Barthel Bruyn and Hans Holbein

 

Left: Barthel Bruyn, Portrait of Gerhard von Westerburg, 1524 Oil on panel, 62.3 x 52.4

Right: Workshop of Hans Holbein the Elder, Silverpoint drawing of the wife of Jörg Fischer, c. 1512-15

Selected by: Jeanne Nuechterlein

Barthel Bruyn, Portrait of Gerhard von Westerburg, 1524

This portrait has had a fascinating history over the last 200 years, passing through a series of important private collections before coming to Compton Verney in 2008. Its known modern provenance begins with canon Franz Pick of Bonn (1750-1819), who amassed one of the most significant collections of art and antiquities of his era, and he attributed this portrait to Hans Holbein the Younger, with whom Bruyn shared similarities of composition and style. Pick’s collection was favourably viewed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and August Wilhelm Schlegel, both of whom argued that it should be preserved intact in Bonn, but although his extensive coin collection was bought by the university, Pick’s other works were auctioned off to various buyers after his death in 1819. His paintings have thus experienced a very different subsequent history compared to those of his friend from Cologne, canon Franz Ferdinand Wallraf, whose collection was donated to the city at his death in 1824 and remains the core of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum.

From the Pick sale the Bruyn portrait was bought (and correctly re-attributed) by Johann Peter Weyer, who was Cologne’s master mason from 1822 to 1844 and oversaw a number of important building projects in the rapidly changing city, showing great interest in Gothic (and neo-Gothic) architecture. His collection of some 600 Old Master Italian, Dutch, Flemish and German works included many early Netherlandish and German panels, which had a significant impact on the reception of early northern painting since his collection was open to the general public. Charles Eastlake, who was appointed the first director of the National Gallery in London in 1855, saw the Weyer collection in 1852, in 1857, and again in 1862, when financial problems forced Weyer to sell part of his collection. https://archive.org/details/illustrirter00jmhe

Eastlake bought two Weyer paintings for the National Gallery in 1862: he was most excited by Hans Memling’s Virgin and Child, NG686, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-memling-the-virgin-and-child-with-an-angel, which cost 4600 Thaler (=£759, lot 234), the second-highest price in the entire sale after a Holy Family by Rubens (bought by the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, http://www.bildindex.de/obj05011394.html#|home). Eastlake also filled a perceived gap in the National Gallery’s early German collection with the Veronica with the Sudarium, then attributed to ‘Master Wilhelm’ but now identified as the Master of Saint Veronica (lot 116, NG687, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/master-of-saint-veronica-saint-veronica-with-the-sudarium). It was much cheaper than the Memling at 1000 Thaler, but still the fifth-highest priced single work in the sale, only slightly behind a Deposition attributed to Rembrandt and a crucifixion attributed to Gossaert.

The Bruyn portrait sold for 360 Thaler (lot 158), much less than the ones bought by the National Gallery but still towards the top end of the sale prices. It went to another significant private collection, that of the successful wool trader Friedrich Jacob Gsell in Vienna, who collected modern art alongside Old Masters, and works on paper as well as paintings. During his lifetime Gsell expressed the wish to leave his collection either to his birthplace in Alsace or to Vienna, but it was dispersed at auction in 1872, following his death the previous year. https://archive.org/details/galeriedetableau00plac (Bruyn portrait lot 191) One of the modern drawings from Gsell’s collection, by Constant Troyon, later ended up in the British Museum, 1905,1110.70, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=719613&partId=1&people=122622&peoA=122622-3-18&page=1).

The Bruyn portrait was next acquired by Salomon Benedict Goldschmidt, who kept it in his collection of mostly 17th-century Dutch paintings for 35 years, until their sale at his death in 1907; Goldschmidt must have seen the portrait as fitting his taste for Dutch naturalism. https://archive.org/details/katalogdersammlu00kuns (no. 13) The painting then entered the significant art collection of Rudolph Ritter von Gutmann in Vienna. When he and his wife fled Austria at the Anschluss in 1938, his collection was confiscated by the Nazis, and taken to Linz the following year. After the war it was returned by the Allied forces to Austria and acquired by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, until it was restored in 2008 to Rudolph von Gutmann’s heirs, from whom it was sold to Compton Verney. For more information on this later history see http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/barthel-bruyn-i-portrait-of-gerhard-von-5155173-details.aspx.

