Adam Elsheimer
Nationality: 
german
Gender: 
Male
Birth Date: 
1578
Birth Place: 
Frankfurt
Death Date: 
1610
Death Place: 
Rome
A German artist who worked in Rome for most of his short creative life, Adam Elsheimer had a profound impact on European art of the 17th century. Known for his small paintings on copper, a recent exhibition catalog noted that his works “offer complex narratives, entire landscape panoramas and astounding light effects in a multitude of details.” Further, Elsheimer “played a crucial part in the creative development of three of the most important artists of the seventeenth century: [Peter Paul] Rubens [1577-1640], Rembrandt [van Rijn, 1606-1669] and Claude Lorrain [ca. 1604-1682].” (Klessman, 6, 7) Scholars attribute only 34 surviving paintings to Elsheimer, treating the several panels of two altarpieces and a set of panels made for the decoration of a cabinet as one. A number of drawings and a few etchings also survive. Much of Elsheimer’s impact on other artists, however, arises from seven engravings after his designs made by Hendrik Goudt (1583-1648), which were widely circulated and admired. Elsheimer was born in March of 1578 and was baptized on March 18 in Frankfurt am Main. His father was a master tailor; his mother was the daughter of a master cooper. The German artist and writer Joachim von Sandrart (1616-1688), in his Teutsche Academie (German Academy, 1675), wrote that Elsheimer was apprenticed to Philipp Uffenbach (1566-1636), a leading Frankfurt artist, probably around 1592 for the usual apprenticeship period of four years. A design for an altarpiece made jointly with Johannes Vetter the Younger (d. 1619) in 1596 suggests that Elsheimer worked in the studio of the father, Johannes Vetter the Elder (d. 1620). Elsheimer probably traveled to Strasbourg in 1596 to visit the painter Friedrich Brentel (1580-1651), based on a drawing signed by him, perhaps in the company of the younger Vetter. An important altarpiece by Elsheimer with six scenes from the lift of the Virgin (Berlin: Gemäldegalerie) dates from this period, as do etchings published in 1598 made to illustrate the description of an expedition to the East Indies published in the Frankfurt Messrelationen (a news sheet) of that year. Elsheimer began traveling towards Italy about the same time, reaching Munich in 1598. Scholars infer that he next went to Venice and was associated with the German artist Hans Rottenhamer (1564-1625), based on stylistic analysis of Elsheimer’s works. He is recorded in Rome in 1600, and stayed there for the rest of his short life. He became a part of the Roman art world, joined a group of humanist thinkers, and probably became acquainted with Rubens, who was then in Rome. Elsheimer’s work is mentioned in Karel van Mander’s (1548-1606) Het Schider-boek (The Book on Painting), published in 1604. Elsheimer had achieved a reputation as a painter of religious scenes, and around 1603 he apparently obtained a commission for a lavish altarpiece with seven panels, known as The Frankfurt Tabernacle or The True Cross Altarpiece (1603-1606, Frankfurt: Städelsches Kunstinstitut). Elsheimer converted to Catholicism, perhaps in 1606, a conversion noted in a letter Rubens wrote in 1609. Around 1606 Elsheimer began putting detailed landscapes into his paintings, perhaps reflecting the influence of Paul Bril (1554-1626), the Flemish painter working in Rome, and the subjects of his paintings expanded to include mythological scenes. Bril was one of the witnesses to Elsheimer’s marriage in December 1606 to Carola Antonia Stuart, a widow of Scottish descent. By 1607 Elsheimer had been admitted to the Roman artists’ guild, Accademia de San Luca. His 1606 self-portrait was probably given to the Accademia after his death. Also around this time Elsheimer became acquainted with Hendrik Goudt, a Dutch artist visiting Rome, who as a member of the lesser nobility in The Hague. The Easter parish censuses of 1607 and 1609 record Goudt as living with Elsheimer and his wife. The first of Goudt’s engravings after Elsheimer, the “Tobias and the Angel” (the “small Tobias,” Holl. v. VIII, Goudt, no. 1) was executed in 1608; Goudt’s The Mocking of Ceres after Elsheimer was completed in 1610 (Holl. vol. VIII, Goudt, no. 5). Always poor, Elsheimer was indebted to Goudt and many others and was probably put in debtor’s prison, perhaps in 1610, where he may have contracted his fatal illness. Goudt’s role in Elsheimer’s imprisonment is unclear, but apparently they reconciled after Elsheimer’s release and before his death on December 11, 1610. Her was buried the same day in the parish church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome. After being informed of Elsheimer’s death, Rubens wrote in a letter “Surely, after such a loss, our entire profession ought to clothe itself in mourning.” (Klessman, 9) (TNB 6/2013) Selected Bibliography: Andrews, Keith. Adam Elsheimer: Paintings, Drawings, Prints. New York: Rizzoli, 1977. Klessmann, Rüdiger. Adam Elsheimer, 1578-1610. Exhibition catalog, with Emilie E. S. Gordenkeer and Christian Tico Seifert. Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland, 2006