Within the richly varied corpus of Dürer’s graphic works, his various series of prints and drawings on a single theme stand out as some of the most original of all his productions. Indeed, Dürer first rose to international fame thanks to his remarkable series of woodcuts illustrating The Apocalypse, executed in 1498, and his prints depicting The Passion, in two different formats, are held up as some of the greatest creations of one of the greatest geniuses of Western art.
The Passion also provided the subjects for the series of drawings to which the present work relates, a series known as the Green Passion (“Grüne Passion”), on account of the strong green colour of the prepared paper surface on which the finished drawings of the series are executed. Dürer seems to have conceived this series of drawings around 1503-4, shortly before he left Nuremberg for his second trip to Venice, but it is not known whether the compositions were devised in connection with a luxurious commission from the Emperor Maximilian or another leading Nuremberg patron, or were ultimately intended to be engraved. Either way, no related engravings are known, and this series survives today in the form of eleven highly finished drawings, in the Albertina, Vienna, all drawn on green prepared paper, and fifteen related drawings on white paper, almost all of which share their compositions with surviving drawings from the green series in Vienna (the one exception, The Agony in the Garden, in the Ambrosiana, Milan, probably relates to a lost sheet from the Albertina series). The present drawing is largely identical in composition to the corresponding sheet on green prepared paper (Inventory no. 3092 D 65).
The attribution of all 26 drawings in this group has been much debated in the literature, but the general consensus today is that the finished, green drawings in the Albertina are the work of one of the leading members of Dürer’s workshop, but based on his designs, and that some of the related drawings on white paper are Dürer’s preliminary studies for the series, others are tracings by Dürer of his own preliminary drawings, and still others are replicas or copies of lost originals by Dürer, made by members of his workshop (For the most recent discussion of the Green Passion, see Andrew Robison and Klaus A. Schröder, Albrecht Dürer. Master Drawings, Watercolors and Prints from the Albertina, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2013, p. 149, nos 43-46). Yet despite the considerable variations in style and quality between the various white paper drawings, hardly any, apart from one or two very obvious copies, repeat the same compositions, leading some scholars to argue that the stylistic differences that are so readily apparent between the different drawings in the group are actually due to differences in function, rather than authorship.
Some five of the white paper drawings are now generally held to be indisputably autograph preliminary studies by Dürer for the Green Passion. Two of these drawings are in the Albertina, Vienna (Christ Before Pilate and The Crowning With Thorns (Ibid., nos 43 and 45)), two in Berlin (Christ Before Ciaphas and Christ Carrying the Cross (Anzelewski and Mielke, op.cit., nos 41 & 42)), and one, the last of the group to be identified, is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (The Entombment (White, loc.cit.; Robison and Schröder, op.cit., p. 156, no. 47)). All these drawings correspond closely in terms of composition with sheets in the Albertina’s series on green preparation, and all share, to a greater or lesser degree, a rather similar combination of careful, very linear execution in parts of the sheet, and freer, more inventive hatched shading in other areas. In each case there are also some differences in detail from the ‘finished,’ green versions. An explanation for the technical variation that is seen even within each of these five drawings is suggested by the inscription on the Washington sheet, where we read the word durch zeichnet, apparently written in Dürer’s own hand, suggesting that the drawing consists, at least in part, of a tracing made, presumably by Dürer himself, from another sheet. This would explain very well why parts of the drawing are carefully outlined in a rather pedestrian way, while others are more freely drawn, with shorter, more accented pen strokes and energetic hatching. It is also interesting to note that the most freely drawn areas of the Washington drawing are those that correspond least precisely with the ‘finished’ version of the composition on green prepared paper, which might suggest that both drawings were based on tracings from the same original design. In contrast to the Albertina and Washington drawings from this group of five, the two sheets in Berlin have much less hatching, and are much more consistently linear in technique – more reminiscent, in fact, of the present sheet.
Although the Taubman drawing has been known since it was sold in London in 1859, and was published with some regularity between the 1950s and the 1980s, it has not been discussed in any of the most recent literature on the Green Passion, perhaps because it remained unseen, in the same private collection, from 1986 until now. In their 1984 exhibition catalogue (loc.cit.) Anzelewsky and Mielke did, however, describe it with justification as very similar in style to the two drawings in Berlin, mentioned above, which are clearly executed in the same manner as the more linear parts of the Albertina and Washington drawings. It seems very likely that both the Berlin drawings and the one from the Taubman Collection are autograph works by Dürer, but were made in a rather uncharacteristic, linear style, because they represent an intermediary stage in the development of their respective compositions, and are at least in part dependent on tracings made from other preliminary sketches by the artist.
It is not clear why Dürer would have handed over the execution of the finished, green drawings in the Green Passion to members of his workshop, even if at this time he had artists of the calibre of Hans Baldung, Hans Schäufelein, and Hans Süss von Kulmbach working for him. Perhaps he simply did not manage to make the drawings himself before his departure for Italy in 1505, but, needing to fulfil an important commission, turned to his trusted workshop assistants to deliver what was needed.
Even as early as 1500, when Dürer was less than 30 years old and still had nearly three decades to live, this prodigiously talented artist was being hailed by his compatriots as “The German Apelles,” and in all the intervening years, respect for his drawings and prints has never waned. As a result, almost all Dürer’s known drawings long ago entered the collections of the major museums in Europe and North America, and hardly any significant drawings by the artist have appeared at auction in recent years. The auction record for a drawing by Dürer was set as long ago as 1978, when the spectacular watercolour landscape, the view of Doss Trento, was sold at Sotheby’s from the collection of the great Swiss connoisseur and collector Robert von Hirsch for a hammer price of £640,000. Then, in 1986, the Taubman drawing appeared, along with two small ornament designs also by Dürer, in the sale of the Springell Collection, but since that time a mere three sketches by the artist have been sold (all in our New York rooms, The Satyr’s Family, 17th November 1986, lot 4; The Holy Family Beneath a Tree, 9th January 1996, lot 17; The Goddess Isis Kneeling with her hands folded, 27th January 1999, lot 7). Otherwise, only a small handful of drawings by the artist remain in private hands, and apart from the great drawing of the Women’s Bath in the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth and another figure study in an American private collection, none of those are as substantial or significant as this moving depiction of Christ being Nailed to the Cross.
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