In this attractively produced book Kurt Löcher, former curator of old master paintings at Nuremberg’s Germanisches Nationalmuseum, explores Barthel Beham’s artistic production. Arranged in roughly chronological order by medium, the book is divided into short chapters on Beham’s woodcuts, engravings, early paintings from Nuremberg, portraits from Munich, and drawings, among others. Löcher devotes much effort to the catalogue entries on paintings and drawings within the format of an oeuvre catalo gue, and his bibliography is extensive, especially in the area of German exhibition and museum catalogues. The accomplishment of this book is bringing together for the first time an overview of Beham’s life and works in one volume with high-quality illustrations.
Beham is perhaps better known for his politics than his art. Born in 1502 in Nuremberg at the beginning of Dürer’s international success, Barthel is believed to have been trained by Dürer and his slightly older brother Sebald. Due to their unorthodox religious views, the brothers were expelled from Nuremberg early in 1525 but allowed to return later that year. The brothers soon went separate ways: Barthel settled in Munich around 1527 and Sebald in Frankfurt c.1531. Barthel worked for the Bavarian duke Wilhelm IV in Munich and traveled to Italy in the duke’s employ where he died in 1540. He is best known for his painted portraits made during the 1530s.
An appendix helpfully lists documents for Barthel’s life in the Nuremberg and Munich archives in the original German. We learn that Barthel was the youngest and most radical of the three godless painters tried by Nuremberg’s town council, along with brother Sebald and Jörg Pencz. Although the literature has viewed Sebald as the most radical of the three, Löcher’s careful review of the documents convincingly corrects this false art historical picture placing Barthel in that role (p. 15).
Barthel’s greatest accomplishments lie in the area of engraving and portrait painting, but the arrangement of the book presents his woodcuts early on (pp. 21-28). This placement is unfortunate because Beham’s association with woodcuts needs to be seriously questioned if not rejected. Gustav Pauli’s catalogue of Barthel’s prints from 1911 still serves as standard reference by scholars, and Pauli rejected altogether attributions of woodcuts to Barthel, giving them instead to Sebald in his catalogue of 1901. Heinrich Röttinger linked Barthel to woodcuts in his catalogue of 1921, but the attributions were buttressed by complex, often unconvincing explanations. Röttinger’s attributions have unfortunately stuck in the literature, including the Hollstein German print series, and Löcher’s book.
The themes of Löcher’s book appear to be the influence on Beham’s art of the Renaissance for classicizing subjects and volumetric forms and of the Reformation for the large number of portraits, both engraved and painted. Löcher’s extensive research and publications on German portraiture are cited in the catalogue and bibliographical entries. But the direct discussion of Löcher’s ideas, rather than reference to them, would have been helpful to the reader who is left frustrated by a lack of development of ideas and wondering why Löcher attributes particular works to Beham. In both catalogue entries and text, the inclusion of much visual description of images illustrated and the absence of a theme or specific point results in unfocused discussion. Sometimes the beautiful illustrations do not agree with Löcher’s description of them, as in the case of the portrait of the Bavarian Chancellor Leonhard von Eck in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (p. 70). The illustration shows him wearing a creamy white shirt and light brown overshirt, which the text describes as yellowish-white and gray.
Beham’s contributions as a portrait painter emerge from the illustrations and catalogue entries. From the portraits painted in Nuremberg of Johann and Magdalena Neudörfer around 1527 (figs. 67-68) to a scorekeeper of 1529, (fig. 82), the portraits are impressive, monumental undertakings that tantalize the eye with luscious renderings of fabric and fur. Beham emerges as a portrait painter of extremely high quality, contemporary with Holbein the Younger, especially when the Large Wittelsbach series showing ancestors of the Bavarian dukes for the Munich residence is explored with its impressive half-length portraits of Duke Ludwig X of Bavaria from 1530 (fig. 109). The Small Wittelsbach series includes bust-length portraits, including Ottheinrich, Duke of Palatinate-Neuburg, 1535, exhibited in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (fig. 144), with its beautiful pink-orange hues. Fascinating are the ‘ricordi,’ drawings in chalk and colored pencil that made visual records of the completed paintings of Duke Wilhelm IV and Duchess Maria Jacobäa (figs. 145-148) for the workshop should further demand arise.
A clear articulation of Beham’s style in general would have been welcome as would a critical evaluation of individual works’ attributions and issues. The reader wonders why Löcher assigns paintings to Beham that appear simplified and flat, sometimes lacking psychological depth (Woman at a Spinning Wheel, fig. 82), and why such bright, glaring light is employed for the portrait of a woman of 1529 in Denver (fig. 84). Differences in quali ty are sometimes explained by the state of preservation, as in the Large Wittelsbach series (p. 154), but when exactly did those changes take place, and were they deliberately executed by a restorer?
Löcher’s book is a welcome albeit traditional addition to the art historical literature. It will be the task of future generations to build on Löcher’s work to articulate Beham’s style(s), and evaluate its role, meanings, and effectiveness as a tool in the critical study of Beham’s oeuvre. In so doing, the position of Beham’s workshop, later copies, and restoration work should be illuminated. Once this difficult work is accomplished Beham’s role in, and contributions to, early sixteenth-century German art will more easily be appreciated.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
For further discussion of these woodcuts, which I – like Pauli – give to Sebald Beham, see my Before Bruegel. Sebald Beham and the Origin of Peasant Festival Imagery (Ashgate Press, forthcoming). For the similar kermis woodcuts Löcher discusses, see my ‘Paper Festivals and Popular Entertainment. The Kermis Woodcuts of Sebald Beham in Reformation Nuremberg,’ Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 24/2 (1993), 301-350, esp. 315-18.