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HE purchase for the National Gallery of the portrait of Albert Diirer the elder is somewhat of an event. Such a definite attempt to fill what was perhaps the most serious gap in our wonderfully complete collection was a courageous action; at the same time the attribution to Diirer has given rise to a good deal of hesitation and hostility in the critical world. The appended summary of the facts relating to the picture is therefore given in the hope that those who have more right to speak of Diirer will take this opportunity of writing definitely upon the questions in dispute. It must not be regarded as reflecting in any way the views of the Consultative Committee of THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, or of any of its members.
The picture belonged to the late Lady Ashburton,and first became famous when it was lent to the Winter Exhibition at Burlington House some six months ago. It has now been acquired for the nation, together with the fine Dutch portrait from the same collection variously attributed to Macs, De Keyser, and Van der Helst, for the sum, it is said, Of£I0,000.
An article by Mr. Campbell Dodgson in The At/zenwum for February 6 last gave a summary of the known facts relating to the work and to the three other versions of the subject at Syon House, Munich, and Frankfort. This admirable review, to which I am greatly indebted, appeared before the inscription on the portrait was revealed by reframing, but the tendency Of Mr. Dodgson’s opinion seemed to be that this picture, like the other three, was a copy of a lost original by Diirer.
This original picture was one of two works by Diirer presented to Charles I by the City of Nuremberg. At the sale of the king’s collection these two paintings
fetched £100. One Of them, a portrait of Diirer, dated I498, is now among the many treasures of the Prado; the other disappeared. This lost picture had been described in Van der Doort’s inventory of 1637 as ‘ No. 26 . . . the like fellow piece (i.e., to the Prado picture) being Albert Diirer his father in a black antique old Hungarian fashioned black (sic) cap, in a dark yellow gowne, wherin his hands are hidden in the wide sleeves. Painted upon a reddish all cracked board in the like aforesaid frame (z'.e., like the wooden frame of the Prado picture), I ft. 8 in. length, I ft. 4in. breadth.’
The picture in the National Gallery would here seem to have been described sufficiently well, and the measurements correspond exactly. Objection, however, is taken to its identity with that described by Van der Doort on the following grounds:
I. That the work does not agree absolutely with the words of the inventory.I
2. That the painting itself is unworthy of Diirer, or at any rate not characteristic of him.
3. That the wording and execution of the inscription are not Diirer’s work.2
In the first place the number in red paint at the foot Of the picture is 208 and not 26. That is not a matter ofimportance, since the picture may have been catalogued twice. It is argued, too, that the picture is not painted on a board at all, but upon parchment, or perhaps some thicker skin, mounted on board.3 Now, as will be mentioned later, there are reasons for supposing this portrait to have been closely framed. If the edges are once hidden it is impossible to tell, even on close inspection, that the picture is not on a panel, and the innumerable cracks in the pigment, which even a considerable amount of retouching cannot hide, explain the epithet ‘ all cracked ’ without necessarily implying any larger fracture. Indeed, though the parchment has remained whole, it is quite possible that the wood behind was badly cracked, and this would explain the substitution of the newer panel which we now see. This, in its turn, would account for the absence of the original inventory number.
1 As the Director of the National Gallery points out, Van der Doort was a Dutchman with a very imperfect knowledge of English, which, coupled with the terseness of his descriptions, might easily lead to 'on a reddish board’ being used for ‘on a panel painted of a reddish colour.‘
1 On this point the Director notes that the fact of the picture not being signed proves nothing, as half a dozen other genuine portraits are also unsigned, and that the Roman capitals here used are in his opinion of precisely the same type as those in some other genuine inscriptions, notably that of the Oswolt Krel portrait painted two years later.
3 Since the above was written the Director, who has been able to examine the picture out of its frame, states that the painting is certainly not on parchment, and adds: ‘The
priming was put on to the panel after the mouldings which ramed the panel were fitted to it, so that the removal of the frame has left a narrow edging of bare panel, and the priming stands up slightly from the surface.’ The correspondence with the inventory would thus seem to be even more close than originally appeared.
