German Painters Of The Fifteenth Century

BEFORE passing to the Flemish painters of the sixteenth century, we must turn aside into the small room, No. XV., where hang a few examples of the German school. This is by no means a fully representative collection of German paintings. Many of the great names are conspicuously missing ; the greatest, that of Albert Dürer; besides Schongauer and Altdorfer, and a host of lesser masters like Zeitblom, Wolgemut, Grünewald, Burgkmair, Kulmbach and Schäuffelein. Yet even with these and other serious gaps, we can form some idea of the course of painting in Germany during the period of the van Eycks and their successors in the Netherlands—the period, too, of Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli and Perugino in Florence and Umbria, of Mantegna and Crivelli in Venetia.

As we have seen already, this early German school, which had its roots in the old archiepiscopal city of Cologne, was already sinking into hopeless decadence at the moment when the van Eycks had proclaimed themselves the pioneers of a new era in Flemish painting. For German art was losing whatever little sense of reality it ever possessed, and, as art cannot live on sentiment and religious fervour alone, the school of Cologne had fallen sick unto death. Fortunately, how-ever, new and wholesome blood was now infused into it by an artist who was not only to recall its better traditions, but to combine with the old mystic sweetness and grace something more of healthy naturalism. The hero of this revival was Stephan Lochner, generally known as Meister Stephan, the painter of the great Cologne ” Dom-Bild,” which, a hundred years later, Dürer tells us he paid two silver pennies to see. This picture takes the same position in early German art that Hubert van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb ” occupies in the Flemish school. It is indeed the chef-d’oeuvre, not only of the painter, but of the whole school. Modern visitors to Cologne are solemnly conducted through the Cathedral to the little chapel behind the choir, where, in return for their ” silver pennies,” the shutters of the altar-piece are thrown open, to reveal Madonna and Child sitting under a Gothic canopy against a gold sky. Before them kneel the three worshipping kings, whose bones are still traditionally preserved in the vaults of the church. These richly-clad personages, attended by trains of knights and squires, offer sumptuous gifts to the divine Child, who holds out His hands in blessing, while the Madonna looks on calm and benignant. On the wings are depicted S. Ursula and her bevy of virgins, little round-faced German girls in long trailing cloaks ; and opposite her S. Gereon with his host of gentle Theban warriors. When the shutters are again closed, we may still admire the painting of the Annunciation on the outer sides, where the swift-winged angel appears to Mary as she reads at a desk in her simply-furnished bed-chamber.

Meister Stephan’s types, if less spiritual than those of Meister Wilhelm, are certainly more robust and natural. His figures, in contrast to the elongated forms of the earlier school, incline to shortness, and their round faces show no symptoms of physical decline. His colour is delicious ; soft, melting and gay. We may see something of it here in the National Gallery in a group of three saints (705), possibly an early work by the master himself, and undoubtedly from his work-shop. Here are his short, dumpy figures, his roundness of drawing, the soft bloom of his colouring, and that cheerful piety which, somewhat later, as we have seen, reappears in Memlinc. The tooled gold background adds considerably to the rich effect of the colouring. Admiring all this, we can afford to smile at S. Catherine’s property-sword, so obviously contrived of silvered cardboard, at S. John’s girlish face, and S. Matthew’s evident perplexity as to what he shall write. It is in the weak drawing of some of the details that we detect a certain inexperience. Compare, for in-stance, the relative proportions of S. Matthew’s small right hand with his huge misshapen foot. Downstairs in the Arundel Room we find a small water-colour copy of Stephan’s beautiful ” Madonna with the Violet,” now the chief glory of the Archiepiscopal Museum at Cologne. This monumental picture of more than life-sized proportions shows us the Virgin holding the Child lightly on one arm, while she offers Him a violet. The quaint little nun kneeling literally at the Virgin’s feet, for standing she would barely reach to her knee, is, of course, the pious donor of the picture, and a lady of quality, who rosé to be abbess of her convent.