For much of this time the painting’s sitter was identified as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, a well-known humanist of the early 16th century with an interest in the occult, and a figure likely to attract significant interest among viewers (and potential buyers). Only in 1965 did the coat of arms on the man’s ring finally lead to his correct identification as Gerhard Westerburg of Cologne, a significant if not so well-known figure of the German Reformation: he was a friend to several of the more extreme German reformers and became an Anabaptist leader for a number of years, before going into exile in East Friesland and eventually becoming a more moderate Protestant. Later in life he invented a horse-driven windmill, which unfortunately never found an investor (see http://www.history.ac.uk/history-online/node/162081).

Westerburg’s portrait was made during his Anabaptist period, together with a pendant portrait of his wife whom he had married the previous year. She has often been identified as Gertrude von Leutz (following a 19th-century author), but as several recent scholars have noted, according to 16th-century evidence Westerburg married a sister-in-law of the reformer Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. Some authors name her as Margaretha von Mochau, but others note that Margaretha married the Lutheran theologian Georg Major and it was a third unnamed sister that married Westerburg. Her portrait was no longer together with her husband’s in the 19th century, and it has ended up (named as Gertrude von Leutz) in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterloo. http://krollermuller.nl/en/barthel-bruyn-the-elder-portrait-of-gertraude-von-leutz In 2012 the about-to-retire director Evert van Straaten noted that his greatest regret was not being quick enough to buy the portrait of her husband when it came onto the market in 2008, so that the couple could be rejoined. http://www.trouw.nl/tr/nl/5009/Archief/article/detail/3234036/2012/03/31/Een-ei-waarin-alles-is-samengebald.dhtml

It’s fascinating to be able to trace so much of this painting’s modern history, especially since it has passed through so many significant collections. With each move it gained new associations and potential meanings, until finally coming to rest (for the time being at least) alongside the other northern works at Compton Verney.

Workshop of Hans Holbein the Elder, Silverpoint drawing of the wife of Jörg Fischer, c. 1512-15

Where Gerhard Westerburg has become separated from his wife, a striking drawing in the British Museum, recently shown in the exhibition Drawing in Silver and Gold, depicts a woman who has lost her pendant husband. Among the many portraits in J. P. Weyer’s collection was an unidentified pair attributed to Hans von Kulmbach (lots 63 and 64 in the 1862 catalogue), but by the end of the century they had been identified as Jörg Fischer and his (unnamed) wife, painted in 1512 by Hans Holbein the Elder. The two paintings went from Weyer’s collection to different buyers, and the one of Jörg Fischer has unfortunately disappeared, whereas the one of his wife eventually made its way in 1958 to the Basel Kunstmuseum (Inv. G 1958.7, http://bit.ly/1VHjCHb).

Holbein’s preliminary silverpoint drawings of both sitters still survive, now in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett (KdZ 2558 and 2564; see http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/krause2002/0264?sid=4802ba0195ca2c5dd67f4eca731b1f57). The British Museum drawing, in contrast, appears to be a workshop copy after the final painting of the wife, which differs significantly from the Berlin drawing: Holbein changed the shape of her face considerably, making her look much younger and less dour, and he also adjusted the position of her body and arms. Compared to the Basel painting, the London drawing somewhat exaggerates the difference between the two eyes, depicting the left eye rather too large and pushed too far over to the side, which gives her a distinctly arch expression. But both drawing and painting highlight a central feature of German portraiture: its typical emphasis on the figure’s striking linear silhouette against a plain ground, integrated with a more life-like impression of individualistic facial features—in other words, an integration of representation with graphic design, adjusted to maximum effect. This powerful combination made German portraiture appealing to later generations of viewers, many of whom found German religious works of the same era much less palatable in style.

 

Bruyn’s later portrait of Westerburg bears some similarities to the Holbein portrait in conception, but it creates a more consistently three-dimensional impression—more like the portraits by Holbein the Elder’s son, Hans Holbein the Younger—in adding a cast shadow to the background and stronger modelling across the body, using bold contrasts of light and shade, plus reflected light on the far side of the face, to establish the body’s volumetric presence. But Westerburg’s facial expression is more marked than most of Holbein the Younger’s portraits: his concentrated gaze has a rather fierce quality, which one imagines easily dominating the rather timid wife as depicted in the Otterloo portrait. One feels somehow that the semi-imagined version of Jörg Fischer’s wife, as evoked in Holbein the Elder’s final portrait and its drawn copy in the British Museum, would be a more equal match to Westerburg.

 

Of course that impression has nothing to do with the historical situation of these two figures, but it speaks to the way that people across time often respond to such portraits, by projecting personality onto an evocative artistic image. The contrast between Holbein’s initial drawing and final image of Jörg Fischer’s wife suggests that these portraits had an analogous appeal in their own day, as more an optimal artistic projection rather than an ‘accurate’ depiction of reality.

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