Schongauer and Dürer

Left: Martin Schongauer (1440-1491) Maria Lactans, The Virgin and Child Crowned by Angels, c.1470. Oil on softwood panel, 17.5 x 11.5 cm. Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwicks, UK

Right: Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) Virgin and Child Seated next to a Wall, 1514. Engraving, 148mm x 100mm. The British Museum: 1868, 0822.176

Selected by: Juliet Simpson

Maria Lactans, The Virgin and Child Crowned by Angels, c.1470. Oil on softwood panel, 17.5 x 11.5 cm. Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwicks, UK

This small panel by the Alsatian artist, Martin Schongauer, is one of very few paintings attributed to him. Its provenance is of particular interest for this ‘spotlight’ exhibition as it appears in an early nineteenth-century report of the founding German collection of the Frankfurt Städel Institute; it was sold at auction by Sotheby’s London and acquired for Compton Verney in 2005 (http://www.sothebys.com/fr/auctions/ecatalogue/2005/old-master-paintings-evening-sale-l05031/lot.26.html). Possibly commissioned for private devotional purposes, it is remarkably similar to the J.P. Getty Museum (Los Angeles) later Virgin and Child Crowned by Angels, dated 1450-53, the main difference being the depiction of the Virgin shown reading to a slightly older infant Christ, delicately balanced on a richly-hued green and red cushion. Schongauer became well-known during the nineteenth century for his graphic arts. His engravings were extensively circulated in a burgeoning early nineteenth-century print trade between Britain and the Low Countries, and sought by British collectors, along with prints by Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, in a vigorous market for Germanic Rhine-lands masters. In turn, this became linked to a Romantic interest in Schongauer’s detailed and delicate draughtsmanship – possibly inspired by his early apprenticeship as a goldsmith in his father’s Colmar workshop – his combination of incisive craft and attentiveness to nature, and his intimate treatment of human figures, gestures and nuanced expression. Such attributes were highlighted by the German artist Johan-David Passavant, writing in 1836 of Schongauer’s painting, Christ before Pilate (observed in the collection of the London merchant, Carl Aders), that it was ‘full of speaking heads’, ‘spirited touch’ and ‘colour so peculiar to Flemish painters’. It is these perceived ‘Romantic’ and ‘Northern’ qualities of attentive craft combined with a painter’s eye, spirited-ness and intimacy, which appealed to the period’s collectors. By mid-nineteenth century, Schongauer’s work was being ‘rediscovered’ by artists, notably William Morris and Dante-Gabriel Rossetti, who were drawn to the combination of intimacy and mysticism, a fidelity to the precisely natural, yet dream-like which both artists associated in particular with the art of Flemish-Germanic so-called ‘primitive’ masters as a means to transform their own artistic visions. These qualities are captured in the Compton Verney Virgin and Child: her dreamy, faraway expression, the tender grasp of the suckling Christ, contrasting with her bold scarlet mantle, her exquisitely rendered crown and its flamboyant angelic bearers.

Virgin and Child Seated next to a Wall, 1514. Engraving, 148mm x 100mm. The British Museum: 1868, 0822.176

Schongauer’s work was deeply inspirational for his younger contemporaries, notably Dürer. Dürer’s 1514 engraving of the Virgin and Child Seated next to a Wall (British Museum, London: 1868, 0822.176) shown here, contrasts in its solidity and vigorous modelled figures with Schongauer’s delicate and intimate treatment. But significant for nineteenth-century tastes, was the perception that both masters, especially in their graphic work, displayed a delight in the particular, combined with a sense of expressivity, mood and feeling seen as specifically ‘Northern’ in character. While earlier nineteenth-century Romantic interest, especially in Schongauer’s and Dürer’s prints, associated this appeal with a ‘Flemish-German’ tradition, by mid-to-late century, both artists were to inspire renewed focus on their ‘German’ and ‘Gothic’ elements: elements, suggested in Dürer’s fully-embodied, almost masculine Virgin set against a tiny landscape and naturalistically-rendered Gothic city. Yet its soaring walls and towers echo the fantasy citadels in the miniatures of the Burgundian, Limbourg brothers, in a meeting of Gothic and Renaissance artistic visions. The pairing of these two works by Schongauer and Dürer highlights their pivotal, fresh significance for emerging nineteenth-century sensibilities: that they stood at the crossroads of an Italianate and distinctive Germanic Northern artistic cultural identity. As such, they became linked to a culture and spirit that crossed British and Flemish-German borders – as evidenced from the mid-nineteenth century, by a flourishing artistic tourism to Bruges – in a common interest in rediscovering a cosmopolitan Germanic ‘north’ and the national potencies of a native ‘northern’ artistic inheritance and roots.