Adam Elsheimer
Biography/Paintings of German Mannerist/Baroque Landscape Painter.

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Flight into Egypt (1609)
Alte Pinakothek Museum, Munich

For an idea of the pigments
used by Adam Elsheimer
in his colour painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610)

An influential German Mannerist/Baroque painter and engraver, active mainly in Italy, Adam Elsheimer specialised in landscape painting, - often with enough narrative content to justify calling it history painting. These small, highly finished works were often painted on copper. Influenced in his youth by the Dutch painter Gillis van Coninxloo (1544-1606), whose panoramic true-to-life landscapes were an important precursor of 17th-century Dutch painting, Elsheimer's early style of Mannerism became lighter and more colourful when he settled in Italy at the age of 20. Sadly, few of Elsheimer's works survive, partly because of his untimely death at the age of 32. Nevertheless, he was one of the most promising exponents of German Baroque art and played a significant role in the development of 17th century landscape art - notably in the depiction of light and shade (his nocturnal scenes occupied a mid-ground between pure chiaroscuro and pure tenebrism.) - and influenced numerous important Old Masters including Rubens, Rembrandt and Claude Lorrain. His most famous surviving paintings are Flight into Egypt (1609, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and The Baptism of Christ (1599, National Gallery, London).

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Early Life and Studies

Elsheimer was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1578. His family lived close to the church containing the Heller Altarpiece by Albrecht Durer. Little is known of Elsheimer’s early life except that he became an apprentice to the artist Philipp Uffenbach (1566-1636) - the only surviving work of Uffenbach is a realistic self-portrait from 1591. It was not until 1598, when Elsheimer travelled to Italy, that he first became documented. To begin with he worked in Venice, assisting the German artist Hans Rottenhammer (1564–1625). Rottenhammer came from Munich where he had studied under Hans Donauer the Elder and had settled in Venice in 1595. In Venice, Rottenhammer gradually established a reputation for his highly polished cabinet paintings on copper, and also his religious paintings. In addition, he painted rich landscapes in the style of Tintoretto, and it was this passion that he passed to his student Elsheimer.


Rome and Bamboccianti

Rottenhammer introduced Elsheimer to the early members of the Bamboccianti, a group of Northern European artists that were living in Rome. The Bamboccianti specialised in genre-painting. They were mostly Dutch and Flemish and practised traditional Netherlandish Art, depicting peasants in natural landscapes. They also created small cabinet paintings and etchings from everyday life of the working classes. Many of the artists were also members of the Bentvueghels arts group (Dutch for 'Birds of a Feather') which included painters, sculptors and poets. The Bamboccianti included the artists Karel Dujardin, Johannes Lingelbach, Thomas Wijck, Dirck Helmbreker and Jacob van Staveren. The group went on to influence Rococo artists Giacomo Ceruti, Alessandro Magnasco and Antonio Cifrondi. Rottenhammer introduced Elsheimer to Paul Brill, a Flemish artist part of the Bamboccianti, and the two became close friends. Elsheimer may also have known about the paintings of Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) and the Danube School of landscape painting (c.1490-1530), which may have influenced him.

Venetian Paintings

While in Venice, Elsheimer produced some important works, including The Baptism of Christ (1599, National Gallery, London) and The Holy Family (c.1600, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin). These first paintings show influences of his Master Rottenhammer, and the Venetian painters Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), in composition, colour and brushstroke. Elsheimer's painting Saint Paul on Malta (c.1600, National Gallery, London) shows a highly evocative night scene, where Saint Paul and his companions are shipwrecked on an island. According to the bible, the event happened during the day, but Elsheimer must have preferred to experiment with night landscapes.

Rome Paintings

In early 1600, Elsheimer arrived in Rome and, using Rottenhammer's contacts, became friends with a large circle of artists, including Paul Brill, who introduced him to Rubens, and Ruben's pupil David Teniers the Elder. Apparently Rubens berated Elsheimer for not producing enough works. Around 1604 the author Karel van Mander, returning from Rome published his book Schilder-Boeck, praising Elsheimer's paintings. The writer described the artist as a slow worker, who sketched few drawings and spent most of his time in churches studying the religious paintings. In 1606 Elsheimer painted Aurora (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum) and in 1607 Apollo and Coronis (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).

Flight into Egypt

Painted in 1609, oil on Copper (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), Flight into Egypt is perhaps Elsheimer's most famous work. Small in scale, it is a beautiful night scene. There are four sources of light which illuminate the landscape, the moon, the moon's reflection in the water, a campfire and a torch in the hand of Joseph, who is leading a donkey with Mary and the child. The eye is drawn from the moon, down to the lake, across to the Holy Family and then finally settles on the camp fire. The artist has managed to simultaneously create a sense of danger and comfort, by means of light, shadow and values poised between tenebrism and chiaroscuro. One of the key components of the picture is the mastery with which he depicts the starry night. Not only can several constellations be discerned, but for perhaps the first time ever in a painting, the correct depiction of the Milky Way is displayed.

Limited Output of Paintings

According to some accounts Elsheimer suffered from depression, and would often go for long periods of time without painting. In all, only about 40 paintings can be attributed to him, including:

- Baptism of Christ (1599, National Gallery, London)
- Rest on Flight into Egypt (c.1599, State Museum, Berlin)
- Ceres and Stellio (c.1599, Prado Museum, Madrid)
- St Paul at Malta (c.1600, National Gallery, London)
- The Holy Family (c.1600, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin)
- Saint Paul on Malta (c.1600, National Gallery, London)
- Saint Lawrence prepared for Martyrdom (1600, National Gallery, London)
- The Burning of Troy (1601, Alte Pinakothek, Munich)
- Judith Beheading Holofernes (1601, Wellington Museum, London)
- Glorification of the Cross (c.1605, State Art Institute, Frankfurt)
- Aurora (1606, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum)
- Self-Portrait (1606-07, Uffizi, Florence)
- Apollo and Coronis (1607, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).
- Jacob's Dream (Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)
- Flight into Egypt (1609, Alte Pinakothek, Munich)
- Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis (1609 Gemaldegalerie, Dresden)
- Nymph Fleeing Satyrs (State Museum, Berlin)

Elsheimer was also an expert at etching, but these were not as successful as his paintings. In his own time, his works were popular and often copied by his contemporaries. Despite this, the artist died in poverty, having spent some time in prison for debts.


Although Elsheimer died young and his output was small he still played a key role in the development of 17th century landscape painting. He clearly influenced the next generation, including Rembrandt (1606-69), whose first dated work, The Stoning of St Stephen (1625, Musee des Beaux Arts, Lione) appears to be in direct response to a version by Elsheimer (1603, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). Rubens (1577-1640) and Claude Lorrain (1600-82), key figures in 17th century landscape painting, were also highly influenced by Elsheimer's style. Rubens was thought to have owned at least 4 of Elsheimer's paintings at one time. On hearing of Elsheimer's death, Rubens wrote: 'I have never seen his equal in the realm of small figures, of landscapes, and of so many other subjects.' Elsheimer's treatment of enlarging figures on the landscape, as in Apollo and Coronis (1607-08, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), anticipates Van Dyck and Rubens; as well as 18th century English figurative painting.


After his death, Adam Elsheimer became popular in the UK, King Charles I collected his work, and today nearly one third of his paintings can still be found in the UK. His works can also be found in some of the best art museums across Europe and America, including the Louvre, Paris; the Alte Pinakothek, Munich; the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; and the J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. In 2006 the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt; the National Gallery of Scotland and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London collaborated on bringing together Elsheimer’s surviving paintings together for the first time in history.

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