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Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610)

Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat c.1596-1598

RCIN 404717

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First recorded in the 1639 inventory of Charles I, this little copper (13.6 cms high and less than 1mm thick), still so fresh and vivid, was stolen in 1969. It appeared in a sale at Christie's that same year and was duly restored to the Royal Collection. It 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 would originally have been commissioned as a kind of charm intended, on the owner's part, to ward off evil.

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.

Those writing on the painting have been uncertain about the objects handled by the four cupids in the foreground. The Dürer scholarship, though, tells us they 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. To have the plant discovered in your garden during this early modern period of witch trials was most unlucky. 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 ("not true animals but devils in form"), and goat worship was practised by many different cultures, mainly because of the buck (male goat's) gluttonous sexual appetite. In antiquity, Pan, the Greek goat-god, was associated with the wild, with fertility and revelry.

The printmaker Philipp Uffenbach, Elsheimer's teacher, had been interested in alchemy and was also highly influenced by Dürer in the later part of his career, owning a selection of his drawings. At the time of execution, Elsheimer would still have been under Uffenbach's pupillage. In fact the case has been made for Elsheimer's hand in the upper part Uffenbach's Last Judgement (Frankfurt Historisches Museum), relating the idiosyncratic manner of this passage of painting with The Witch: in particular, the fine modelling of the four cupids, the delicately rendered plumage of their wings and the pinky-red tones of their flesh. The rendering of flesh in The Witch's cupids can be linked to two of Elsheimer's other early works: the garland of putti in Elsheimer's Baptism of Christ (c.1599) in the National Gallery, London, and the cherubic cascade in his Rest on the Flight to Egypt (c.1599) in the Staatliche Museem, Berlin.

Elsheimer changed a number of aspects of Dürer's original, such as the time of day, 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. Similar grass reappears in the foreground of some of Elsheimer's other early works, such as his Conversion of St Paul and The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John, which are both said to have been made at the beginning of, or during, his journey to Italy c.1598-1600. It might also be argued that Elsheimer's witch wears a kinder to expression to that of Dürer's. Judging by their relative sizes (Dürer's witch is slightly smaller at 11.6 x 7.2 cm), it is highly likely that Elsheimer traced the cupids and witch directly from the earlier master's print. The discrepancy in dimensions comes because Elsheimer's painting is less confined and has more space around the figures.

Elsheimer probably painted the figures first, beginning with the cupids, working from light to dark. The artist slightly adjusted the position of the cupid in the bottom-right of the foreground: there is a trace of a shadowy pentiment to the left of the young boy's behind. And again in the top right cupid, there is an earlier pentiment for the leg on left-hand side of the body.

Prior to his journey to Italy, Elsheimer's early painting and printmaking contains numerous borrowings from Dürer, who was something of a "spiritus rector" for German art of this time. Examples of this include direct copies after Dürer, such as Elsheimer's Allegory of Fortune and Boy with Horse etchings (both 1597), and a female figure from Dürer's Promenade print used for St Elizabeth Healing the Sick (a small copper, believed to have been executed in 1597 and now in the Wellcome Collection in London). Furthermore, various figures from Dürer's Heller Altarpiece (then in a Dominican church in Frankfurt), as well as the general composition and overall tone can be found in Elsheimer's House Altar with Six Scenes from the Life of the Virgin (believed to have been executed in 1597.

In his 1977 catalogue entry on The Witch, Elsheimer expert 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, two versions: one in the Prado and one in Kingston, Ontario – the latter formerly in the Royal Collection) and of Baucis in Jupiter and Mercury in the House of Philemon and Baucis (1609, Dresden).

One of the most mysterious pieces of evidence for an attribution to Elsheimer comes from Giovanni Baglione's Le Vitte de' Pittori, Scultori, Architetti of 1642. Sandwiched within a brief biography of the painter, Baglione writes "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 does give good evidence for a drawing or a print of a remarkably similar theme. I have discovered no such drawing or print, though, and expect it to have been lost.

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 the first known painting by him in the world.

