Adam Elsheimer

I try to avoid exhibitions during the festival – unlike live performances, many of the exhibitions carry on into October or later (this year, one exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is on until January).  This show, however, closes tomorrow, so I decided to make the most of having free time in Edinburgh to go and see it.

It was an exhibition of paintings by Adam Elsheimer, an artist I had never heard of until this summer.  Born in Frankfurt in 1578, he painted in Venice and Rome until he died aged just 32.

He painted in oils on copper – apparently not unusual, since copper was readily available around artists studios where they most commonly used it for print making.  It meant most of the pictures were small, though; and some were tiny, little more than miniatures.

Despite their size, the pictures were full of detail: so much so that visitors to the gallery were given credit card-sized plastic magnifying glasses so explore the pictures.

They were exquisite: dark, rich colours depicting religious or mythological stories.  He painted “Tobias and the Angel” several times, and seemed to like rather gory mythological tales like “Apollo and Coronis”.  Actually, the religious paintings were probably more gory – “Judith and Holofernes” (she is pictured slitting his throat) and a very graphic “The Beheading of St John the Baptist” (Salome with a large salver receiving the gift!).

The real pleasure lay in the backgrounds: the leaves on the trees, the ripples on the water, the stars and clouds in the sky.  (According to the blurb, there are microscopic brush strokes around the stars which aren’t clearly visible with the naked eye – you need a lens or a microscope – and these lines make the stars “shine”).

The pictures’ size did feel limiting though: I was constantly peering deeper into the pictures, straining to see more.


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