Monday, December 29, 2014

Albrecht Dürer and His Circle

Drawings from the Kunstmuseum Basel’s Department of Prints and Drawings
Kunstmuseum Basel, mezzanine, November 1, 2014–February 1, 2015 Curator: Christian Müller

The rich holdings of German and Swiss drawings from the first half of the sixteenth century in the Department of Prints and Drawings include a number of works by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and several artists who associated with him or spent time in his workshop in Nuremberg: Hans Baldung Grien (ca. 1485–1545), Hans Schäufelein (ca. 1480–1539/40), Hans von Kulmbach (ca. 1485–1522), and Hans Springinklee (ca. 1495–ca. 1540). The central figure in the exhibition, Dürer is represented with no more than six securely attributed drawings. That number rises to around 140 if one gives a set of woodblocks to him that were intended as illustrations for a Latin edition of the comedies of Terence. He may have created these works—presumably with help from assistants—during his stay in Basel around 1492.

The exhibition presents a sizable selection of ca. 100 drawings from this body of works.


The foundation for the Kunstmuseum Basel’s collection of drawings from Dürer’s time was laid in 1661, when the City of Basel purchased the art collection and library of the jurist Basilius Amerbach (1533–1591) from his heirs—he had no direct descendants—and gave them to the University of Basel. Amerbach had recognized the eminent quality of the graphic art produced in the era of Dürer and the Holbeins and seems to have made a targeted effort to acquire such works. He also sought to buy prints and drawings by Dürer, but by the second half of the sixteenth century, these prized pieces were generally held by wealthy burghers and aristocrats. Amerbach was able to secure a single drawing, probably from a seller in Zurich: a Monkey Dance Dürer had sketched on the verso of a letter to the dean of Zurich cathedral, Felix Frey, in 1523.

Later additions

In 1823, the University of Basel seized the opportunity to make a considerable addition to the collection based on Amerbach’s possessions: after protracted legal disputes, it acquired the drawings, prints, and paintings from the so-called Museum of the Faesch family, a cabinet of art and curiosities established by the Basel jurist and collector Remigius Faesch (1595–1667), who had also contributed most of its holdings.

Among the Old Master drawings originally in the Faesch collection are works by Dürer, Baldung, Schäufelein, and Leu. They share this provenience with several paintings now in the of the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, including the double portrait of the Mayor of Basel Jakob Meyer zum Hasen and his wife, by Hans Holbein the Younger, as well as, most likely, an Adoration of the Magi. The panel, on display in the exhibition, bears similarities, especially in the figure types, to the abovementioned woodblocks for an illustrated Terence that some scholars believe may be Dürer’s. 

In 1849, Peter Vischer-Passavant gave the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel a modello for the central panel of the so-called Ober-Sankt Veit altarpiece, which was then believed to have been painted by Dürer’s hand. A veritable drawing by Dürer, the Holy Family in the Hall (1509), entered our collection in 1851 as a gift from the heirs of Peter Vischer-Sarasin. Baldung’s The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene was part of the estate of the Basel painter and art dealer Samuel Birmann (1793–1847), which was integrated into the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel after the mid- nineteenth century; his drawing Death with lowered banner as well as Leu’s Agony in the Garden came into the collection in 1947 by bequest of Dr. Tobias Christ and as a gift from his heirs, respectively. 

The most significant addition of Old Master drawings, including several outstanding works by Dürer, Baldung, Schäufelein, and Springinklee, followed in 1959, when Ciba Specialty Chemicals made a major donation to the museum, to which it added Kulmbach’s design for a stained-glass painting Quatrefoil with the Madonna and Child in 1962. Already in 1959, Heinrich Sarasin-Koechlin had given Kulmbach’s drawing Woman in Traditional Dress from Nuremberg.

In 2012, the museum received an important drawing by Baldung thanks to the generosity of Richard and Ulla Dreyfus-Best: in recognition of their close ties to the city of Basel and the Kunstmuseum, they gave the Sheet of Studies with Seven Heads, Death among Them to the Department of Prints and Drawings, an ideal complement to its holdings of drawings by Baldung from the years between 1513 and 1515.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

During his journeyman years between 1490 and 1494, Dürer also traveled to the Upper Rhine; his main purpose was presumably to visit Martin Schongauer. Yet when Dürer reached Colmar, he learned that the revered older artist had died; Dürer met Schongauer’s brothers Paul and Ludwig instead. His journey then took him to Basel, where Georg Schongauer, Martin’s third brother, was active as a goldsmith.

One peculiar highlight of the Basel collection is the abovementioned set of woodblocks for an illustrated Latin edition of the comedies of Terence. The blocks bear designs, but most were left uncut, and the planned book was never printed. Whether all of the Terence illustrations or even only some of them should be attributed to Dürer is a contested question.

In 1494, Dürer, who had just returned to Nuremberg after his time as a journeyman, is generally believed to have embarked on his first voyage to Italy, where he also created the drawing of a woman standing. Details of her dress such as the high-girt robe and décolleté indeed evince similarities to Dürer’s drawings of the women of Venice. A drawing of the head of Mary executed in charcoal or black chalk on sanguine-primed paper bears the date 1503 and the artist’s monogram. It may be compared to a set of portraits Dürer made in the same technique at the time. His Holy Family in the Hall (1509) features technical peculiarities that are without immediately apparent parallel in his graphic oeuvre. Unfortunately, the sheet is not well preserved; the pen and ink drawing, and the watercolors in particular, have faded considerably and disappeared altogether in some parts. The drawing is richly detailed and executed with precision; the draftsman appears to have guided the pen with extraordinary control so that the sheet, in its original condition, must have resembled a work of painting. 

