18 December 2016

Adam Elsheimer: A Painting for the Season

Adam Elsheimer  (1578 –1610) was born in Frankfurt and worked and died in Rome. Although he made  a relatively small number of paintings in his brief life,  his friend, the painter Peter Paul Rubens, has left a letter dated a few days after the artist’s death, describing his visit to Elsheimer’s widow at the artist’s home where he saw Flight in the artist’s bedroom.  Elsheimer was the single most influential artist of his period after Durer.  More original than often recognized, Elsheimer apparently began to make use of high contrasts of light and dark before he saw Caravaggio’s work. 
He painted small and usually on copper plate, poetic landscapes executed with meticulous detail.  For Elsheimer landscape was more than decoration or space filler, in his hands it served as a frame for the human figures and, more than that, as the atmosphere in which they were to be understood.  Copper provided a smooth surface for Elsheimer to show off his delicate brushwork.
The Flight into Egypt (1609) is the only one of his paintings that has a date inscribed on it.  Elsheimer’s nocturnal setting is unusual among artists' portrayal of the event but it is faithful to descriptions from the Gospels.  Just as the Magi had been guided by a star to the Holy Family,  the trio fled under a sky full of stars.   Art historians have identified Elsheimer's as the first painting to show the Milky Way, the galaxy that includes our solar system, then  recently explained by Galileo.  

Elsheimer has choreographed the dark night's journey with light, gently leading our eye along, beginning with  the Milky Way, medieval symbol of the path to heaven, slanting diagonally downward from the upper left corner.  The moon, flanked by clouds though it is, creates a circle with its reflection in water, balancing the circle of light made by the shepherds as they and their animals await the arrival of the little family.  From the torch that Joseph holds to light their way our eye drawn up to a star framed by the branches of a tree.  
Another appealing aspect of  Elsheimer's painting is its naturalism.  The flight into Egypt had been a favorite bible story for artists, from the Middle Ages onward, whether it be as frescoes in Italian churches or romantic  paintings by  German artists of the 15th and 16th centuries.  What I mean here by romantic is that artists depicted the event in anachronistic fashion; even the great Giotto, working  in the early 14th century, made a public parade of an escape under darkness.    Not only is Elsheimer's painting closer to the spirit of the story but the very ordinariness of his human characters draws us closer to them.
Images:(all or in part), Adam Elsheimer - The Flight Into Egypt, 1609,  Alte Pinakotek, Munich.

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