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.

4 replies on “Adam Elsheimer at DPG”

They sound interesting, but personally I’ve never really understood why artists chose to paint such finely detailed work in miniature – unless commissioned to do so for portable portraits, or unless it’s illuminated book manuscripts.

Thinking about it, though, I suppose the question should be whether more artists would have chosen to work smaller if they could. I imagine that patrons preferred larger pictures, since they looked more splendid and impressive in their houses. I’m speculating, though.


I think there’s always a market for small pictures. Even the biggest houses have some small rooms in them, and anyway even the most prestigious artists don’t only sell to kings. And also I think there’s something appealing about small, jewel-like works; your relationship to them is different. You can hold them in your hands.

In fact, a lot of the paintings I would most like to own are smallish rather than epic: Van Eycks, Vermeers and so on. And I can see the appeal of miniaturists, like Hilliard or those medieval Persian miniatures. What seemed odd about Elsheimer was the painting of history paintings on biblical and classical themes in the Baroque style, but on such a small scale. I did enjoy the exhibition and liked the paintings, even so.

Whether he would have branched out a bit had he lived longer, I don’t know. He only lived to 32.

I know what you mean about the jewel-like qualities of small pictures – mediaeval ‘books of hours’ spring to my mind, as although I’ve only ever seen them in reproduction, the bright colours, and detail make them seem extraordinarily magical. Things, too – there’s an inherent appeal in many small, beautiful things, from acorns to lalique jewellery, as if their smallness somehow condenses a sense of preciousness and beauty.

By contrast,I like some smallish pictures because they have a cosy, almost domestic ‘feel’ to them – when one looks at them (I’m struggling to find a verb to replace ‘looking’ that would imply more active participation and engagement, and isn’t as academic as ‘examine’) one can almost have a kind of conversation with them, or the characters in them – I’m thinking specifically of Dame Laura Knight and some of her pictures of romany life, which have lots to spy on, and consider, but at the same time don’t seem (to me) particularly ‘precious’ in the same way.

All the pictures of epic events I’ve ever seen have been on the grand scale, and rather breathtaking in their vastness as well as their subject. I wonder if Elsheimer felt that the subject was more important than the scale? Whatever, I’d never heard of him before, and he sounds fascinating, so thanks for reviewing the exhibition.


I went to the Holbein exhibition at the Tate today, and he was another one of life’s miniaturists, I think. He did actually paint some lovely miniature portraits which are set with jewels and look like they we intended to be worn, but even his full size portraits tend to be smallish but highly detailed. Though having said that he did paint a few murals and ceilings and so on, though I don’t think any survive, so perhaps that’s too simple.

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