Stephan Lochner was not a native of Cologne, but came down the Rhine from Constance, and presumably assimilated the better traditions of the earlier school which he was to supersede. Not only did he become the best artist in Cologne, but he played his part also in municipal politics, and owned two houses in the city. Yet the story goes that he died in the poor-house, though this we may hope to be but legend.

Towards the middle of the fifteenth century a great change came over the art of Cologne, and spread throughout Germany, for, as we might well expect, the rumour of the new Flemish discoveries had gone abroad, and the names of Hubert and Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden must have been on the lips of every aspiring young artist. Meister Stephan himself seems to have been little affected by foreign influences, but after his death all eyes turned towards the Netherlands, and many painters actually betook themselves, in the course of their Wanderjahre, to Brussels, to study under the great Roger. Doubtless, too, Flemish pictures were to be seen in Cologne itself, among them, as we noticed, Roger’s own ” Adoration of the Magi” in the Church of S. Colomba. German painters learned from Flanders, not only the new oil method, but a new way of looking at nature. If the German tendency had been to hide the body behind the soul, the Flemish painters were absorbed in rendering the outward man with as much truth as they could muster skill for. Their saints were no “boneless abstractions,” but firm, straight-limbed burghers, at least as full of life as of sanctity, with strong individuality expressed in every rugged feature. This healthy worldliness—for even Roger van der Weyden, the most passionately religious of all Flemish painters, de-lighted in portraying the gorgeous costumes and fanciful fashions of the day—gradually overpowered the idyllic mysticism which had inspired the art of the Rhine, and German art launched out on a new career, in which the borrowed elements often battle curiously enough with the old characteristics. This hybrid Flemish German art of the fifteenth century was at best a compromise. It never pushed a step further, but lagged behind the art of Flanders ; and while it often lost much of the tender ideal sentiment which had constituted the charm of early German art, it never rivalled Flemish painting in depth or glow of colour, in effects of light, or in fine, delicate finish. Of landscape, too, so characteristic a beauty of Flemish pictures, these early German painters took little account, retaining their gold skies even in outdoor scenes.

Yet if their accomplishment was small, their ambition out-topped it, and the very grotesqueness of this German art is often the result of inexperience grappling with problems too hard for it. The attempt to give character and individuality often resulted in uncouthness and caricature ; and violent action rendered with but slight anatomical knowledge is seldom convincing. In such a picture as the ” Crucifixion ” (1049), by some nameless artisan-painter of the late fifteenth century, the struggle after vigorous expression and free action ends in the loss of all religious sentiment. Among the vulgar, violent types which compose this crowded scene, not one commands our sympathy. The subject has been made an occasion for introducing a mob of aggressive villains, gesticulating, shouting and quarrel-ling. All is bustle, excitement and pandemonium. There is no repose for the eye, for every part of the picture is treated with the same emphasis. The central figure of Christ on the cross is devoid of either beauty or dignity ; the struggling thieves on each side have writhed themselves into painful contortions. The re-deeming feature of this truly unpleasant picture lies in the care and variety with which the gaudy costumes have been rendered, from the high head-dresses and hanging sleeves of the women gathered about the cross, to such grotesque detail as the bandaged leg of the man near S. John. The colour has been laid on very thickly, and the surface of the picture is smooth and enamel-like, but the faces, especially those of the men, are very coarsely painted, with ugly grey flesh shadows and sharp highlights.

