue so much favoured by Holbein and other painters of this century. It occurs again, slightly different in shade, in the curious " Portrait of a Man " (1232) by Aldegrever; a Westphalian artist, who modelled himself so closely upon Dürer that he was sometimes called the Albert of Westphalia.
It was not to painting that Aldegrever's best powers were devoted, but to engraving both on wood and copper, and in this his wonderful inventive genius and quaint, original fancy stood him in good stead. In-deed he is one of the greatest of the so-called " Little Masters," that small coterie of engravers and painters inspired by Dürer, among whom Altdorfer, the two Behams and Pencz, none of them, unfortunately, represented in this Gallery, stand in the front rank. It is thus far less in their few paintings that we can make the acquaintance of these German artists of the sixteenth century, and, through them, of the manners, the morals and the mode of thought of their day, than in the prints which, intended as they were for wide circulation, naturally set out to please the people, the many, as opposed to the wealthy few who could afford to pay for pictures. Aldegrever especially cuts but a poor figure in the three or four paintings attributed to him, of which a portrait in Vienna most resembles our " Young Man." The technique is poor, and there is no attempt to render the texture of fur or linen. The drawing of the nose and mouth, too, is very uncertain. He has, however, a pleasant, firm face, with a certain expression of alertness. The hands are much beringed, even to the thumb, which is girt with a massive gold band, and between finger and thumb he holds two dark red pinks, deliberately, too, as though some meaning were attached to them. This is a common motif in portraits of the time, signifying friendship.
In another portrait in the National Gallery (1036), seemingly of this period, the sitter holds two pansies in one of his elegant hands, while resting the other on a skull. This portrait, which hangs among the early Flemish pictures, but seems German in character, has a warm green background. Even without the skull, which may symbolise the healing art, we feel sure from his keen, steady gaze and thoughtful bearing that the subject was a member of some learned profession.
But to return to Aldegrever, we find him associated with some of the most stirring episodes of this troublous period of the Reformation, for he lived at Soest, not far from Munster, the stronghold of the Anabaptists. Here John of Leyden, the hero of Meyerbeer's " Prophète," and his ruffian court established their kingdom of Zion and inaugurated a veritable reign of terror. What part Aldegrever took in all this we hardly know, but that he was the friend of these violent " reformers" seems certain. He actually engraved portraits of John of Leyden and the egregious Knipperdolling, and several of his prints were in the nature of broadsides directed against the Catholic party.
Another enthusiastic Protestant, Lucas Cranach, a staunch friend of Luther himself, founded a school of painting in Saxony. Cranach was born one year later than Durer. In Wittenburg, where he established him-self with his ugly but excellent wife, he seems to have driven more than one trade, combining the somewhat various offices of printer, apothecary and court painter to the Electors of Saxony. It is but a few years ago that Cranach's house in Wittenberg, called the " Adler," was burnt to the ground.
There is an admirable little portrait by him in the National Gallery (291) of a young girl in an elaborately= slashed and puffed dress of deep red. This is an excel-lent example of Cranach's solid technique and of his rich, warm colouring, which shows more affinity with that of the van Eycks than with the lighter tonality borrowed by German painters from Roger van der Weyden. His flesh tints, too, are soft and fused, as though painted in one even flow of colour. There is a quaint primness, very characteristic of Cranach, about this picture. The lackadaisical little lady here portrayed is so evidently posing before the painter, arrayed in all her bravest attire, gold chains about her neck and rings outside her curiously-slashed gloves. Her hair is drawn back beneath a close-fitting cap of the same gold brocade as her bodice. The expression is sweet and dreamy, perhaps a little sentimental too., She is of the same type as Cranach's numerous Lucretias and Judiths, who seem all too gentle for the business indicated by the dagger or sword they carry. These nude figures are generally awkward and naïve, and the large velvet hat with which the painter often adorns them produces a somewhat ludicrous appearance.