Dürer’s full-figure portrait drawing of Paul the Apostle may date from around 1511. He experiments with open parallel hatchings to render effects of light, taking such liberties with his motif that it seems about to disintegrate in some places. A piece that figures prominently in the history of the collection, as discussed above, is the 1523 Dance of the Apes. The motif is loosely modeled on the dance known as Moresca. The theatrical scene is replete with erotic—including homoerotic—allusions Dürer included for the pleasure of the work’s addressee, Felix Frey, then the dean of Zurich cathedral, and his friends.

The portrait of Cardinal Matthäus Lang von Wellenburg, which Dürer drew in Augsburg in 1518 or in Nuremberg in 1521, shows the artist’s mastery of the graphic medium in its zenith. It was a sketch for a large-format woodcut Dürer apparently never executed. Among the drawings in the Kunstmuseum Basel’s Department of Prints and Drawings that have been associated with Dürer and the members of his workshop are also copies, variants, and imitative works produced in the second half of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. One such imitation is the 

Nuremberg Woman in a Dance Dress, which entered the collection in 1959 as part of the Ciba anniversary donation.

Hans Baldung Grien (ca. 1485–1545)

Even before his stint in Dürer’s workshop, around 1502, Baldung created a self-portrait that bears remarkable witness to the young artist’s self-assurance—he was presumably seventeen at the time. Baldung came from a family of physicians and jurists. He had resolved to become an artist although, unlike Dürer or the Holbeins, he was not descended from a line of craftsmen and painters. The bluish-green priming of the paper makes the human figure rise from the ground like an apparition. Bartholomew the Apostle and Mary with Child at a Fountain, both of which are dated 1504, and The Birth of Christ (ca. 1504/05) are representative examples of Baldung’s graphic style during his time in Nuremberg. The Lansquenet with Pike over His Shoulder in pen and brush on green primed paper, which also dates from 1505, exemplifies another technique, the chiaroscuro drawing. Although the charcoal and chalk drawings of the years after 1510 are softer and more painterly in their overall appearance, their character remains defined by bold outlines that often seem to lead a life of their own. That is especially evident in The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene as well as the Death of Mary, which takes inspiration from Schongauer’s engraving of the same subject. But a new pathos now suffuses Baldung’s heads.

A number of drawings by Baldung in the Basel collection were created around 1513–15, perhaps in connection with his work on the high altarpiece for Freiburg Minster, which was completed in 1516. Two studies of female heads, one drawn in black chalk or charcoal, the other in sanguine, are indisputable masterworks. The drawing Centaur and Putto, which dates from around 1513–15, displays striking wit and relies on the beholder’s familiarity with the sculpture and themes of classical antiquity. With such drawings Baldung catered to the tastes of collectors and connoisseurs who cherished humanist erudition.

Baldung’s silverpoint drawing of Erasmus of Rotterdam on his deathbed was created around midnight on July 12, 1536, probably at the behest of Bonifacius Amerbach. It is perhaps the earliest surviving drawing from Europe north of the Alps to render a deceased person with the unsparing realism of a nature study. Baldung made the drawing in preparation for a painting that is documented to have existed in the collections of the Margraves of Baden well into the eighteenth century but has since been lost. It featured an inscription composed by Bonifacius Amerbach.

Hans Schäufelein (ca. 1480–1539/40)

The grisaille Calvary, a modello for the central panel of the altarpiece known as the Ober-Sankt Veit altar after the church in which it was installed in the nineteenth century, is an object of scholarly dispute: formerly attributed to Dürer, it is now believed by some to date from the second half of the century. Today the altarpiece, which Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony had ordered from Dürer, is in the Diocesan Museum of the Archdiocese of Vienna. Schäufelein executed it in Dürer’s absence while the master was in Venice from 1505 to 1507.

The Portrait of a Young Man with Beret (1516) offers a good illustration of Schäufelein’s skills as a graphic artist. The sitter seems to spontaneously turn his head to the right, as though responding to a person standing there. The drawing impresses us with the straightforwardness of the depiction, which eschews all idealization. Firm contours contrast with the ornamental play of the hair and the feathers adorning the beret.

Hans von Kulmbach (ca. 1485–1522)

No more than three drawings in the collections of the Kunstmuseum Basel’s Department of Prints and Drawings may be given to Kulmbach or his workshop. The study of a Nuremberg woman standing probably dates back to the first decade of the sixteenth century. The two other drawings are designs for stained-glass paintings. The Mary and Child may be regarded as a work by Kulmbach’s own hand from around 1510, whereas the representation of Pope Sixtus II was probably made by a member of the workshop he set up in Nuremberg around the same time.

Hans Springinklee (ca. 1495–ca. 1540)

The Christ as Man of Sorrows, a chiaroscuro drawing in pen and brush on brown-primed paper, is one of the few works we can attribute to Hans Springinklee with certainty because it bears his monogram. Christ does not lean against a tree, as the surrounding natural setting might suggest, but against the foot of a cross integrated into the landscape. Springinklee’s interest in landscapes and nature’s exuberant fertility was probably inspired by Albrecht Altdorfer’s drawings.

Hans Leu the Younger (ca. 1490–1531)

Leu was active as a painter, draftsman, and designer of woodcuts; his work shows the influence of Dürer, Baldung, and the masters of the so-called Danube School, but especially of Albrecht Altdorfer. It is evident in Leu’s preference for drawings on paper primed in various colors with white heightening as well as in his calligraphic style. The landscape is a frequent theme in his oeuvre.