Let us now turn to the ” Presentation in the Temple ” (706), where we may see the union of German and Flemish elements far more charmingly exemplified. The painter of this bright, pleasant panel is known, like so many artists of that day, only by his fruits. He is generally called the Master of the Life of the Virgin, from a series of panels of which this forms one, the others hanging in the Munich Gallery. In these pictures the artist shows just that love of detail and costume that distinguishes the Flemish painters, and his figures often recall the somewhat angular types of Dirk Bouts. His realism is sometimes very quaint, as when in the ” Birth of the Virgin,” at Munich, he introduces us into a large bed-chamber, where S. Anne, lying in her vast, canopied bed, holds out her hands to take the new-born babe, while an army of nurses prepare the bath, pouring in water from a saucepan, or testing the temperature, and an eager Hausfrau serves out towels from a well-filled chest. Some of the scenes have landscape backgrounds, one of them actually copied from Bouts’s ” Martyrdom of S. Erasmus” at Louvain; but even in these the painter, true to the old traditions of Cologne, adheres to his gold sky.

In our picture the scene is laid in a church, where the aged S. Simeon, standing on the steps of the altar, tenderly takes the Child from His mother. Behind Mary follow Joseph—a weak old man, holding a candle, and fumbling nervously for the fee in his silver-mounted reticule—and three girls, one, the demure little maiden with plaited hair carrying the doves, a typical Gretchen. She is all alert and full of delighted interest in the ceremony. The youth accompanying them reminds us of Memlinc’s mild-eyed cavaliers. On the other side, behind S. Simeon, a number of spectators are gathered round an important-looking personage in a handsome red cloak, his hands completely buried in the vast folds of his ample yellow sleeves. The colouring of the picture is fresh, luminous, cheerful and wonderfully delicate. How beautifully the tiles with their pale shades of grey-blue, green and pink echo the stronger colours of the dresses ! The old stone altar tones exquisitely with the tawny gold of the wall, and the gay fringe of red, white and blue, bordering the Hebrew inscription in front, throws up the quiet stone colour, The warm green used in some of the dresses is quite a feature in this series of paintings. In spite of the Flemish influence shown so strongly in the types and in the details of the costumes, we still feel the charm o the old mild effeminacy of early Rhenish art. There is here, for all the imported naturalism, a want of robust ness and energy, a languor, a sweetness, entirely characteristic of Cologne painting. None of the figure: seem to stand firmly on the ground, and their head: are inclined almost in Peruginesque fashion.

Let us compare with this tender idyllic treatment th( ” SS. Peter and Dorothy” (707) by another Cologne artist, on whom Flemish naturalism had taken a stronger grip. What a contrast between this solid, mundane figure of S. Peter and the undulating grace of S. Simeon, and how pitifully plain and awkward S. Dorothy looks beside the delicate, flower-like charm of the Virgin and her maidens I Yet here, too, the artist has striven after grace, as we notice in the rather affected attitudes of the long, bony square-tipped fingers and the tilt of S. Peter’s head with its curious foreshortening. If we may liken the master of the ” Presentation,” with his swaying attitudes and tender piety, to Perugino, this artist, in his unnatural naturalism and pedantic distortions, might perhaps be compared with Crivelli, though such analogies, however tempting, must not be pushed too far.

The painter of this picture is generally known as the Master of S. Bartholomew, from an altar-piece at Munich, composed, like this panel, of a row of saints, with S. Bartholomew in the middle. He worked in Cologne quite at the end of the fifteenth century and well into the next. Two important altar-pieces by him are still in his native city, and a fine ” Descent from the Cross,” in which he betrays his debt to Roger van der Weyden, is in the Louvre. Our two saints, like their Munich prototypes, stand on a piece of stone pavement, against a high screen of gold and black brocade. Above this a glimpse is caught of a strip of distant landscape with :he blue sky overhead. The painter has evidently tried :o avoid absolute symmetry by placing the marble pillar seen above the screen slightly to one side, but the :capital of this pillar is decidedly out of drawing. He has broken the straight lines of the composition, too, by he incline of the figures and the folds of their rather clumsy draperies. The colouring is hard and garish, with neither the velvety depth of Flemish art, nor the warm, cheerful tints of the early school of Cologne. It is bright without being brilliant. Yet the workmanship is careful and thorough, and though we may deplore the artist’s lack of taste and finer feeling, we must honour him as a clever craftsman. The hands, for all their absurd shape and finicking movements, are very delicately painted. S. Peter’s, indeed, are far too small for him, and are encumbered, moreover, with much more than he can conveniently hold, what with his huge, heavy keys—one of gold, the other of silver—his book, his train, and finally the latticed spectacles, through which he can surely have seen very little.