A welcome addition to the Gallery is the clever little "Portrait of a Man" (1925) recently presented by Mr Heseltine. Here, again, we may admire the firm, solid technique and the beauty of texture which belong to Cranach's best productions. The elderly man portrayed here on so small a scale is of more than comfortable proportions, his manifold chin and vast, massive neck giving a heavy appearance to the face. Nevertheless, blue-grey eyes look out full of intelligence from beneath knit brows. The figure, clad in simple doublet of black damasked silk, is seen at half length, and the plump white hands are both shown.
Cranach's usual signature, the crowned serpent, appears in the left-hand corner of the little female portrait (291). It is borne, too, by many pictures never touched by the master, but emanating from his workshop, where his sons and pupils industriously perpetuated his style. Cranach himself was a most unequal painter, and, in-deed, towards the end of his life his originality seems to have waned, and he became his own imitator. No-where is he so poetic, so free from eccentricity, as in the charming " Repose during the Flight to Egypt," a recent acquisition of the Berlin Gallery. Even Altdorfer, that delightful master of landscape, could not have rendered this forest scene, where lovely angel-children minister to the little Christ, with more of romance and imaginative charm.
By some unnamed painter of the sixteenth century is the somewhat theatrical composition of the " Crucifixion," with the donors, a man and his wife, portrayed on the shutters (1088). The figure of Christ is mean and ill-proportioned, and the Virgin and S. John, who stand on either side of the cross, have little of reality and nothing of grace. S. John, indeed, with his grotesquely elaborate draperies and pretentious pose, is almost melodramatic. There is no calm or repose, for even the sky is filled with gesticulating angels. The portraits are undoubtedly the best part of the picture, for here the painter had to rely less on his very limited imagination, and was content to give a faithful rendering of the far from unpleasant models before him.
We come now to the largest and most imposing picture in the German Room (XV.), the famous double portrait by Hans Holbein known as the " Ambassadors " (1314). It was something of an event when in 1891 this celebrated work entered the Gallery in company with two masterpieces by Velasquez and Moroni, also from Longford Castle. At that time our National collection possessed no example of this greatest of German painters, though his name is for ever associated with a brilliant and characteristic page of English history. It is true that a large sum had been paid by the Trustees in 1845. for a picture which they believed to be by Holbein. This is the half-length portrait of a " Medical Professor " (195), now labelled simply German School. The mistake was discovered just too late, and the pseudo-Holbein remains a " regrettable incident " in the records of our national picture purchases. For this solid, manly portrait, though strong and characterful, has none of the subtle beauty of execution never failing in Holbein. We may compare the texture of the fur with that in the "Ambassadors," or the hands, rendered always by Holbein with such exquisite delicacy, but here somewhat wooden.
Hans Holbein is so intimately associated in English minds with the art of portrait painting, that we are apt to forget that he started his career as a religious painter too, and there is nothing in the National Gallery to remind-us that his later development was determined not so much by choice as by circumstance. Travellers to Switzerland and Italy, who so often find themselves gravitating involuntarily towards Basle, will remember the rich collection of his drawings and paintings still treasured in the museum of the old city, whither as a boy the young Augsburg artist and his brother Ambrose had betaken themselves in quest of work. From the more humble occupation of designer of book-illustrations in this city of publishers, Holbein came to be recognised as a painter of great promise, and the series of altar-pieces and religious pictures painted during-this Basle period prove him as rich in invention and ideas as any of his contemporaries beyond the Alps.
The grandest achievement of these early years, which happily exhibits his powers in the realms both of portraiture and religious painting, is the celebrated " Meyer Madonna" at Darmstadt, commissioned by the Burgomaster of Basle, whose portrait, with that of his wife Dorothy, had been among Holbein's earliest successes. There is a small water-colour copy of this wonderful picture in the Arundel Room of the National Gallery. The calm, stately Madonna carrying her Child on her arm appears here as protectress of Jacob Meyer and his family, who kneel before her on an oriental carpet, sheltering beneath her ample, flowing mantle. The plain features of the burly Burgomaster are illumined with reverent devotion as he gazes upwards in enthusiastic worship. His two sons are just in front of him, the younger a baby with curly hair, nude like the Christ child. Facing the head of the family kneel his wives ; the first, dead many years, is nearest the Virgin, her face almost concealed by the linen head-dress that shrouds it. The second wife, kindly and shrewd, kneels beside her with her daughter Anna in front. The whole sentiment of the picture is calm, reverent and devotional; very pathetic, too, are the face and gesture of the infant Christ. His eyes are reddened as though with weeping, and He leans His head wearily upon His mother's neck. There is perhaps significance in this attitude, for Meyer, a staunch Catholic at a time when the orthodox party was every day losing ground before the Reformers in Basle, seems to have ordered this picture as a testimony to his own unswerving devotion to the faith, and no doubt he wished the painter to suggest the Saviour's grief at the attacks made upon His Church. The picture is a masterpiece of rich, deep colour, the flesh tints being particularly beautiful and varied. It was painted in 1526, the year of Dürer's " Four Apostles " at Munich.