That the painting is Diirer’s in workmanship is a more difficult thing to prove. The single criticism on this head which seems to have appeared was that in the last number of the Repertarium. It runs, ‘ the socalled Diirer,Portrait of His Father (No.10, Marquess of Northampton from Lady Ashburton), seems to me an English imitation of about the beginning of the nine— teenth century. Years ago I once came across a series of similar pictures, with the same yellowish-brown carnations on a coloured ground, flat and marrowless.’ This theory at least needs no discussion.
The actual painting does not appear to me to be like the work ofa copyist. The pigment in all the passages of delicate modelling is thin and transparent. This transparency argues swiftness of workmanship, and that is just the point where a copyist comes to grief. The direct perfection of the modelling of the cheek and the loose flesh of the throat have only to be compared with the other versions for the difference to be evident. Again, the precision with which acareful copyist has to work invariably results ina certain loss of the accent and emphasis that characterize an
original work. Compare the other versions and see how the angle of the cheek-bone,the incisive marking of the wrinkles and veins about thee e, the summary sketching of the withered ngers and shrivelled nails, even the very folds of the cloak, are fudged or rounded or shirked in the Frankfort,‘ Munich, and Syon House 5 variants. The National Gallery portrait on the other hand is sharp and decisive.
The thing, too,was evidently done rapidly and forcibly. If it be examined at Trafalgar Square on a bright day it will be seen that the folds of the cloak were drawn so swiftly that the surface of the ground is actually scraped as a pen scrapes paper when pressed hard upon it. This is specially noticeable in the folds of the left sleeve at the elbow. To this combination of accuracy and velocity the portrait owes its power. If one looks at it for a while, and then turns to the German pictures near it, even Holbein, with all his delicacy, seems just a trifle opaque and prosaic, while Baldung, Aldegrever, and Cranach appear hardly more than able, mannered, and amusing provincials. No mere copy could surely stand such a test P
Yet although it is so powerful there does not seem to be any other portrait by Diirer which in all respects resembles it in workmanship. On the other hand, it is impossible to draw a hard and fast line as to' Diirer’s style in painting, since it varies so amazingly from period to period, and even from year to year, according to the influences with which he came in contact. At one time he will rival the delicacy and breadth of H olbein, at another his ideal will be one of metallic hardness and rotundity, while some of his work recalls the glow of Bellini and Antonello da Messina. The Madonna in Sir Frederick Cook’s collection and the little portrait at Hampton Court will serve to illustrate this variation in taste, style, and colour. Even his drawing is sometimes meagre and wiry. The single quality in his work that never varies is the workmanship. This is always wonderful, even when carr ing out the least pleasing aberrations 0 his genius.
4 Reproduced on page 43 5. ‘ Reproduced on page 435.
The H istorj/ of our New Diirer
It seems that no other painting on parchment by him is known to exist, and the use of parchment as a ground for painting appears to be extremely rare.6 This use of an uncommon material in itself is surely more like the experiment of a great master than the mistake of a copyist, who would naturally employ a ground like that of the original, especially if it was in everyday use, as prepared panels then were. If an original picture were an elaborate piece of painting, as all Diirer portraits are, it is hard to imagine that any copyist would run the risk of wasting a large amount of time and labour by experimenting with unusual materials, when those used by the original painter were ready to his hand.
If, however, the treatment of the head be compared with that of a Diirer drawing7 in the British Museum (supposed to have been done some four years later), there can be little doubt as to the identity of their authorship. It is only necessary to point out the tremulous suggestion of the wrinkles and veins round the eyes, the drawing of the eye sockets, the treatment of the nose, and the emphatic statement of the furrowed flesh about the jaw in both works.
The details of the cloak can be studied only at Trafalgar Square, for the photogravure gives no idea of the transparency and lightness of the picture. Attention has already been called to the force and impetuosity of the treatment of the left sleeve. The right sleeve is equally inter
esting, for if examined closely it will be seen to have an underpainting in monochrome, done with rapid and accurate brush strokes in the exact manner of Diirer. This should be compared with the sleeves in the Uffizi portrait (14.90) and in that of Oswolt Krel at Munich (14.99). The treatment of the hand should be compared with the right hand of Imhof in the Prado. The prominence at the root of the fingernails (as Mr. Charles Ricketts pointed out to me) is repeated in Diirer’s portrait of himself once in the Felix collection at Leipzig.
