With Agnew’s, London;
Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby’s, 25 November 1970, lot 38 (as School of the Upper Rhine, circa 1500) for £21,500;
With Edward Speelman, London;
From whom acquired by the father of the present owner;
Thence by descent.
G. Mende, Hans Baldung Grien, Das graphische Werk, Unterschneidheim 1978, p. 32;
G. von der Osten, Hans Baldung Grien, Gemälde und Dokumente, Berlin 1983, pp. 47–48, cat. no. 4, reproduced plates 4 and 5, and colour plate 1;
J. Sander in Albrecht Dürer. His art in context, J. Sander (ed.), exh. cat., Frankfurt am Main 2013, p. 204, reproduced in colour.
A prolific artist of seemingly inexhaustible imagination, Baldung worked not just as a painter, but also as a printmaker, draughtsman and designer of stained glass (fig. 10). Against the backdrop of the turbulent years of the Reformation, he spent most of his working career in the humanist centre of Strasbourg, where he had settled after 1509. His reputation as Dürer's greatest pupil was well deserved, but does not tell the whole truth, for Baldung had a very different and more impetuous sensibility which ultimately led his art in quite different directions. His versatility, but above all his passions, took him into the realms of the supernatural and the erotic for his subject matter, and his work in this vein must count among the most imaginative and psychologically acute of any painter of this period.
Unusually for a painter at that time, Baldung came from a well to do family of lawyers and doctors of Swabian origin, who had settled in Strasbourg in the 1490s. He no doubt studied there before, in 1503 at the age of eighteen, he entered the Nuremberg workshop of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), the most famous artist working north of the Alps. It was probably here that he acquired his nickname ‘Grien’ (green), perhaps as a reference to his favourite colour of apparel, or else as a means to distinguish him from the other painters called Hans in the workshop. Either on account of his social status or his talent, or both, he seems to have gained Dürer’s confidence quickly, and when the latter departed for his second trip to Italy in 1505 Baldung was entrusted with the running of his workshop. This was to be the beginning of a close and lifelong friendship between the two artists. During his trip to the Netherlands in 1521, Dürer’s diary shows that he took with him prints by his friend for sale there. On Dürer’s death in 1528, it was said that Baldung was sent a lock of his hair, which certainly suggests a strong friendship between the two men.
This Holy Family belongs to the first phase of Baldung’s career, during or just after his stay in Dürer’s workshop in Nuremberg. In it, within a quiet but well-appointed chamber, the Virgin sits upon cushions with the naked infant Jesus upon her lap. From her belt hang keys and a leather purse, and beside her some scissors and thread, all symbolic of her humble status as a housewife. Two winged angels stand beside the Christ Child, and one offers him a pear, a symbol of salvation.2 At their feet sit three more angels gathered around a potted dandelion, symbolic of both Mary and Her Son.3 Two of the angels are also winged and playing upon flutes, while a third, clad in a red mantle, strums upon a lute. Saint Joseph stands beside them, his hands clasped together in veneration. Behind the figures the green curtains give onto a loggia, whose arched windows look out over a peaceful river landscape. A little dog sleeps quietly nearby. The composition is carefully constructed around two strong diagonals, centering upon the Christ Child, and is held together by the most beautiful chromatic harmonies. The striking red of Joseph’s mantle is carefully picked up by the crimson tassels beneath Christ and by Mary’s cushion, and the pink of its lining matched by the window and pillar in the loggia and the infants’ skin. Similarly, the blue of the Virgin’s mantle is taken up by Saint Joseph’s sleeves and then his shawl, and the greens of the curtain and the flower matched by the landscape through the window. Throughout, Baldung has lavished the greatest care upon the fine details of the costumes and landscape, and in particular the wonderfully wrought textures of the angels’ wings and hair, as well as the leaves of the dandelion in the foreground.
