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Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610)

Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat c.1596-1598

Oil on copper | 13.6 x 9.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 404717

Cumberland Withdrawing Room, Hampton Court Palace

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  • Though responsible for a small number of small paintings, Elsheimer remains one of the most important artists of the Baroque period, whose influence is felt in the works of (amongst many others) Rubens, Rembrandt and Claude. Trained in Germany, he moved to Venice in 1598 and Rome in 1600; he specialized in miniature paintings on copper with moody landscape elements, spectacular effects of light and unconventional story-telling. Elsheimer’s few works were eagerly sought after by collectors like the Earl of Arundel, who owned a significant group, including the St Christopher which he gave to Charles I (RCIN 400938). In addition to the three works associated with Elsheimer now in the Royal Collection (RCIN 400613, 400938 & 404717), his Mocking of Ceres (Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario) was given to Charles II and subsequently left the collection.

    This little copper originally featured in the 'newly erected cabbonett' in the King's Private Lodgings, where Charles installed 73 of his smaller pictures, sculptures and books. It is thought to have been acquired by Sir Arthur Hopton, British ambassador to Spain, on his travels through Europe (either 1629 or 1635), presumably when passing through Germany; one assumes the previous owner would have supplied the attribution and the information, which reads "said to be done by Elsheimer before hee went to Italie".

    The painting is a faithful copy (in oil) of Albrecht Dürer's engraving (c.1500) and Elsheimer's figures may well have been directly traced from an impression – with a couple of centimetres added on for the space Elsheimer added around the figures, the measurements are almost exactly the same as those in the British Museum's impression (11.6 x 7.2 cm). There is no doubt that the woman depicted is meant to be a witch, although the choice to show four cupids playing with different objects in the foreground is more difficult to explain and appears to have no literary precedent. However, in Dürer's famous Melencolia I engraving of 1514 a cupid accompanies the female personification, looking equally sullen in posture as it bows its head. Assuming a variety of unusual, contorted poses, the four cupids in the witch engraving look just as mischievous as the witch. Like in Melencolia I, perhaps they, too, act as an extension of the protagonist's mental state.

    Dürer scholars tells us that the putti carry an alchemist's pot and thorn-apple plant, also known as Devil's Weed. The poisonous thorn-apple plant comes under the nightshade family and has traditionally been associated with witches' flying ointment and incantations. An alchemist's pot was used to make spells and potions: similar to what we know as a witch's cauldron. The spindle and staff connote weaving; the typical womanly act of the witch, weaving is also used as a figure of speech for making mischief, weaving spells or magic. She sits backwards to emphasise that her doings are the reverse of humans, nature and all normal processes. The goat upon which she rides has long had Satanic associations.

    Elsheimer changed a number of aspects of Dürer's original, not least making it a nocturnal scene. Other alterations include Elsheimer removing the beginnings of a hail storm in the upper left of Dürer's print and adding in a few long flecks of grass in the foreground. It might also be argued that Elsheimer's witch wears a kinder to expression to that of Dürer's.

    In his 1977 catalogue entry on The Witch, Keith Andrews admits, after expressing initial doubt about an attribution to Elsheimer, that he was persuaded by the identification of a number of the artist's signature motifs: the "transparent modelling of the figures and the draperies", for instance, and also "the claw-like hand of the witch" and "physiognomical resemblance of the putto on the left to those who hover above the Holy Family in the Berlin painting" (Rest on the Flight to Egypt, 1599). Furthermore, a transformation from day into night appears very in keeping with Elsheimer's artistic development. To Andrews' identifications I would like to add the similarity of face the witch, in particular the stretched, sallow quality of the skin, to that of an old woman in his Mocking of Ceres (1608) and of Baucis in Jupiter and Mercury in the House of Philemon and Baucis (1609, Dresden).

    One piece of evidence for an attribution to Elsheimer comes from Giovanni Baglione's Le Vitte de' Pittori, Scultori, Architetti of 1642, where author writes of Elsheimer 'I once saw a paper (carta) depicting a night-piece with a Sorceress and with all kinds of spells which represented the horrors of the underworld, and the terrors of the magic arts – a work so beautiful as others of his have been found to be'. Clearly this doesn't refer to the Royal Collection's painting on copper, however it describes a (now lost) drawing or a print of a remarkably similar theme.

    It should be assumed that Abraham van der Doort's original supposition of 1639 is correct: this is indeed painted by Adam Elsheimer before he went to Italy after a print by Albrecht Dürer and presumably while still a pupil of Philipp Uffenbach. Therefore, it is likely this is the one of Elsheimer's first works on copper and certainly his first known painting.

    Provenance

    First recorded in the Royal Collection during the reign of Charles I; hung in the 'newly erected cabbonett' in the King's Private Lodgings

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on copper

    Measurements

    13.6 x 9.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    21.1 x 17.1 x 2.1 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    A Witch with Cupids

    A Sorceress