The remaining objections to the work are based on the inscription. It must be at once admitted that this may not be from Diirer’s hand, as the style of lettering differs slightly from that on the Oswolt Krel (where Diirer for once uses Roman capitals), and there is no warrant for the spelling ‘ Thurer.’ 8 For this reason Mr. Dodgson, following Dr. Friedlander, points out that the inscription on the Munich picture has a more genuine ring about its wording, and corresponds absolutely in style with that of the Prado portrait. He recognizes that the Munich picture is a bad copy, but suggests that its lettering represents that on Diirer's original.
Yet if this original were so lettered, why did Greenbury, the reputed painter of the Syon House copy, give an entirely different and far less convincing wording, and why did the German painter who painted the older copy at Frankfort do just the same i If the original picture had borne Diirer’s monogram and an interesting gothic inscription, it is incredible that these two painters, working at different times and in different countries, should have omitted it, and agreed in substituting another and less obvious one.
The original work must thus have borne an inscription practically identical with that
° Mr. Herbert Horne informs me that there is no known instance of an Italian panel picture on a parchment ground earlier than 1550. Mrs. Herringham who considers that there may be a thin gesso ground under the finer picture) is equally definite on this point.
7 Reproduced on page 437.
5 Even this objection, however, now seems to be groundless. Mr. D n has recent] sent me an extract from a letter of Phi:heimer to Conrad Celtis ated March 14, r504.—‘ Turer te salutat.‘ ' This retouching has made the background redder than that of the other versions. A comparison of the Frankfort and Syon House versions seems to indicate that the high lights and darker lines on the hair were added before the portrait left Nuremberg. The under painting of the hair is typical of Diirer's method. The surface, too, has everywhere been rubbed in cleaning so that the original uork is often blurred, as the characteristic high lights on the bridge of the nose show. That the repainting was necessary may be judged from the fact that the forehead had actually cracked right away from. the cap.
1497 ALBRECHT . THURER . DER . ELTER
VND . ALT . 70 JOR. When I first copied the inscription I wrote the date as 1494., since the 7 was made exactly the same size and shape as the 4. preceding it, except for the horizontal crossbar. The difference even in a strong light was so small that I overlooked it until it was pointed out by a friend who was with me. The mistake seemed to explain the reason for the date 14.94. in the Frankfort copy.
It immediately occurred to me to test the Syon House inscription in the same way, where VI ID . AET is substituted for VND . ALT., and at once the cause of the mistake became apparent. The crossbar of the N in the National Gallery picture has sunk into the ground till it is almost invisible, so that VND has become VI 1D. The Syon House copyist has read it thus, and presuming perhaps that ‘ID' stood for ‘idem,’ read the next word also as Latin—‘ aet ’ for ‘ aetatis.’ If the original frame came close to the picture, as I have previously suggested, the top of the L would be invisible, and the mistake under the circumstances a very natural one. These two slips certainly seem to indicate that the National Gallery picture was the original of the Frankfort and Syon House copies, and, coupled with its general correspondence to the inventory of 1637, show that it can hardly failto be the picturewhich was once in Charles the First’s collection.
The history of the picture may thus be somewhat as follows :-—It was painted by Diirer in 1497, but for some reason or
other it was not carried to a high degree of finish. After his death it remained in Nuremberg, and was copied carefully by the painter of the Frankfort version, and less skilfully by the painter of the Munich version, who forged an inscription and signature to match that on the portrait of Diirer himself now in the Prado. With the Prado picture it was presented (after some retouching) by Nuremberg to Charles I. Then the portrait was copied by Greenbury (if he was indeed the author of the Syon House version) and catalogued by Van der Doort. When the royal collection was dispersed the damaged condition of the picture was repaired by its new owner, who had it mounted on a sound panel, and retouched again.9 A label on the back indicates that it was in some English collection towards the end of the eighteenth century (where perhaps it was numbered 208), before it passed into that of Lady Ashburton.
The available external evidence thus all seems to indicate that this picture is the original of the three other versions of the subject, and is identical with the picture in Charles the First’s collection, which was presented to him by Diirer’s native city, together with another magnificent work by that city’s greatest master. It is hard to believe that a copy or a forgery would have been sent under such circumstances, even if the picture were not in itself one of the most lively and emphatic specimens of German portrait painting which the nation has hitherto acquired.