Adam Elsheimer

Adam Elsheimer (March 18, 1578 in Frankfurt in Main Frankfurt, Dec 11, 1610 in Rome) was a prominent German baroque painter working in Rome who died at only thirty-two, but was very influential in the early 17th century. His relatively few paintings were small scale, nearly all painted on copper plates, of the type often known as cabinet paintings. They include a variety of light effects, and an innovative treatment of landscape. He was an influence on many other artists, including Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens.

Elsheimer was the oldest of ten children of the tailor Anton Elsheimer, who had immigrated from Wörrstadt to Frankfurt in 1577, and by Maria Elsheimer, born Reuss, daughter of a Frankfurt coffin master. The name can be traced back to the Rhineland village of Elsheim. The family lived in the house Fahrgasse No. 120 at Einhornplätzchen.

He completed a five-year course in his home town with the painter Philipp Uffenbach, who made him acquainted with the works of Albrecht Diirer and Matthias Grünewald. In addition, the Dutch landscape painters Lucas van Valckenborch and Gillis van Coninxloo influenced him.

In 1598 he left Frankfurt and went to Munich, where he worked in the workshop of Johann Rottenhammer and became acquainted with the works of Venetian painting. After another study stay in Venice, he settled in Rome in 1600, where he remained until his life. He married Carla Antonia Stuart (italian: Stuarda) in 1606, a Frankfurt of Scottish origin. Elsheimer lived permanently in financially cramped conditions. One of his “pupils” was Hendrick Goudt, who made seven of his paintings in the form of copper engravings across Europe. This acquaintance, however, also contributed to the downfall of Elsheimer. Goudt was not only a guest, pupil and patron; Allegedly he brought him into the debt tower, but there is no evidence.

The painter was buried in the Roman church of San Lorenzo in Lucina. His monument is not preserved. In 2010, after the completion of the excavation in this church, a memorial plaque was placed in the front of the first left pillar, which praises him as one of the first to use a telescope in the painting of the stars.

Other pupils were Paul Juvenell the Elder and Johann King.

During his apprenticeship in Frankfurt, Elsheimer should be inspired by paintings by Albrecht Dürer (Heller Altar), Hans Holbein d. Ä. And Matthias Grünewald. In Venice he met the works of Tintoretto and Veronese and worked with Hans Rottenhammer as his workshop assistant. In Rome, on the other hand, he saw the light-dark painting of Caravaggio.

His mostly small pictures are, as in the case of Rottenhammer, mainly painted on copper and in a miniature fine version with the help of a magnifying glass. His pencil drawings and etchings testify to his sensitivity and artistic independence. He preferred religious and mythological themes, often associated with landscapes in “romantic” lighting and poetic mood. With this he combined a new realism and thus established a new style in European landscape painting. Elsheimer thus marks the departure from Mannerism.

Because of his early death and slow painting, which was also hampered by depression, he left only a few works. So far, 40 paintings and 30 drawings and gouaches are known. The 7 panels of the Frankfurt Kreuzaltares are one of its main attractions. For a long time it was considered lost. From 1951 to 1981 the Städelsche Kunstinstitut acquired the individual panels piece by piece. The altar was reconstructed thanks to a detailed description and drawing from the time of its origin.

His paintings occupy an unusual artistic span: in the baptism of Christ, he combined old-German landscape painting with a highly baroque feeling of space; His Procris anticipated the eroticism of Poussins and Rubens; Before Elsheimer there was no representation of the sky-like landscape as in the Aurora; The nightpieces such as The Troy’s Fire, Ceres, the flight to Egypt were pioneering, and the “little” Tobias, as well as the intimate interiors of Philemon and Baucis, served Rembrandt 50 years later as a model and a stimulus. His work influenced Claude Lorrain in Italy, Rubens and Rembrandt in the Netherlands as well as Caspar David Friedrich (also by the engravings of Goudt). His great influence can also be seen in the large number of copies made of his paintings.

Adam Elsheimer was the first painter to have portrayed the starry sky almost as true to nature. Although the constellations are by no means reproduced with the precision of a heavenly reading, Elsheimer was the first artist to paint Milky Way as a collection of innumerable individual stars (a revolutionary idea at that time). In addition, he depicted the moon in one of his pictures “on the head” (an index for an instrument) and recorded details that are invisible to the naked eye. In the summer of 1609 he most likely saw the sky over Rome with a telescope or a hollow mirror. His observations found their precipitation in the picture The Flight to Egypt.

His perfectionism, and an apparent tendency to depression, resulted in a small total output, despite the small size of all his pictures. In all about forty paintings are now generally agreed to be by him (see Kressmann below). He made a few etchings, not very successfully. However, his work was highly regarded by other artists and a few important collectors for its quality. He had a clear and direct influence on other Northern artists who were in Rome such as Paul Bril, Jan Pynas, Leonaert Bramer and Pieter Lastman, later Rembrandt’s master, who was probably in Rome by 1605. Rembrandt’s first dated work is a Stoning of St Stephen which appears to be a response to Elsheimer’s painting of the subject, now in Edinburgh. Some works by Italian artists, such as the six pictures from Ovid by Carlo Saraceni now in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, also show Elsheimer’s clear influence. Rubens, who owned at least four of his works, knew Elsheimer in Rome, and praised him highly in a letter after his death.

In a wider sense, he was influential in three respects. Firstly his night scenes were highly original. His lighting effects in general were very subtle, and very different from those of Caravaggio. He often uses as many as five different sources of light, and graduates the light relatively gently, with the less well-lit parts of the composition often containing important parts of it.

Secondly, his combination of poetic landscape with large foreground figures gives the landscape a prominence that had rarely been seen since the Early Renaissance. His landscapes do not always feature an extensive view; often the lushness of the vegetation closes it off. They are more realistic, but no less poetic, than those of Bril or Jan Brueghel, and play a part in the formation of those of Poussin and Claude. His treatment of large figures with a landscape backdrop looks forward, through Rubens and van Dyck, to the English portrait in the eighteenth century. Soon after his death he became very popular with English collectors, notably King Charles I of England, the Earl of Arundel, and the George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and over half his paintings have been in English collections at some time (nearly one third are still in the UK).

Thirdly, his integration of Italian styles with the German tradition he was trained in is perhaps more effective than that of any Northern painter since Dürer (with the exception of his friend Rubens). His compositions tend to underplay the drama of the events they depict (in noticeable contrast to those of Rubens), but often show the start of moments of transformation. His figures are relatively short and stocky, and reflect little of classical ideals. Their poses and gestures are unflamboyant, and their facial expressions resemble those in Early Netherlandish painting rather than the bella figura of most Italian Renaissance work.

The largest collection of his work is in Frankfurt. The Alte Pinakothek, Munich has two of his finest night-scene paintings, and Berlin, Bonn, Dresden and Hamburg have paintings. The National Gallery, London has three paintings with others in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, Apsley House, Windsor Castle, Petworth House, the Wellcome Library and Liverpool. In 2006 an exhibition at the Städel, Frankfurt, then Edinburgh, and the Dulwich Gallery in London reunited almost all his oeuvre.

There are drawings in Paris (Musée du Louvre) and Edinburgh among other locations.

Only two works are on public display outside Europe. One is in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth (The Flight into Egypt), and the other is the Mocking of Ceres, now in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario, badly damaged by fire at some point in its history; it had been part of the Dutch Gift to Charles II of England in 1660.