We come now to a picture (1085) which again unites idyllic sentiment with a strong feeling for nature in landscape and action. The subject is a ” Santa Conversazione,” such as Memlinc and Gerard David loved to treat, with a background of quite peculiar interest. Although the picture is in the form of a triptych, the side panels carry on the composition of the centre, so that we have one continuous scene. The figures are strangely inferior to the landscape, which shows a quite unusual sense of decorative treatment. It is the familiar group of the Madonna and Child in the midst of a bevy of maidens and little blue-robed angels, with the two SS. John, mounting guard, as it were, on either side. Though the Madonna seems to be absorbed in her book, the company is far less seriously occupied in feasting to the accompaniment of music discoursed by some of the angels. Others have wandered into the wood, and are picking flowers or pulling fruit from the trees. On a cushion at the Madonna’s feet sits the Christ child, an ugly, ungainly little fellow, reaching up to S. Catherine for the fruit she holds out to Him. The types through-out are far from beautiful, but this S. Catherine, who dimly recalls some of the delightful figures of Quentin, Matsys, is the least unattractive. In the forest behind twilight has already fallen, and the tall Gothic church, in front of which the cheerful company has assembled, is brilliantly lighted within. The artist has not been able to render the effect of lamplight pouring through the large window and open doors of the church, but he has tried to suggest it. It is a moment before we realise what these flat, opaque yellow surfaces really mean, these patches of light that give no illumination. And, stranger still, though the gloom of night has fallen on the forest, and the hour of vespers draws near, the happy party, unconscious of time in their Arcadia, appear to be still enjoying ‘something like daylight. The forest is treated with a suggestion of the fantastic formality of the modern German painter Böcklin, with its thick groves of orange – trees, flanked by giant cypresses, that seem to vie with the soaring perpendiculars of the church. The sky, on the other hand, with its fleecy clouds, is a charming touch of nature. How solemn and effective is all this, and it is only the group of figures that appears artificial and unconvincing.

The curious little picture (1080) further on of the ” Head of S. John the Baptist” in a golden charger resting insecurely and uncomfortably on a blue velvet cushion, is a poor production by some third-rate German artist of the fifteenth century. Numerous little angels, with singularly red hands and feet, fly about or sit weeping in attitudes of deep dejection. There is something extremely quaint in this rude rendering of the subject.

Flemish influence, which had first succeeded in revolutionising the art of Cologne, spread quickly into other parts of Germany, transforming the schools of painting, and quickening them with new vigour. In Westphalia, where a feeble offshoot of the school of Cologne had been flourishing for some time, painters received the new teaching at second-hand through the parent school. We have in the National Gallery some panels by an unknown Westphalian artist, which formed part of an altar-piece in the Abbey of Liesborn near Münster. Early in the nineteenth century, when the convent was suppressed, the great, many-panelled Crucifixion altar-piece, dating from 1465, was barbarously cut up and sold in pieces. We may judge from the fragments in the National Gallery that this Master of Liesborn, as for want of better knowledge he is called, was by no means the equal either of his Flemish contemporaries or even of his neighbours in Cologne. Yet he seems to have been the chief painter in Westphalia, and this work the most important Westphalian production of the fifteenth century. This school indeed takes but humble rank among the various centres of art activity in Germany.