The only religious painting in England attributed to Holbein is the little " Noli me Tangere" at Hampton Court, a picture once ascribed to Bartholomew Bruyn, a painter of Cologne. Though this panel has darkened with age it is still very interesting in its effect of early morning light and the expressive, dramatic action of the figures. It is, however, impossible to accept it as by Holbein's hand.
Fate had decreed that Holbein should not pass his life in Basle, and the rapid progress of the Reformation in that city dried up the demand not only for Church pictures but for every branch of artistic enterprise. It was through the introduction of Erasmus, who had him-self found England so attractive, that Holbein betook himself thither, and as guest of Sir Thomas More in his country seat on the banks of the Thames " at the village of Chelsea," spent two years painting the portraits of the brilliant circle who foregathered in the Chancellor's house. The portrait of his patron, Erasmus, which he had painted in Basle, no doubt served in England as a kind of pioneer to procure for the young, unknown German the commissions he had come to seek. This particular portrait of the great humanist, of which many replicas are known, is believed to be the one now in Longford Castle.
With the exception of a few years again spent in Basle, Holbein made his home henceforth in England, where he fell into the gap of portrait painter which, now that the Reformation had declared itself, alone was open for him. Here, indeed, he founded a tradition of portraiture which was only superseded a century later by Van Dyck, who also came over to our island to supply the lack of native talent. The result of Holbein's energy shapes itself in the long series of magnificent portraits scattered about Europe, in which we may watch him gradually stepping up the social ladder until he gained the favour of the court and of the King himself. First employed in the cultured circle to which More had given him the entry, he was obliged on his return to England after the fall of the Chancellor to rely upon his natural patrons, the German merchants, who then as now formed quite a colony in London, their head-quarters, the Steelyard, occupying the present site of Cannon Street Station.
Of the numerous portraits painted by Holbein at this time for his compatriots of the Steelyard, the finest is that of a young merchant, " Georg Gisze," in the Berlin Museum. He is represented sitting in his counting-house at a table covered with a rich-coloured cloth, and surrounded by all the accessories of his daily occupation, the papers, the writing materials, the books and ledgers, the string in a blue and gilt ball hanging from a shelf and, what we might go far to find in any modern merchant's office, an exquisite Venetian glass vase containing some red carnations. All these details are rendered with the precision and delicacy of a Jan van Eyck. Yet they in no wise detract from the portrait itself, which seems to look out at us as though its original had glanced up from the letter he is about to open at a caller intent on business. And the colouring is not only beautiful but quite original ; the warm green background of the woodwork is as unique as it is pleasant, and in perfect harmony with our modern taste. Against this brilliant green the blacks and rose-colour of the dress and the rich hues of the tablecloth show most effectively.
