A perfect Mannerist demonstration of facility and grace, this remarkable copper was previously unknown and has only now come to light. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Dutch Mannerism was out of favor, and Wtewael and its other proponents had fallen into obscurity; the painting was then considered to be the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder. Given our greater knowledge of the period, it is now clear that Adam and Eve was painted by Joachim Wtewael, an attribution confirmed by Anne Lowenthal, who will include it in the forthcoming addendum to her monograph on the artist.
Representations of Adam and Eve or the Fall of Man in Northern art throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth century all ultimately reflect the influence of Albrecht Dürer's engraving of 1504 (fig. 1). From the time of its inception it was considered a masterpiece and was copied throughout Europe in prints, drawings and paintings. Even in 1592, nearly 80 years after the publication of the print, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, Wtewael's slightly older contemporary, used it as the basis for his over life-sized painting commissioned for the Haarlem Town Hall. There Dürer's figures are literally expanded to conform to the exaggerated body type preferred by Cornelisz., but their origin is clear. In the present work Dürer's influence is more subtle, but we can see its echoes in the snake coiling around the branch, the large, elegant parrot and even Eve's holding not one but two apples. However, Wtewael has profoundly changed the composition, abandoning the classicizing symmetry and transforming the moment of temptation into a truly sensuous scene.
The subject is subtly different as well. Lowenthal notes that the inclusion of so many animals in a composition depicting Adam and Eve with the Serpent, suggests a conflation of the theme of The Temptation with an earlier moment in Genesis, Adam Naming the Animals; it is an approach Wtewael also took in a large canvas formerly in the General von Fabricius collection, Kiev.1 In doing so, Wtewael may well have been inspired by an engraving by Jan Saenredam after Abraham Bloemaert, from a series of six prints depicting The History of Adam and Eve of 1604. 2 The third print in the series illustrates The Temptation, the moment when Adam takes the apple from Eve and is about to bite into it (fig. 2). In the print, as in the present work, Adam and Eve are no longer at the center of the composition. He sits on a rock at the far left, under the Tree of Knowledge, while Eve reaches up with her right hand to take an apple from the serpent's mouth and offers a second apple to Adam.3 In the print the couple do not touch each other, but here Adam reaches his arm around Eve's back, resting his hand on her hip. They clasp the apple together, as if presenting it to the viewer for inspection. This emphasis on the apple and the clearly sexual nature of his gesture vividly remind us of the consequences of their eating the forbidden fruit.
Lowenthal dates the present work to circa 1610-1615, comparing the lithe and graceful figures to those of the Perseus and Andromeda of 1611 and the Judgment of Paris of 1615.4 These, like the Fabricius Adam and Eve, are large works on canvas or panel, while the present painting is a fraction of their size and on copper. As Van Mander already noted in his biography of the artist, Wtewael had the extraordinary ability to work on vastly different scales, but through the first decade of the seventeenth century, he primarily painted cabinet pictures – small scale works on copper. After 1610 Wtewael worked on a larger format, using canvas and panels as supports. The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis of 1612 in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., and Adam and Eve may have been the last works he painted on copper.5
Here Wtewael works almost like a miniaturist, filling every part of the background with dark, saturated colors that set off the pale skin tones of Adam and Eve. Even with the naked eye we can see how he builds up the foliage around the figures, leaving them in reserve. The leaves below the serpent on the Tree of Knowledge are actually three dimensional, their dark green forms covering the delicate pale foliage in the background. Adam and Eve are more thinly painted. Wtewael feathers his brush strokes so they blend into each other, creating the sense of smooth warm flesh. It is this sophistication and heightened eroticism that define Adam and Eve as a work by Wtewael at the height of his powers.
We are extremely grateful to Anne Lowenthal for her help in preparing this note.
1. A. Lowenthal, Joachim Wtewael and Dutch Mannerism, Doornspijk 1986, p. 134, under A-62 and p. 163, no. B-7. Lowenthal originally published the Fabricius picture (B-7) as a problematical attribution, but having seen it since it was cleaned and restored now accepts it as an autograph work (email correspondence, November 2010).
2. Lowenthal 1986, p. 134.
3. Lowenthal November 2010 describes the use of two apples as a device of continuous narrative rather than as two actual apples.
4. Lowenthal November 2010.
5. A. Lowenthal, in conversation, December 2010.
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