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Around the galleries

Strangely beautiful images from the German Renaissance

— March 2014

Associated media

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543) Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors') (1533), Oil on oak. ©The National Gallery, London

Rosalind Ormiston looks at changing ideas of ‘great art’ at the National Gallery, London

Art galleries today avoid identifying national characteristics but at the National Gallery in London ‘Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance’ (until 11 May 2014), focuses on the history of collecting German Renaissance art in Britain, particularly at the Gallery. Why, before the mid-20th century, was German Renaissance art rarely acquired?  Was it all a matter of taste and fixed ideas of beauty? The show attempts to answer such questions.

The National Gallery includes in its collection some of the most beautiful and expressive art by German artists: Hans Holbein,  Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer  are obvious choices, but it was not always thus. When the gallery was founded in 1824 not a single German painting was in the collection. ‘Strange Beauty’, curated by Dr Susan Foister (National Gallery, London), and Dr Jeanne Neurchterlein (University of York), explores what made an artwork worthy of acquisition and why German art was initially ignored, spurned and rarely bought.

At the entrance to Room 1 two semi-transparent panels show a past vision of the Gallery when its walls were covered in works from the Italian and Dutch Renaissance masters. And in Room 1 there are examples of what was then considered appropriate taste. We find St Catherine of Alexandria, 1507, by Raphael (Raffaello Santi),  purchased in 1824. For National Gallery trustees in the 1820s a painting by Raphael was considered to be the highest form of art. Here too there is a Dutch landscape A Hilly River Landscape with Figures, c.1655–60, by Albert Cuyp, also purchased in 1824. And another, The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434, by Jan van Eyck,  purchased in 1842. Many examples are here. It is a visual survey allowing us to grasp the choice of acquisitions made by the Gallery in the early to mid 19th century.

On to Room 2, to explore what had been offered to the Gallery by collectors of German art, what had been refused and, in one instance, bought but later sold. Starting with that sale, in 1854 William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer and a trustee of the National Gallery, was one who agreed to the acquisition of 64 early Westphalian paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries from the Carl Krüger collection. Three years later, after a lot of arguing as to the worthiness of the acquisitions, and through an Act of Parliament  – for the first and only time – 37 of the paintings were sold because, putting it politely, they did not conform to the ‘present state of the Gallery’. Archived documents from this episode, rarely publicly displayed, are here to view. And here, on one wall are fragments of the Liesborn Altarpiece, c. 1465, from the Benedictine Abbey of Liesborn, in Münster. It is reconstructed with eight works from the Krüger collection that remained with the Gallery.

Other examples of questionable decisions include works from a group offered by Queen Victoria in 1863, a gift to the Gallery from her late husband Prince Albert’s German art collection. In this group Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, c.1470, by an unknown Swabian artist, stands out. The painting, in oil on silver fir wood, has a beautiful quality in its use of light and attention to detail. On the lady’s white headdress a fly has landed. It is painted with exceptional detail to deceive the eye. Next to it is a painting the trustees deemed not worthy of keeping. It is Hans Baldung Grien’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Rosary, 1509, still in the Royal Collection and lent to this exhibition by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. This room includes the triptych The Crucifixion, c.1490–5, by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece, painted for the Church of St Columba, Cologne. It was gifted to the Gallery in 1847. It is in the content of this triptych that one can compare German art from this period with its then more favoured Italian counterparts. The crucifixion scene is filled with a multitude of figures. The horrendous suffering of Christ and the two thieves is made explicit.

‘Strange Beauty’ now turns its attention to the quality of German painting of this era. Two smaller Rooms consider aspects of German art: ‘Invention and Expression’ (Room 3), includes eight woodcuts from the ‘Dance of Death’ series by Hans Holbein the Younger, and Albrecht Dürer’s Melancolia I, 1514, all lent by the British Museum. In ‘Nature and Beauty’ (Room 5), many will be drawn to Cupid Complaining to Venus, c.1525, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, purchased by the Gallery in 1963. From 1961 the Gallery’s acquisitions of German art doubled.

The largest gallery (Room 4), is devoted to ‘Holbein, Dürer, Cranach’. Its centrepiece is Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors, 1533, acquired in 1890. Not to be missed is the last purchase of German art in 1996, an exquisite tiny wood panel, Saint Jerome, c.1496, by Dürer. The finale is Room 6, which reflects on what the exhibition is about, and invites visitors to write their comments on postcards, to clip to the wall. It prompts with questions: ‘Is beauty less important than originality or mastery? ‘Is it valid to judge historical art by today’s values?’ ‘How should we judge art of the past?’ ‘Are beauty and expression incompatible?’ Art critics have argued that this exhibition is a weak display of works of the German Renaissance era, or argue about whether there ever was a ‘German Renaissance’  But the questions asked in the last Room reflect on the aim of ‘Strange Beauty’, to question our judgement of art, giving an insight into the views of the National Gallery from its foundation in 1824 to the present day.


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

Background info

The Ambassadorsby Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497–1543) continues to fascinate visitors to the National Gallery. It is a ‘memento mori’ as well as a double portrait – a reminder that however grand we are, we will die. The strange shape at the bottom of the picture is a human skull. The painting originally hung at the top of a flight of stairs – when looked at by someone standing below and slightly to the left of it, the shape assumes the correct proportions, a phenomenon known as anamorphism. Had the skull been placed among the objects between the two ambassadors, it would not have had the same impact, as viewers of Holbein’s period were very used to seeing skulls in still lifes. Here, it eerily asserts itself.

Editor's notes

‘Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance’
19 February – 11 May 2014
Sainsbury Wing, The National Gallery
Trafalgar Square, LondonWC2N 5DN
Open: 10a.m.–6p.m. (last admission 5.15p.m.)
Admission: Adults £7.00 (£8.00 including Gift Aid) Under-12s free with paying adult.

There is no exhibition catalogue. An informative book (£9.99) Strange Beauty: German Paintings at the National Gallery, written by Caroline Bugler (National Gallery Company Limited, 2014), is available.

‘Strange Beauty’ is the first of three exhibitions in the National Gallery’s ‘Renaissance Spring’ season of Renaissance art. Coming soon are ‘Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Vienna’ (19 March–15 June 2014), and ‘Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting’ (30 April–21 September 2014).

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