The " Ambassadors " (1314) also belongs to this period. Holbein himself seems to have regarded it as a work of the first importance, for he signed it in the shadow on the left of the floor with his full name and the date of its execution—" Joannes Holbein Pingebat, 1533." Perhaps no picture in the world has excited more historical controversy than this life-sized portrait group of two men with elaborately-chosen accessories, scientific apparatus and musical instruments, set out on a table between them. Who are these grave and richly-attired gentlemen, and what is the meaning of all these curious objects ? These questions have received various answers ; in fact, whole volumes have been written to unriddle the mystery. But the seventeenth-century manuscript discovered by Miss Mary Hervey and presented by her to the Gallery, where it now hangs in the small cabinet between Rooms XI I. and XIII., has found considerable acceptance, though there are still vigorous opponents of her theory who, with Mr Dickes, maintain that we have here the Counts Otto and Henry Philip of the Palatine on the occasion of the signing of the Treaty of Nuremberg, and that the astrological instruments indicate the exact dates of their births. According, however, to Miss Hervey's manuscript we have before us the superb and dignified figure of Jean de Dinteville, the French Ambassador to the Court of Henry VIII., and his friend and guest, George de Selve, future Bishop of Lavaur, and later French Ambassador at Venice. The inscription on Dinteville's beautifully-chased dagger indicates that he was then in his twenty-ninth year, while the bishop, as we see from. a similar inscription on the edge of the book upon which his elbow rests, was only twenty-five. These dates exactly correspond with what is known of the lives of the two men, though indeed it is hard to believe that such potent, grave, and reverend signors are both under thirty years of age. But in those days men ripened earlier ; indeed, the young ecclesiastic had already been appointed to his see before he was twenty. Dinteville's identity is further confirmed by the fact that among the few names of cities and countries marked on the small globe lying on the lower shelf of the table, his own little native French village of Polizy is included. It seems scarcely necessary to assume that the accessories possess any occult or astrological meaning. Just as Holbein surrounded Georg Gisze with the various objects of daily use in a merchant's office, and the scientific Kratzer with his astronomical implements, so here he has doubtless introduced into his portrait of two well-born gentlemen the objects which indicate their cultured tastes and pursuits, perhaps their hobbies. The lute with its one broken string, the case of flutes, and the open book containing the words and score of a well-known Lutheran hymn, lie fitly on the side of the ecclesiastic. The two globes and the mathematical treatise, held open by a small square, seem to belong to Dinteville. Music and science might well form part of the equipment of a gentleman at this period of the Renaissance, when the discovery of a new continent, the invention of printing and, above all, the new birth of the old classical spirit, were fully as stimulating to the contemporary world as were the electric telegraph, the steam-engine and penny postage to our grandfathers of the nineteenth century.
The curious object placed obliquely across the middle of the foreground has puzzled many a student and arrested the roving glance of scores of ramblers through the Gallery. At first sight it is not unlike what Woltmann erroneously called it, a great fish. But stand close up to the picture on the right-hand side, with the eyes almost touching the frame on a level with the top of the lute, and immediately the object will fall into its proper perspective and appear as a perfect human skull. Whether Holbein intended this as a grim and rather unintelligible play on his name (Hohl Bein, hollow bone) or merely as an optical puzzle, after the fashion of his day, it is impossible to say. A similar example of distorted perspective occurs in a portrait of Edward VI., lately added to the National Portrait Gallery. The skull may even have some reference to Dinteville, for looking at his black cap, we see it to be adorned with a badge formed by a silver skull set in gold.
Let us now go back a few paces to study the picture as a whole. Here, again, Holbein has combined the most minute and elaborate finish of every little detail with considerable breadth of general effect. The composition is, however, rather haphazard. Instead of the figures being grouped together in the middle of the picture, where both could be embraced in a glance, they are placed one at each side, with the high, two-shelved table between them. There is thus no true centre to the picture, and the eye must travel deliberately across the panel, nearly seven feet square, from one figure to the other. Were it not for the skull which runs diagonally across the centre, the panel might be split into two not quite equal parts, leaving Dinteville with his two globes to form one picture, and the bishop with his lute and mathematical instruments another, rather larger. Undoubtedly, however, this treatment, though scarcely making for pictorial unity, allowed equal justice to be done to each figure. From the point of view of the composition; the upright lines of the green brocaded curtain in the background and of the figures are crossed by the horizontal parallels of the table and its patterned cloth, and varied by the waving design of the inlaid floor. The skull and the lute cut diagonally across from left to right. Very imposing is the figure of Jean de Dinteville on the left. The richness of his slashed and fur-trimmed costume of black velvet and rose-coloured silk leaves us more than discontented with the starved and dingy fashion of male attire in our own less ornate period. These enormous puffed sleeves, however, add many cubits to their wearer's breadth, and certainly tend to diminish his stature. And Holbein has used none of the artful devices by which, as it has been pointed out, Terburg or Velasquez contrived to increase the height of their models. Compare the attitude of Ter-burg's " Dutch Gentleman " (XI. 1399), where the figure tapers above to the crown of the hat and below to the point of the toe, thus prolonging the lines and increasing the effect of height. Velasquez also, in his " Portrait of an Admiral" (XIV. 1315), has contrived to lengthen the broad, massive figure by the clever device of bringing the legs close together and extending the line of the right foot. In Dinteville, however, the impression of breadth is everywhere emphasised. Indeed, an effect of squareness is carried right through the picture. His position, with feet wide apart and knee bent, detracts from rather than adds to his natural height. His face is gravely thoughtful, quiet and reserved. Here, as in all Holbein's portraits, the artist has recorded the more constant elements of his sitter's being, obscured by no momentary expression or fleeting flash of animation. The bishop on the other side of the table wears even more severe a countenance, and his sober though costly sable-trimmed gown of dull purple and black brocade well beseems his grave profession. His flesh tints are colder and paler, as his mien is more retiring than those of his companion and host.