” The Head of Christ on the Cross ” (259) belonged to the central compartment of the Liesborn polyptych. It has little beauty either of form or expression, and is exceedingly weak in drawing. Round the cross, standing in a flowery meadow, were grouped six figures; on one side the Virgin, attended by the medical saints, Cosmo and Damian, who figure so frequently in Florentine pictures of this period, and on the other, S. John with the two great Benedictine saints, the founder of the Order himself, and his sister Scholastica. Of these figures, which were ruthlessly cut in half, only the upper parts remain (260 and 261). There is a certain feeble sweetness in the faces, and the colouring is soft and pleasant. We seem to breathe once more the old Cologne atmosphere of tender, if somewhat insipid piety and invertebrate grace. But the side compartments, of which two out of eight have been preserved, show greater ambition. In the ” Annunciation,” which, with the ” Adoration of the Kings,” has been transferred to the Scottish National Gallery, we are ushered into a long narrow room, with large windows looking on to a town and hills beyond. This setting seems to be a faint reflection of the charming interiors portrayed with so much zest by Jacques Daret. A third panel, the ” Presentation,” is in the National Gallery (257), and comparing it with the ” Presentation ” by the Master of the Life of the Virgin, we are struck by the greater elaboration of the composition here. The figures are not now grouped on one plane against a simple gold ground, but the eye is drawn inwards, and an effect of depth has been attempted. The grouping of the principal figures, the Virgin and Child and S. Simeon, and the position of the altar, repeat the composition of this scene in the great ” S. Clara ” altar-piece by Meister Wilhelm in Cologne Cathedral. The mise-en-scéne is a church, rather shaky in perspective, with a triforium and large windows with flamboyant Gothic tracery of somewhat unsubstantial fabric. Three niches are filled with carved figures. The white-bearded priest, who holds out his arms to take the shrinking Child from His mother, is gorgeously arrayed in gold-brocaded vestments, a crimson velvet mitre and scarlet shoes ; the Virgin, too, wears under her blue mantle a robe of some rich fabric interwoven with gold. The painting of the dresses shows none of the exquisite finish a Flemish painter would have bestowed upon them. The girl on the left, carrying a cage with the doves, is a singularly shapeless figure, from the turban-like cap fastened round her chin with a kind of bandage to the bright green cloak which covers, though scarcely adorns her. This warm green is repeated in the helmet and dress of the man immediately behind the priest, and looks all the brighter by contrast with the scarlet cloak of his neighbour, a grave-faced personage with a beard. The white altar-cloth, with its border of green and red, is most effective. The picture is genial and pleasant in colour, and the expressions show much of the old sweetness. The tiny Child clinging to His mother and refusing to leave her arms is a favourite motif.

Two companion panels, representing three saints standing within a vaulted building against a gold wall (254 and 255), are decidedly inferior, and must have been painted either by some assistant or by the artist himself at a more uninspired moment. The spindle-legged warriors who form the centre of the two groups, S. Exuperius and S. Hilary, belonged to the Theban band, and were martyred with their leader, S. Gereon, at Cologne. It is a good thing that S. Jerome can be identified by his cardinal’s hat, for it were well-nigh impossible to recognise in the ape-like creature accompanying him the noble king of the forest, his faithful attendant—at least in art. The ” Crucifixion ” (262) is another very poor school production, but here the usual gold background has given place to a real blue sky and a landscape with a little walled town, composed of houses and churches crowned with blue roofs and spires. Among the eight figures placed in a long straight row to right and left of the low cross stands S. Anne, holding in her arms a small doll-like figure of the Virgin, who in her turn carries a miniature baby. S. Agnes, on the other side, is chiefly remarkable for the quaintly misshapen lamb, her attribute, which is jumping up to attract her attention.

Another anonymous painter, also perhaps from Westphalia, is known only by four panels, of which three are here, and one is in the Scottish National Gallery. He is designated the Master of Werden, these pictures having been found in the Abbey of Werden near Düsseldorf. The four panels formed apparently the shutters of an altar-piece, but the centre, which was probably of carved wood, is lost. Here are depicted two episodes from the legend of S. Hubert, the hero of the beautiful, anonymous “Exhumation” (783) in Room IV. The first, the Edinburgh picture, represents his conversion. The saint, surrounded by his dogs and horses, kneels in awed worship before the crucifix which the stag displays between his antlers. The beautiful, expressive landscape, with its winding road and its episodes of the chase, stretches away to where the hills meet the sky. But here this outburst of fresh, naïve naturalism comes abruptly to an end, and the usual flat gold background takes the place of the blue vault of heaven.

