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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Adam Elsheimer

Altarpiece of the Holy Cross from the Frankfurt Tabernacle,
c. 1605, Adam Elsheimer. The central panel is titled, Exaltation of the Cross.
Today, it's all but unheard-of, and given the so-called social safety net, highly unlikely in any case. We've all no doubt heard of the proverbial "starving artist syndrome." I, myself, have written on the subject a number of times. And even though any number of artists down through history have lived and died destitute, its unlikely that they actually died of starvation. I can think of one case, however, when such a demise was quite likely, if not directly, then indirectly. His name was Adam Elsheimer, a German painter born in 1578.
The house where Elsheimer and his nine siblings grew up survived until 1944 when it was destroyed by Allied bombing.
House in the Mountains,
Adam Elsheimer
Adam Elsheimer was a native of Frankfort, Germany. He was one of ten children, the son of a mas-ter tailor. He was apprenticed to the artist Philipp Uffenbach from whom he picked up the basic techniques of German Renais-sance art. In 1598, at the age of twenty, he travelled to Italy via Munich, stopping to spend time in Venice where he worked as an assistant to Johann Rottenham-mer, some of whose drawings he owned. Rottenhammer was a German who had lived in Italy for some years. He was the first Ger-man painter to specialize in cab-inet paintings. Elsheimer is belie-ved to have produced some sig-nificant works in Venice, which show the influence of the Vene-tian painters Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese, as well as Rottenhammer.
Elsheimer's influence can be noticed in Rembrandt's Rest on the Flight into Egypt, painted more than sixty years later.
The Three Marys at
the Tomb of Christ,
1603, Adam Elsheimer
Elsheimer went on to Rome around 1600 where he joined a group of artists which included Peter Paul Rubens and Paul Brill. There Elsheimer began to produce paint-ings of Italian classical subjects and land-scapes with small figures, often overpow-ered by massive foliage. His interest in lighting increased after he studied the works of Caravaggio, who had exploited the dra-matic effects of chiaroscuro. Elsheimer pro-duced small and intricate paintings on cop-per and many larger, more vigorous draw-ings. His frequent depiction of illumination by firelight and candlelight was unusual for the period. Flight into Egypt (above) from 1609, is one of the first nocturnal landscape paintings in which the moon and the stars are the primary sources of light.
Holy Family with St John the Baptist, 1600, Adam Elsheimer.
Elsheimer greatly influenced the Dutch and Italian schools, and particularly Rembrandt's painting master, Pieter Lastman, as well as Rembrandt himself and Claude Lorrain. Elsheimer achieved fame during his lifetime as evidenced by the numerous contemporary copies of his works. His paintings were engraved by his pupil and patron, the Dutch amateur artist Count Hendrick Goudt and by Elsheimer himself. He painted small-scale works on copper in which he combined a precision of technique with inventive explorations of landscapes, multiple light sources, and exotic figures to create different moods.
The Preaching of John the Baptist, 1598, Adam Elsheimer
However, Elsheimer's output was small due to his highly refined surfaces requiring time-consuming efforts unjustified by the prices his small works brought when, indeed, he could sell them at all. His compositions were disseminated through the medium of prints. In spite of his popularity he was personally unsuccessful. A contemporary writer says he suffered from melancholia and was often unable to work. Thus, he was unable to finish enough pieces to actually make a living. Although admired by his fellow artists for his talents, no art patron would give Elsheimer a commission. He would remain in Rome where he apparently was imprisoned for his debts. He died in debtor's prison in 1610. He was thirty-two years old.

Jupiter and Mercury in the house of Philemon and Baucis,
ca. 1608, Adam Elsheimer.
Landscape with Waterfall, Adam Elsheimer.
(A better title might be, "Skinny-dippin' with
the Wife and Kids.")


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