This picture was most probably painted shortly after Dürer’s return from his second trip to Venice in January or February of 1507, for, as might be expected, its debt to his work is significant. The interior and the Italianate loggia, for example, reflect Durer’s increased interest in complex perspectival spaces in his woodcuts from the period 1500–05, such as that of the Holy Family (fig. 1) in which a very similar double arch appears before a window looking out on to a landscape. Baldung’s role in Dürer’s shop would often have been to assist with woodcut book illustrations, so his reference to such a graphic source is readily understandable. The beautiful wings of Baldung’s angels here must surely suggest that he had also seen the studies of bird wings made by Dürer and his shop (fig. 2), especially in connection with the Nemesis engraving of 1501/2, although sadly no surviving studies by Baldung himself are known. This painting shows how closely Baldung had studied not only Dürer’s working methods, but also how he had absorbed the changed colour palette that the master himself had adopted as a result of his visit to Venice. Dürer’s new concerns with Venetian colour in general, and the work of Bellini in particular, were epitomised by his celebrated painting of the Feast of the Rosary commissioned by the banker Jacob Fugger, painted in Venice and completed as recently as September 1506 (fig. 3).4 Although Baldung could not have seen the original, it is not hard to sense in the resplendent red of Joseph’s robe, offset by the luscious greens and blues of the Virgin’s dress and the curtain in the present panel, a reflection of this new aesthetic. Baldung was no doubt very receptive to this influence, for he would already have derived a keen sense of colour from the artistic traditions of his native Swabia and of its western counterpart across the Rhine, Alsace.
As we do not know the earliest history of this panel, we can only speculate as to the degree of influence Dürer may or may not have had upon its design. It is not known what assignments Dürer gave his young pupil, and there are no documents to shed light on his years in Nuremberg. Something may be gleaned, however, of the nature of Baldung’s interaction with Dürer by an examination of the underdrawing on the panel itself (figs 5 and 6). When painting on panel (typically on conifer or limewood as here) Baldung prepared his compositions with detailed underdrawings, mostly executed with the point of the brush. Numerous studies after nature, including the occasional landscape, preserved in his silverpoint sketchbook in Karlsruhe, bear witness to this process. As Jochen Sander has pointed out during the recent Frankfurt exhibition, the head of Saint Joseph in this painting seems to have been changed during its execution. Infra-red images reveal a typically carefully drawn head of an old man with an untrimmed beard (fig. 5), close in type to those employed by Dürer himself, such as the pen and ink drawing of c. 1505 now in Paris, Fondation Custodia Fritz Lugt (fig. 4).5 The same model or a very similar drawing was probably used by Baldung, for example, for the head of the King on the right of the Berlin Epiphany. As Sander notes, the careful technique of parallel and cross-hatching employed in the underdrawing bears some resemblance to Dürer’s own in works from this period, such as the unfinished Salvator Mundi in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.6 In the finished painting, however, Sander notes that Joseph now sports a trimmed beard and more distinct features more in keeping with Baldung’s own style. Whether Dürer himself may have had a part in the design of the present Holy Family can probably never be known for certain, but it would be hard to find an instance elsewhere in Baldung’s work in which the influence and presence of his teacher is so keenly felt.
