Natural Light: The Art of Adam Elsheimer and the Dawn of Modern Science by Julian Bell - review by Michael Prodger

Michael Prodger

Anatomist of the Night

Natural Light: The Art of Adam Elsheimer and the Dawn of Modern Science


Thames & Hudson 256pp £25

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, that dark and stormy painter, died in 1610, aged thirty-eight. Five months later another painter fascinated by light passed away at an even younger age: Adam Elsheimer was just thirty-two. A Frankfurter by birth, Elsheimer expired in Rome, the city from which Caravaggio had been exiled. The two men also had shared friends – not least Orazio Gentileschi – and patrons, such as Cardinal del Monte, who nurtured Caravaggio and owned two of Elsheimer’s rare paintings. Caravaggio is now one of the dominant figures of 17th-century art history but Elsheimer, although famous and revered in his day, has no such renown.

Elsheimer’s output was tiny in both quantity and scale, consisting of drawings and, most distinctively, small cabinet paintings in oil on copper panels. There exist a mere thirty to fifty of them, with the most miniature measuring just 9 x 7 cm. In his new book on the artist, Julian Bell, a painter himself and one of the most subtle writers on art currently at work, contends that Elsheimer’s diminutive pictures contain multitudes.

He notes how Elsheimer’s friend Rubens unpacked some of his Lilliputian motifs and used them in canvases metres high. His influence can be traced in Claude Lorrain’s classical landscapes and Rembrandt’s notion of art too. It even, says Bell, reached as far as Mughal India through prints of his work and could be felt there in the court art of some of its greatest practitioners. The man known as ‘the devil for little things’ had a mighty impact.

Contemporary accounts suggest that Elsheimer was an attractive personality but ‘very solitary and contemplative’: walking through the streets, ‘he would be so caught up in thought that he would not say anything to anyone unless they spoke to him first’. He was also a perfectionist and an achingly slow worker, traits which led to his imprisonment for debt, since he could not bring himself to churn out works to satisfy his ready market. Incarceration did not spur greater productivity but exacerbated his pre-existing depression.

Elsheimer, as one of his circle put it, ‘grasped Nature’s spirit and essence’. His paintings, says Bell, are products of the shift in the natural sciences to greater objectivity. Elsheimer moved in a circle that contained the collector and papal botanist Johannes Faber and the Accademia dei Lincei, a group of empiricists with Galileo at its heart. He was familiar with current intellectual enquiries, put his eye to one of the first telescopes and was an expert in herbal medicine.

In his paintings, these interests and influences emerged in nocturnal scenes that were biblical, classical and seemingly subjectless, in novel interpretations of Ovid, and in depictions of episodes from scripture. He found a new way of harmoniously embodying the human figure in the landscape and of giving both equal importance; he did not take the eye on a wandering journey through the countryside to the horizon but showed man in nature – as part of nature – as if in a frieze. To obtain mastery of the nocturne, he disappeared into the fields and hills around Rome in the pre-dawn hours, examining the effects of early morning light. His landscapes were not based on mimetic pedantry, however. Long study of landscapes, trees and mountains imprinted on his mind motifs that he would transpose onto his panels. What he painted was, in effect, the nature of nature. Of his richly atmospheric ‘small’ 1608 painting Tobias and the Angel, one contemporary wrote that ‘never was such a truthful manner seen before’.

Where Caravaggio claimed that he was merely the transcriber of nature, a copyist of the effects he saw before his eyes, Elsheimer, suggests Bell, conceived of nature as something that his ‘judgement, informed by wise tradition, is able to discern, over and above the appearances’. So, in his most celebrated painting, The Flight into Egypt (1609), now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, the Holy Family walks tiredly through a night landscape bounded by woods and water and lit by discrete pools of light provided by a flaming torch, a campfire, the moon and the wash of the Milky Way. It is a painting of a transitory moment whose subject is as much time, light and space as the Christ child escaping from danger. ‘There will always be a beyond,’ says Bell, ‘however far you go.’

This is a book as rich in ideas as Elsheimer’s art. Kepler and Giordano Bruno, cardinals and popes, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and a host of painters from Domenichino to Caspar David Friedrich are all discussed. Early 17th-century Rome, a multinational city on the cusp of revivification, is shown as intellectually capacious enough to find room for the street scenes of the Dutch and Flemish Bamboccianti, the classicising Annibale Carracci, the revolution wrought by Caravaggio and the cerebral work of Elsheimer.

Elsheimer, in Bell’s words, was a painter who ‘thinks like a man stood at an easel … but works like a jeweller over his bench’. His pictures are a mental distillation of the external world that can display a ‘spiritual awkwardness’ (Elsheimer was born a Lutheran but converted to Catholicism in Rome) as well as profound originality. Rubens, in a eulogy to his friend, felt Elsheimer’s death to be a loss at which ‘our whole profession should clothe itself in mourning’, and this impressively scholarly and sympathetically intuitive book shows that he was not exaggerating. Bell has brought him back into the light.

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