Ever an elusive figure, it is said that "each new age created a new Elsheimer for itself". The son of a tailor, Adam Elsheimer was baptised in Frankfurt in 1578 and first trained under the stained-glass painter Johannes Vetter. He is then said to have been apprenticed to the painter and printmaker Philipp Uffenbach, himself a pupil of Matthias Grünewald's only known pupil, Hans Grimmer. The Flemish artist Lucas van Valckenborch (after 1535-97) is supposed to have been in Frankfurt at this time, whose technique of painting on copper may have influenced the young Elsheimer. While still in Germany, Elsheimer completed The Witch, St Elizabeth Healing the Sick and the house-altar with scenes from The Life of the Virgin, before setting off for Italy. There is evidence the artist spent some time in Munich, before leaving for Venice, where he is supposed to have arrived in 1598. At the time, Hans Rottenhammer was the most established German painter in the city and Elsheimer, through contact with his fellow countryman, received the influence of the great Venetian masters like Palma Giovane, Veronese, Bassano and Tintoretto. His St Christopher, of which the Royal Collection owns a presumed copy, is said to have been made during this time, a cross-over work that exhibits the influence of both Dürer and Tintoretto.

Elsheimer had been developing his own style influenced by his stained-glass and printmaking apprenticeships. He painted on small copper plates with a miniaturist's attention to detail, leading to a reputation as obsessive, meticulous and occasionally melancholic. Writing in 1650 Edward Norgate reported that the Italians used to call him il diavolo per gli (a devil for detail); he often didn't finish his pictures. One of the few other facts about Elsheimer's artistic temperament is that he did little preparatory drawing. In 1604 van Mander wrote of the artist "he does not busy himself particularly with drawing, but rather sits in churches or elsewhere in order to look at the works of the great masters, impressing everything securely in his memory" and in 1675 Sandrart wrote " his memory and imagination were thus constituted, that if he only saw a few beautiful trees (before which he had often sat or lain half or even whole days) they were so firmly engraved on his mind that he was able to render a complete and natural likeness of them at home, without preliminary drawing". It seems that instead of drawing he relied on a highly sophisticated memory, perhaps one that we would now call photographic.

Elsheimer settled in Rome around 1600 and came into contact with artistic figures like Rubens, Pieter Lastman and Hendrick Goudt, joining the circle of humanists around the botanist Johannes Faber. It is through Lastman that Elsheimer's influence can be felt in the art of Rembrandt – Lastman was one of Rembrandt's teachers. His nocturnes and feeling for poetic landscapes were also a major influence on Claude. In 1606 he converted to Catholicism and in the same year married Carla Antonia Stuart. It is difficult to establish a chronology of his Roman works, chiefly because none of them are signed and only one of them is dated (Flight into Egypt, 1609). Among his most significant works are Il Contento (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh) and Flight into Egypt (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), and the Mocking of Ceres, of which Andrews believes both existing versions (Madrid and Kingston, Ontario) to be copies. Importantly, Elsheimer's nocturnal effects differ from those of his contemporary, Caravaggio, in that Elsheimer's light sources are always visible and Caravaggio's always invisible. Andrews claims Elsheimer more likely learnt this from Bassano and Altdorfer.

On Elsheimer's untimely death aged thirty-two, Baglione writes "they say that the palm grows upwards even under a weight; but ability under strain sometime fails, and strength cannot withstand force if it is not refreshed by rest". As the legend goes, due to his meticulous disposition, Elsheimer died young from exhaustion.

Britain was a majorcentre for collecting Elsheimer's rare and precious works, which perfectly suited the seventeenth-century collector's cabinet. Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, the Duke of Buckingham, and Charles I all owned a number of Elsheimers. In his Considerazioni sulla Pittura (c.1614-21), Giulio Mancini writes "one sees so little of his work because he produced little and this little is in the hands of princes and those persons who, in order that they should not be taken from them, keep them hidden". Charles I would have certainly kept the Witch "hidden" away in his cabinet at Whitehall. The King was also given a St Christopher (RCIN 400938, believed to be a copy), by Arundel, which was bought back for the collection of Queen Mary. A Mocking of Ceres was given as part of the Dutch Gift to Charles II at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Long thought to have been lost, the painting resurfaced in the British art market in the 1970s and was considered to be a highly damaged original of the version at the Prado (though disputed by Andrews, as mentioned). It now resides in Canada, at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario.