Hard on the heels of a major catalogue of German drawings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, compiled by Stijn Alsteens and Freyda Spira (reviewed in this journal April 2013), comes a new catalogue of the same museum’s early modern German paintings collection. Few US collections can boast of either the quality or the quantity of New York’s German art, and no other museum except the National Gallery (catalogue by John Oliver Hand with Sally Mansfield, 1993) can compare to this rich documentation.
The strengths of the collection will be familiar to HNA readers. Leading masters of the early sixteenth century dominate the Met collection, starting with Hans Holbein the Younger. While Ainsworth/Waterman take a strict view about whether an individual portrait is by the Holbein workshop rather than indisputably authentic to the master, there riches still abound. The dated portrait of Benedikt von Hertenstein (1517; no. 29), an early masterpiece, depicts the owner of the house in Lucerne (demolished 1825) whose exterior paintings helped establish Holbein’s reputation. Moreover, the placement of the sitter in a room corner sets a precedent that Holbein would repeat in the following decade; as Christian Müller noted a decade ago, the portrait reads more forcefully from a 45-degree angle.
Other Holbein bust-length portraits against his trademark monochrome dark blue backgrounds feature German merchants of the “Steelyard,” London’s Hanseatic League factory: Hermann von Wedigh III (1532; no. 30) and Derick Berck (1536; no. 32), both from Cologne. From the Holbein workshop high quality portraits of noble court sitters replicate these aristocrats for their extended families or wider network. Included among these are several known figures, whose original pounced drawings by Holbein survive in the Windsor Castle collection: Lady Rich (ca. 1540; no. 35) and Lady Lee (early 1540s; no. 36) as well as the profile portrait of young King Edward VI (ca. 1545; no. 38) and several anonymous, young court figures of both sexes (nos. 34, 37). Also notable is a high quality replica by Holbein of Erasmus (ca. 1532; no. 33), whose provenance reaches back within a half-century of the sitter’s lifetime.
Even more spectacular, if fewer, the Met’s Dürer paintings encapsulate the artist’s creative exploitation of the boundary between portraiture and religious icons. Exemplary here is the unfinished Salvator Mundi(ca. 1505, no. 23), whose meticulous underdrawing shows how much Dürer really created works graphically. The bust presentation of Christ blessing and holding an orb conforms closely to icon traditions. Ainsworth’s thorough entry also examines the hypothesis that this image formed a triptych with two unfinished standing saints (Bremen), but concludes that the icon stood alone, perhaps even as a showpiece of the artist’s working method.
Another notable Dürer work with a strong drawing preparation is the Virgin and Child with St. Anne (1519; no. 25), with solid links to preparatory drawings, especially a highly finished image in the Albertina of Agnes Dürer as St. Anne (fig. 99). One small work whose quality and condition remain debatable is reaffirmed as Dürer himself: a monogrammed and dated 1516 Virgin and Child (1516; no. 24).
From the New York collection alone one could survey the major output of Lucas Cranach, well-known for his long, productive career and Wittenberg ties with Luther and the Saxon court. Fifteen panels by the master and his large workshop span Cranach’s entire career and his full range of subjects. The vivid colors, large scale, dramatic actions of early religious works emerge from a Martyrdom of St. Barbara (ca. 1510; no. 9). Courtly warnings about the Power of Women topos appear in Samson and Delilah (ca. 1528-30; no. 12) and a seductive Judith with the Head of Holofernes (ca. 1530; no. 13), where the heroine is dressed in the richest Saxon court fashion. Cranach’s repeated celebrity portraits of the Saxony electors (1533; no. 17) and of Luther himself (1532; no. 18) headline a number of portraits of affiliated court nobles, including Johann, Duke of Saxony (ca. 1534-37; no. 15) and one fine, if anonymous sitter (1532; no. 14).
Cranach’s numerous enticing slender Venus subjects find several exemplars: Venus and Cupid (ca. 1525-27; no. 10), a splendid large Judgment of Paris (ca. 1528; no. 11), and a posthumous copy after Venus with Cupid as Honey Thief (no. 20), complemented by Cranach the Younger’s version of the Nymph of the Spring (ca. 1545-50; no. 21). Cranach the Younger also offers pendant panels of standardized Lutheran subjects, Christ and the Adulteress and Christ Blessing the Children with accompanying German inscriptions (ca. 1545-50; no. 22).
The wider Dürer era finds representation at the Met but in isolated instances. A fine early Hans Baldung, St. John on Patmos (ca. 1511; no. 2), is reconstructed with two other works in US collections to form the right wing of a dismembered triptych: an Anna Selbdritt with John the Baptist (Washington) as left wing; a Mass of St. Gregory (Cleveland) as the centerpiece. Barthel Beham’s Nuremberg portrait of Leonhard von Eck (1527; no. 3) will interest Reformation scholars. Hans Süss von Kulmbach’s Ascension of Christ (1513; no. 41) is reconstructed here within a larger Marian altarpiece, while his small portrait of a young man also features a charming verso, Girl with a Cat (ca. 1508; no. 40). Hans Schäufelein fragments from a major altarpiece (ca. 1510; no. 50) show the Dormition and Carrying of the Cross (recto).
Earlier German paintings are not a featured element of the Met’s collections, though a major Passion fragment from Westphalia by the Master of the Berswordt Altar (1400; no. 46) is an important work. One unidentified painter holds special interest for this readership. From the end of the sixteenth century a northern German artist, probably from Hamburg (whose skyline appears in the orb held by a frontal Christ) painted a moving personalized triptych (ca. 1573-82; no. 55) of a pious family of seven arrayed at bust length in a domestic interior closely around the blessing Savior. Biblical verses above them in German offer hopes for salvation.
Thus does the Metropolitan Museum provide cultural and religious history within its artistic riches, spanning the tumultuous sixteenth century in Germany. Art historians will relish the fine color, frequent details, technical information (including x-radiographs and infrareds) as well as full documentation, bibliography, artist’s biographies, and extensive notes. Ainsworth and Waterman have produced an exemplary catalogue of a major American collection, a lasting reference filled with intellectual fascination and beauty.
University of Pennsylvania