Adam Elsheimer at DPG

There’s an exhibition of Adam Elsheimer paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. From the DPG site:

On hearing of Elsheimer’s early death Rubens wrote ‘Surely, after such a loss our entire profession ought to clothe itself in mourning. We will not easily succeed in replacing him; in my opinion he had no equal in small figures, in landscapes, and in many other subjects’. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to re–discover this painter ‘without equal’.

I admit I’d not heard of Elsheimer, but apparently he was an important influence on Rembrant, Rubens and Claude Lorrain. He makes an excellent choice for an exhibition at a small gallery, because he wasn’t very prolific and his paintings were small. That (and the fact that he’s not so well known) has allowed them to exhibit effectively his entire output: 30 of 34 accepted surviving paintings.

The paintings are small because they’re on copper, and apparently copper sheets had to be small for practical reasons. I found myself wondering whether he did small paintings because he liked working on copper or he worked on copper because he liked doing small paintings. I know that it’s not the most sophisticated aesthetic response to get fixated on the size, but I do think there’s quite a profound division between people who are miniaturists by inclination — in painting, poetry or whatever — and those who like the grand sweep.

The distinction is brought out in Elsheimer because many of his paintings have the kind of complex, dynamic compositions that you can imagine being painted ten foot tall by his contemporaries. This picture, The Stoning of Saint Stephen, which normally lives in the National Gallery of Scotland, is one of his larger works, but it’s still only 34.70 x 28.60 cm:

The size means they have less immediate impact, but there’s an intimacy in viewing these paintings; there’s only really room for one person in front of each, and you find yourself standing with your nose practically touching them. And the execution of tiny details is fascinating in itself. Still, I found there was something weirdly constrained about them, as though the practical explanation for why they were small wasn’t quite enough to explain it.