This painting can also be connected stylistically to Baldung’s best-known works from this period. In 1507 Baldung left Nuremberg for Halle, where he had received commissions for two important altarpieces: that of The Adoration of the Magi today in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (fig. 7), and the signed and dated Saint Sebastian altar of 1507, now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg (fig. 8).7 The latter also includes a self-portrait of Baldung himself, standing alongside (and seemingly oblivious to) the martyred saint, clad in his favourite colour of green. As Von der Osten observes, there are a number of stylistic features common to all three works. The head and facial features of the Virgin here, for example, are very similar to those of Mary in the Adoration altar in Berlin, and again to the features of Saint Apollonia on the wings of the altarpiece in Nuremberg. They may also be compared to Baldung's designs for stained glass windows of the same period in the Carmelite cloister and the churches of St Veit and St Lorenz in Nuremberg, especially the great Loeffelholz window in the latter, which dates from 1506 (fig. 10). In terms of date, Von der Osten places the this Holy Family just before the Saint Sebastian altar and at the same time or slightly after that of the The Adoration of the Magi. It is worth noting that the head of the Saint Joseph in the Berlin altar uses a very similar model to those found in the Dürer workshop at this date, and which is reflected in the underdrawing on the present panel as well. The arrangement of the figures and their relationship with the space around them is more complex and much more coherent in the present panel than in the Berlin or Nuremberg altars, where they stand in stiff and disconnected circles. This might be a more mature work of a slightly later date, perhaps hinting at a return to Nuremberg after 1507. Baldung returned to the theme of the Holy Family in an interior only once more, in another relatively early work of 1513, today in the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandaeum (fig. 11).8 Painted on a panel of roughly similar size, Baldung abandons the space engendered by the landscape and loggia in the present panel for a more intimate trompe l’œil arrangement in which the space around the Holy Family is much more confined. The magnificent wings depicted here would recur throughout his career, most notably in the angel of the Annunciation panel of the High Altar in Freiburg, but also in later works such as the fragmentary Cupid in the same city.
Baldung returned to Strasbourg in 1509, where he married and became a citizen there the following year. He joined the artists’ Guild and worked in the city for the rest of his life, with the notable exception of an important five year period between 1512–17 when he moved to Freiburg im Breisgau to work on his largest and most prestigious commission, the multi-panelled high altar of the Münster, containing on the centre panel the Coronation of the Virgin, which is generally considered his masterpiece. The altarpiece was not completed until 1516 and Baldung returned to Strasbourg for the last time early in 1517. From the 1520s onwards the pictorial and psychological content of his work became increasingly mannered. His increasingly free line and often clashing and vibrant colours show that he maintained a keen interest in colour for its own sake, above and beyond its merely descriptive function. Although Baldung continued to produce religious subjects for private patrons, he increasingly painted portraits or secular subjects (reflecting the Reformation's constraints on religious art) and, most famously, scenes of mortality and witchcraft.9 He is considered by some to have introduced the supernatural and the erotic into German art. Certainly, in terms of pathos or psychological impact Baldung was matched among his contemporaries only by Matthias Grünewald (1470–1528), whose work briefly influenced him after 1512. His output was prolific – some 350 drawings, 180 woodcuts and book illustrations are known – and his reputation never flagged. By the time of his death in September 1545, Baldung was a member of the city council of Strasbourg and one of that city's richest citizens.
1 Emendationen zu des Plinius Naturalis Historiae, Basel 1526, cited by Von der Osten 1983, pp. 294, 308, doc. 77. Rhenanus’s views were echoed by the French scholar Jean Pélerin (c. 1445–1524) in his De Artificali Perspectiva of 1521.
2 Psalm 34, 8: ‘Taste and see the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him’.
3 L. Behling, Die Pflanze in der mittelalterlichen Malerei, Weimar 1957, pp. 33–36.
4 F. Anzelewsky, Albrecht Dürer. Das malerische Werk, Berlin 1991, vol. I, p. 191 f., cat. no. 93, vol. II, colour plates 91 and 92.
5 Inv. no. 5989. Exhibited Frankfurt 2014 cat. no. 2.6, reproduced.
6 Anzelewsky 1991, pp. 189–90, no. 83;
7 Von der Osten 1983, pp. 42–48 and 49–53, cat. nos 3 and 6 respectively, reproduced plates 3–6, 8, 12–19. Baldung’s altarpieces were later installed by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg beside works by Grünewald and Cranach in the Collegiate Church in Halle, where he hoped they would form a sort of artistic bastion against the forces of Reformation.
8 Von der Osten 1983, pp. 88–91, cat. no. 21a, reproduced plate 54.
9 This was something of a local interest. Strasbourg's humanists studied witchcraft and its bishop was charged with the task of unmasking witches.
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