There are many reasons why the painter Hans von Aachen deserves an international exhibition with catalogue. This artist from Cologne surprised Netherlandish and Italian contemporaries with striking precocity in his earliest works, such as his laughing self-portraits that in one instance shows the artist as two figures, one pulling the other’s ear, and that in others depict him carousing with young women, one of whom Van Mander suggestively named Madonna Venusta. It is easy to see the importance of these paintings for artists like Simone Peterzano, Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, and Rembrandt, as the catalogue’s authors have observed. Likewise, von Aachen made an impressive number of dignified as well as animated portraits of colleagues and nobles at the courts of Tuscany and the Holy Roman Empire.
As a foreign artist in Rome, von Aachen also landed a prestigious commission for an altarpiece for the Church of Il Gesù (1584; only drawn versions survive). This Nativity showed his familiarity with new trends in religious painting in the Veneto. As a religious painter he drew interest at the court of Bavaria, facilitating his entry into a tightly knit circle of court artists and leading to important altarpieces and epitaphs, portraits, and also significant allegorical paintings in Munich and Augsburg. In 1592 von Aachen became Kammermaler to Emperor Rudolf II Habsburg, a patron with whom he enjoyed a friendship that was likened to Apelles and Alexander the Great. He served the emperor not only as a painter of portraits, abstruse allegories, and religious works, but also as an art agent and diplomat, among other things making portraits of eligible spouses for Rudolf at five Austrian and Italian courts. He was ennobled by the emperor in 1594.
In these regards, von Aachen’s career resembles that of Peter Paul Rubens, who might even have met him in Cologne. One might even see in his Silenus and Bacchus (fig. 30, not in the exhibition) a possible source for Rubens’s painting, although the circumstances underlying the former work might have offended Rubens’s sense of decorum. Von Aachen’s painting relates to his secondary career as a wine merchant, which he used to his social advantage. It presents a ribald portrayal of himself, as Silenus, behind a pudgy, half-naked Bacchus: his drinking companion, the powerful nobleman Christoph Popl von Lobkowitz.
Many scholars have been at work on Hans von Aachen’s oeuvre since the 1960’s: most notably, Eliška Fučíková, who is assembling a catalogue raisonné of his paintings and drawings, and Joachim Jacoby, author of the first monograph on the artist and of a New Hollstein volume of prints after his compositions. An exhibition involving many experts offers great potential for disagreement on the authentic oeuvre and its chronology: a plethora of workshop versions and copies lends further complexity to the task. Covering the material in separately authored essays, the catalogue is subdivided among established experts and scholars who are newer to the subject. The outward picture of the artist and his work is harmonious, although some contributors write with more depth and accuracy. It also helps that the catalogue entries tend not to assign relative dates to undated works, for on this topic opinions vary widely.
The biographical essay by Eliška Fučíková presents what one hopes is a preview of her monograph on the artist. It is informed by her archival research in Prague, Cologne, and other locations and by extensive study of works in private and public collections. The essay by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann on von Aachen’s drawings surveys media, design processes, and drawing functions: it provides a helpful contribution not found elsewhere. Joachim Jacoby’s most useful study of the prints after von Aachen derives of course from his New Hollstein volume (1996). I note that the caption for the drawing, fig. 48, is wrong: in the text and the Hollstein volume, Jacoby correctly gives its author as Lukas Kilian.
The essay by Karl Schütz points to an issue that was quite striking at the first venue of the exhibition, where von Aachen’s portraits were installed together in one space. Von Aachen’s handling of paint varies in works of similar genre and time period: some portraits have large passages of impasto; others show smoother, thinner applications of paint. Likewise, Schütz notes differences in style (or differently put, in mode) between the informal and spontaneous portraits of the artist and his friends and the more formal court portraits. Joseph Koerner’s essay on friendship portraits explores the humanist reception of the Double Self-Portrait by its late seventeenth-century owner, Imstenraedt, and surveys a few painted portraits that Rudolfine artists made of their colleagues in relation to the Ciceronian theme of amicitia. He includes in this group the painting of four, crudely grinning men and women, known as the Laughing Peasants (fig. 80; formerly in Roudnice). However, it is hard to see in this work an expression of that elevated subject, not only because of its grotesque nature, which has led to its characterization as satirical, but also because the theme of amicitia was grounded in men’s friendships with other men.
The exhibition varied in its organization in Aachen and Prague, the two venues that I visited. In Aachen, the paintings were grouped in adjacent spaces by genre, with the drawings and prints in a separate room. While this prevented an understanding of the connections between different media, it did facilitate interesting technical comparisons among paintings or drawings, which tend to get lost when these works are dispersed. In Prague, several newly discovered works were added to the exhibition, among them a portrait of the youthful Archduke Ferdinand of Styria (the future Emperor Ferdinand II). However, this portrait is not by Hans von Aachen but rather by his pupil, the Rudolfine painter Joseph Heintz the Elder. The picture gallery of Prague Castle mounted a companion exhibition foregrounding Rudolfine artworks in the collection and material in private hands and dealerships.
The Institute of Art History in Prague contributed a meaningful occasion for scholarly dialogue through a symposium that took place during the run of the exhibition in Prague, in mid September, 2010. The Institute has created three other such occasions since the 1960’s, each involving an open call for papers, and in 2000 it inaugurated an annual journal, Studia Rudolfina, dedicated to the arts at the court of Rudolf II and their broader cultural ambience. Special attention was given at this conference to the work of graduate students, as the scholars of the Institute are committed to encouraging a new generation of scholars to work in this field.
St. Lawrence University