A Peek Inside German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600
Passing through the art section of a bookstore, you might find yourself arrested by the haughty gaze of Hermann von Wedigh III. The young merchant sits confidently at a table against a brilliant blue background, with a small book resting by his right elbow. “Herman von Wedigh III,” a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger and the cover-image of Early German Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350-1600 reveals themes explored in this review catalog of the Met’s comprehensive collection. The small book forms the locus of a scholarly discussion about the painting’s interpretation: is the book a Protestant bible, making Von Wedigh a Protestant reformist? Or, as curator Maryan W. Ainsworth argues, is the book intended as a classical text – in which case Wedigh may have been a secular humanist along the lines of prominent 16th century figures like Erasmus and Paracelsus? Early German Paintings offers a fresh exploration of a period in German art characterized by political and artistic turbulence, when traditional devotional practices in painting coexisted with popular mythological subjects and emerging secular themes. It is the first detailed study of the largest collection of German paintings in America.
Early German Paintings is a visually lavish and absorbing volume, and one that we are incredibly excited to have on our Spring/Summer 2013 list. Here is a peek, composed by one of our colleagues at the Met, at some of the intriguing analysis found within:
Just in time to celebrate the opening of the New European Paintings Galleries, Curator Maryan Ainsworth has coauthored a comprehensive guide to the Met’s German paintings. The collection, which includes pictures made in the German-speaking lands (including Austria and Switzerland) from 1350 to 1600, constitutes the largest and most comprehensive group in an American museum today. Comprising major examples by the towering figures of the German Renaissance—Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hans Holbein the Younger—and many by lesser masters, the collection has grown slowly but steadily from the first major acquisitions in 1871 to the most recent in 2011; it now numbers seventy-two works, presented here in sixty-three entries.
Below is a sampling of the included works, with excerpts by Joshua Waterman and Ainsworth, whose previous catalogue of the 2012 exhibition Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance, the Complete Works received the prestigious Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for “an especially distinguished catalogue in the history of art.”
When this portrait was painted, Holbein was only about twenty years old and had not yet been admitted into the Painters’ Guild in Basel, which he paid to join in 1519. . . . Viewed straight on, Hertenstein appears noticeably broader than he perhaps should, with an oversized left arm and hand. But, as we pass from left to right before the painting, he assumes more natural proportions and seems to project in a realistic manner out of his space into ours. As he engages us with his glance and we reach an angle of forty-five degrees opposite his image, we gradually experience the full force of Hertenstein’s corporeal presence. The inscription becomes more prominent, and the authorship of the painting is featured. Holbein’s striking effect of verisimilitude, in which the ideal image of the man is recognized only “in passing,” calls attention to the transience of life—both Hertenstein’s and our own.
This small, astonishingly well-preserved painting shows a nude woman reclining on the grassy bank of a river, near a spring that issues from a rock formation. Looking toward the viewer, she identifies herself and offers a word of caution through the first-person Latin inscription at the upper right: “I, nymph of the sacred spring, am resting; do not disturb my sleep.” The scene’s open eroticism is heightened by the nymph’s sultry, half-closed eyes; the red tinge of her cheeks, buttocks, elbows, knees, and feet; the transparent veil that meanders from head to foot, as if to guide the viewer’s gaze along her body; and the bundled red dress, which evokes the thought of her disrobing. A bow and quiver hang in a nearby tree, signaling that the nymph belongs to the entourage of the huntress goddess Diana. A green parrot perched on the bow and two rock partridges in the grass probably serve as symbols of the Luxuria (lust) that is embodied by the nymph and called forth in the male viewer.
This small, double-sided panel bears a portrait of a man on one side and a depiction of a girl making a garland on the reverse. . . . This is among the relatively few extant early sixteenth-century panels that join a portrait with an emblematic or allegorical subject on the verso. . . . Wearing a dancing dress, the girl is presented as a young maiden, her loose, flowing hair adorned with a double string of pearls symbolic of her chastity. Rather than a portrait, she is a female type, symbolizing a lover or prospective bride. Although the wreath of flowers was traditionally worn by women at festivals and tournaments, it was also commonly donned without a special event in mind by girls in southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Most important for our painting was the wreath worn by the bride as a sign of her virginity on her wedding day, when it would be taken from her with certain rites and replaced with a bonnet. The cat has many connotations in the art of this period, but the most likely one here is that suggested by Sigrid and Lothar Dittrich: a symbol of the respectable, constant love for the man who appears on the other side of the panel.