The next scene, the ” Mass of S. Hubert” here (253), is laid in a church, and relates a further miracle which befell Hubert after his conversion. For, while celebrating mass at his consecration, an angel descended from heaven bearing a stole, with which he invested the huntsman-saint. The composition is rather scrambling and uncertain, for the painter attempts more than his knowledge of perspective quite justifies. He has chosen a high point of sight, and his figures show a tendency to tumble out of the picture, while the altar and the vaulting seem strangely at odds. His lavish use of gold gives an effect of great splendour ; the walls and altar-piece are gold ; S. Hubert and the attendant priests, who carry his mitre and bishop’s crozier, are arrayed in richest gold brocade patterned in black. The little white-robed angel darting down over the altar creates quite a stir among the bystanders. An old man in front—a homely but striking figure—makes as though to run away; another spectator in the background raises his hand in not unnatural surprise. The little white dog lying asleep in the foreground serves as a reminder of S. Hubert’s past. Here, too, the homely northern spirit breaks through, and displays the saint’s pattens lying ready to his feet when the solemn rite shall have been performed.

The saints on the reverse sides of these wings (250 and 251) seem to betray a much feebler hand. In these ill-drawn figures, with features all awry, unnatural flesh and smug, self-satisfied expressions, how poor and perfunctory a performance for all the pretentious ornament ! We need only compare the carelessly slurred – over vestments with the exquisitely – painted copes in Gerard David’s ” Canon and Patron Saints ” (1045) in the next room, to appreciate the inferior quality of this work. One type, too, prevails throughout; indeed, we might be confronted with eight brothers ! Here, again, stands S. Jerome with his lion—rather more lion-like than the Master of Liesborn had been able to contrive. S. Giles, also, the hero of the delightful picture in Room IV. (14.19), is accompanied by the hind he rescued from the hunter’s arrow. S. Benedict and S. Romuald complete the gathering of hermit-saints. On the other panel three bishops — S. Augustine, S. Ludger, a Saxon celebrity, and the hero of the altar-piece, S. Hubert himself, holding the image of a stag on his book — are ranged behind S. Maurice, the warrior saint, a great favourite with German painters. Here the background is a blue sky, becoming gradually paler towards the horizon, and between the shoulders of, the bishops glimpses can be caught of a valley with a wide river flowing through it, doubtless a motif suggested to the painter by the scenery of his own Rhine country. All the poetry and delicate grace which distinguish the early Cologne painters have fled from these clumsy, foppish figures, and only the old Cologne feebleness of structure and pose remains. This type and quality of painting abound in fifteenth-century German art, for the painters often worked as mere subordinates to the carvers of wooden altar-pieces, who asked little more of them than a certain knowledge of their colour-craft. Sentiment and poetry, not being demanded, were all too seldom supplied. It was not until Dürer and Holbein arrived that German art really found itself, and then, too soon, the Reformation and the disastrous Thirty Years’ War blighted this wonderful German Renaissance, and laid the field of culture bare and untended for more than a century.