The colouring of the picture is strong, rich and varied, almost enamel-like, too, in its solid, firm surface. Behind hangs the bright green curtain which forms the back-ground of the picture. The table is covered with an oriental cloth in which scarlet plays the chief part, and this is daringly juxtaposed to Dinteville's rose-coloured sleeve, while the celestial globe on the table forms the one decided note of blue in the picture. Paler tints appear in the beautiful marble floor, copied by Holbein from the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. Much more might be written of this splendid picture, which is not only an archæological and historical puzzle, a marvellous study of character and a superb piece of decoration, but a work of art of the highest importance.
The culminating step in Holbein's social progress, his introduction to Court and to the King himself, brought him ever-increasing employment. The great fresco he painted in Whitehall of their late majesties Henry VII. and his wife, Elizabeth of York, and the reigning king, Henry VIII., accompanied by Jane Seymour, the third of his matrimonial essays, was unfortunately destroyed by fire in the seventeenth century. Here we are told Henry VIII. stood " so majestic in his splendour that the spectator felt abashed, annihilated in his presence." The precious little copy in Hampton Court of this life-sized portrait group gives us some idea of the artistic as well as the undoubted historical importance of the original. All the subsequent portraits of the King were founded on this fresco.
Holbein was more than once entrusted by his patron to delineate the features of the ladies whom this royal Bluebeard proposed to honour with his hand, just as somewhat later Sir Antonio More was employed on a like errand by the prospective husband of Mary Tudor. His first mission was to the young widow of the Duke of Milan, a Danish princess, scarcely as yet in her seventeenth year. At present this fascinating portrait hangs in the National Gallery, to which it has been generously lent by its owner, the Duke of Norfolk. Here we meet Holbein at his best and in his most sympathetic mood. For once, indeed, he seems to have relaxed something of the cool, objective gaze of the acute but disinterested observer, and to have allowed himself to be affected by the almost pathetic charm of this naïve, girlish figure, who appears before us, just as she stood to him during the short three hours he was in her presence, rather shy and reserved, her delicate, restless hands betraying something of the nervous tension of the situation. Nothing could be simpler than the long black fur-lined cloak, only relieved by white ruffles at throat and wrist, which conceals and amplifies the tall, slender figure, set against a deep, rich blue background. There is no suspicion of coquetry in this severe mourning habit nor in the close-fitting black cap under which all the hair is brushed back. Infinitely fascinating is this fair, pale face, with its sweet, ruddy mouth and quiet brown eyes. We cannot help rejoicing that a fresh move in the game of politics caused the marriage negotiations to be broken off, and reserved the charming Christina for a better fate. A smaller version of this subject, showing only the head and hands, is at Windsor.
Of all the world's great portrait-painters Holbein is, with the exception of Velasquez, the most objective, the least personal in his attitude towards his sitters. They are reflected in his art as in a clear mirror, which gives back, not the beholder's ideal of himself nor the artist's vision of him in a moment of inspiration, but the man as he actually is, as he appears to the unprejudiced eye of a keen, dispassionate critic. It is as though the painter were to say, " Here is the man ; you may like him or not, but this is surely he." Holbein never takes the spectator into his counsel, paints with a cool unconcern for the outside world—a certain aloofness—and claims no special sympathy, seems, indeed, to feel little himself for his sitter. He keeps personal preferences well in the background, and concentrates all his powers on rendering the features before him with the accuracy and precision of a born draughtsman. His model is never forced to conform to a preconceived ideal in the painter's mind. He never flatters, nor stoops to beautify his subject save by his art. And this art, seemingly so simple, is infinitely subtle and accomplished. His figures are set so easily within their frames, with none of that sense of weariness from long posing which at times afflicts even Dürer's sitters. There are no strong effects of light and shade, only just enough to secure relief, and the local colour is clearly defined within the boundary lines of the forms. The colour is, however, no mere addition, but an organic part of the picture. It is generally quite simple, and extremely effective. The wonderful chalk studies at Windsor, which form in themselves quite a portrait gallery of the celebrities of the period, show how with the simplest means Holbein could attain an effect of completeness and lifelike expression. His eye was so quick, his hand so sure, that these sketches, mere notes for future portraits, are as valuable as his finished pictures for the study of character.
Dürer and Holbein stand together at the apex of German painting. If Dürer is the greater creative genius, the scholar and philosopher, the man of science, Holbein ranks above him as a painter pure and simple. Colour with Dürer was always something of an after-thought, to Holbein it was an integral part of his art. Again, the one artistic quality which Darer lacked—a sense of beautiful form—Holbein possessed in no common degree. The two artists were separated by a quarter of a century, a considerable period in those fast-moving years when the modern world was in the throes of birth. Dürer was indeed no medieval, but while in his pictures we seem carried into a strange, unreal world, Holbein is absolutely one of us. His men and women, but for their costumes, might be our contemporaries; his art needs no explanation. But then Holbein from his earliest years had rubbed shoulders with the modern world, and Italian culture was to him no foreign form of expression. Before he had lived thirty years he became a cosmopolitan, changing his own fatherland for a foreign country, where he passed the rest of his days. Darer, too, was a traveller, but he lived and died a German of the Germans.
Holbein died in 1543, stricken down by plague in the heyday of life. Even so in his famous " Dance of Death" had he pictured the dread summons coming swiftly and unexpectedly to snatch men from their daily work or pleasure. No great painter appeared in Germany to carry on the succession, for indeed the land was tossed and torn by religious and political troubles. It was but natural that artists should seek in Italy the employment and security they could not find at home. Germany thus produced her Italianisers, but while in Flanders they belong to a time of transition between two brilliant periods of national art, here they herald a decline which no native genius stood forth to arrest.
The little picture of " Pan and Syrinx " (659), already referred to, is by one of these mannered German painters, Johann Rottenhammer, who worked in Rome and Venice, where he became an imitator of Tintoretto, and died in 1624. Here the nude form of the goddess, who flees before Pan, is rendered with a certain voluptuousness and a quite southern suavity. All trace of German angularity and harshness has disappeared. The texture of the flesh painting is smooth, almost glassy in its finish. There is indeed little poetry in this rendering of the old myth. The fair-haired goddess flees as one who courts capture, and her cries are neither spontaneous nor convincing. The bronze-coloured god hotly pursuing thinks to seize his prey by her fluttering pink draperies, but finds his eager arms encircling a cold cluster of reeds. If the figures are little charming, the delicate landscape, painted probably, as we have seen, by Jan Brueghel, goes far to redeem the picture.
Adam Elsheimer, by whom we have two small pictures, is a far more distinguished painter than Rotten-hammer. He was born at Frankfort-on-the-Main a year after Rubens, and by the beginning of the seventeenth century had settled in Rome, which became, as with Claude Lorraine, who arrived some few years later, his adopted city. Elsheimer is no mere denationalised German, but a landscape painter of originality and distinction. His pictures are small and exquisitely finished ; indeed, had he worked faster and less conscientiously, he need not have died in poverty. The little " Tobias and the Angel " (1424) is a good example of his delicate touch and refined feeling for landscape. It is in this softly illuminated grey-green middle distance that we recognise the forerunner of Claude, who carried further the style of landscape art which Elsheimer had invented. How beautifully the light falls on the soft, undulating woodland and the tree-sheltered meadow on the left ! In the dark foreground we can dimly discern men watering their flocks at a pool. The sense of distance is wonderfully rendered on these few inches - of panel. Only the figures seem out of harmony by reason of the unsubdued reds and blues of their garments. Tobias goes before, dragging behind him an enormous fish. The angel is no glorious heavenly apparition, but a bullet-headed youth with wings fastened to his shoulders, and indeed the subject is treated in the matter-of-fact spirit which was to distinguish later religious art. The idyllic fairy-tale element had long disappeared, and a more sceptical age treated the old legends of the Church and the Biblical stories with a matter-of-fact indifference, for the art of the seventeenth century cared less for the inner meaning of things than for their outward appearance.
The other Elsheimer in the National Gallery, the "Martyrdom of S. Lawrence" (1014), is no landscape, but an ambitious and somewhat crowded figure composition on a diminutive scale. The victim is being prepared by a brawny executioner for the ordeal he is about to suffer. He is surrounded by magnificently-robed functionaries, one of whom seeks to draw his attention to a statue of a Roman emperor, as to the fount of law and authority. Another, in a turban and a crimson cloak over his yellow brocaded dress, looks on imperturbably, and behind, the reigning emperor watches from his canopied throne. But an angel swoops down to encourage the shrinking saint, for whom further back the fire is being heated beneath the awful gridiron, while a number of figures are seen approaching. There is just a hint of Elsheimer's peculiar charm in the background on the right, where a glimpse is caught, above the glowing fire, of cool, shimmering trees and some classical buildings.
This century, which in Flanders witnessed a fresh outburst of national genius and activity, was in Germany but a barren period, unadorned by any great name. We have here in Room X. a portrait (1012), once actually ascribed to Van Dyck, by Matthaeus Merian, son of a well-known Swiss engraver. In the course of his various wanderings Merian came to England, and fell under the influence of the great Flemish portrait-painter, whom he adopted for his model. There is much in the easy pose of the young man portrayed here to suggest Van Dyck, as we may see by comparing this picture with the " Portrait of an Artist," opposite, by the master himself (49).
A popular German painter of the eighteenth century, who also relied upon foreign inspiration, was Dietrich, an inveterate copyist of Rembrandt, Ostade and other Dutch masters. The Dresden Gallery, of which he was made Keeper, abounds in his works. But the best he did is perhaps the little picture in the National Gallery of the "Itinerant Musicians" (205). Here, though we may detect the promptings of Adrian van Ostade, there is spirit and verve in the expressions, and the execution is less heavy than usual. There is a small " Circumcision " by Dietrich in Hertford House (X IV. 153), and several pictures in Hampton Court.
The best - known German artist of the eighteenth century, however, is Anton Raphael Mengs, the arch-Italianiser who, nourished on the works of Raphael and Correggio, after whom, indeed, he had been named, vainly endeavoured to combine their excellences of draughtmanship and chiaroscuro with the colouring of Titian. The cartoon of the "Virgin and Child with S. John the Baptist" (1099), in the small cartoon cabinet in the National Gallery, illustrates the eclectic nature of Mengs's art. The little S. John is of the type of Andrea del Sarto, and the composition vividly recalls Raphael. Mengs worked in Rome and Madrid, and there is little of the German about him except his name and his learning. His series of pastel portraits in the Dresden Gallery, however, shows him quite at his best, but in his more ambitious performances his art is more accomplished than sympathetic, and, though the hero of his time, he shares the fate of all imitators in the indifference shown him by posterity. It was only in the nineteenth century that the true German genius began to stir again, and the modern period of German art was inaugurated by the Nazarenes.
( Originally Published 1904 )
German and Flemish Masters:
The German And Flemish Masters In The National Gallery
The Van Eycks
The School Of Roger Van Der Weyden
Gerard David And His Followers
The German Painters Of The Fifteenth Century
Matsys And The Italianisers
The German Painters Of The Renaissance
Van Dyck And The Painters Of Antwerp