Yet one German painter stands out in the fifteenth century above the crowd of craftsmen, in whom we may discern the precursor and inspirer, though not actually the teacher, of the great Dürer. It was in Colmar in the Rhine country that Martin Schongauer lived and worked—in Colmar that to-day his greatest painting may still be seen. His contemporaries hailed him “the glory of painters ” ; his very name they converted into Martin Schön, Martin the Beautiful, or ” Hupsch Martin,” as we read it on his portrait at Munich, painted by his pupil Burgkmair ; and his fame spread throughout the civilised world. For Schongauer was one of the first artists to appeal to a wider public than could be reached by the art of painting, through his engraving on copper. This device of printing pictures worked as great a revolution in cheapening and popularising art as the invention of printing words, which followed soon after, wrought in the domain of literature. The painted picture was not only expensive, but cumbersome and difficult to carry about. The printed picture, on the other hand, could be cheaply produced, multiplied by the hundred, and circulated all over the country. No wonder, then, that artists found in this democratic branch of graphic art a lucrative and influential occupation, and the history of German painting must be supplemented by the history of the engravings on wood and copper, in which the true genius of the German people is most characteristically illustrated. Fortunately, the Print Room at the British Museum contains an excellent collection of German prints, by which our knowledge of German art in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may be augmented.

The National Gallery possesses no painting by Schongauer, whose pictures are so rare that, besides the great solemn, stately ” Madonna in the Rose Garden” at Colmar, perhaps only three may be safely ascribed to him, and of these the galleries of Vienna, Munich and Berlin are the happy possessors. The “Entombment” here (1151) is but a copy from one of his designs, worked over with rather dark, heavy colour. The beautiful little ” Death of the Virgin” (658), formerly ascribed to him, is now, as we have seen, restored to Jacques Daret. It is easy to recognise in Schongauer’s paintings and engravings the Flemish influence derived in some way from Roger van der Weyden. The idea that he actually studied under Roger in Brussels is founded upon a letter written by the Liége painter, Lambert Lombard, to Vasari, in which he remarks that ” Bel Martino ” remained faithful to the style of his master Roger. We know all too little of the life of this truly great and refined artist, and even the year of his birth is uncertain. But when Albert Dürer set off on his Wanderjahre in 1491, and journeyed to Colmar, he found to his infinite disappointment that the celebrated painter had been dead already some three years.

Another important German artist not represented in the National Gallery is the elder Holbein, father of the painter who, with Dürer, became the crowning glory of German art. The Holbein family belonged to Augsburg, and it was in the workshop established there by Hans Holbein the elder that his more famous son must have received his earliest training. Old Holbein’s fame was for many years almost eclipsed by that of Holbein the younger, to whom several important works, actually by the father, used to be assigned, among them his masterpiece, the ” Martyrdom of S. Sebastian,” at Munich. This injustice has now been remedied, and Holbein the elder again enters into his own. He was a painter of great power and imagination. Influenced at first, like many of his German contemporaries, by the style of Roger van der Weyden, he afterwards drank deep of Italian culture, and was one of the first of the northern painters to appreciate and understand the spirit of the classical Renaissance. But in those days an artist had often much ado to make a living, and old Holbein found himself forced to break up his workshop, and seek employment away from Augsburg. His brother Sigmund, who seems till then to have been his assistant, went off on his own account, and settled in Berne.

It is to Sigmund Holbein that the curious portrait in the National Gallery of a lady in a large white cap (722) used formerly to be attributed. But there seems to be no valid reason for connecting his name with this excellent picture. This prim young German matron, in her quaint, high-crowned, starched cap with long streamers, has a pleasant face and kindly brown eyes. Three rings adorn her rather stiff fingers, and she holds delicately a sprig of forget-me-not. It was an odd fancy of the painter to depict a fly alighted on the white head-dress. The flesh tints are of a pale pinkish hue, rather cold, but very carefully blended. On the patterned background, once, perhaps, of a deep blue, we find the words ” Geborne Hoferin,” a record of the lady’s maiden name. The portrait is quite worthy of a place here, for all its anonymity.

( Originally Published 1904 )

German and Flemish Masters:The German And Flemish Masters In The National GalleryThe Van EycksThe School Of Roger Van Der WeydenGerard David And His FollowersThe German Painters Of The Fifteenth CenturyMatsys And The ItalianisersThe German Painters Of The RenaissanceRubensVan Dyck And The Painters Of Antwerp