Albrecht Dürer, The Virgin and Child with a Flower on a grassy Bench, c.1503. Agnews, London.
It’s not every day that a new drawing by a great master comes along, nor that, when it does, you have a chance to buy it. Sadly, it might just be beyond my reach, but instead I will – and did – have a close look. It’s a perfect way to start thinking about one of the greatest German artists, about whom I will be talking on Tuesday (14 December) in an introduction to the National Gallery’s monumental exhibition Dürer’s Journeys. As ever, details of this and subsequent talks and travels are listed on the diary page of my website. I showed you this image last week, to give you more of a chance to go and see the original first hand at Agnews in London (6 St James’s Place), but as today (Friday 10 December) is the last day that you will be able to do this with any ease, if you haven’t been, by now I am imagining it will be too late.
A pity, it was quite magical to ring on the door bell, and be welcomed in. Along the corridor on the right a dark room opened up with this gem glowing on the opposite wall. The drawing shows the Virgin Mary seated on a grassy bench, effectively a raised flower bed, common to gardens at the time, if their frequency in religious paintings of the 15th and 16th Centuries is anything to go by. As a result, Mary is effectively seated upon the earth – or humus – implying that this is a form of ‘Madonna of Humility’ – and yes, ‘humility’ literally means ‘down to earth’. It is a standard form of iconography, although in its usual formulation, Mary shown seated on the ground. However, as the ground is raised in this example, it is also a version of another common image, the ‘Madonna Enthroned.’ Interpreted this way, the drawing is a rather clever elision of the two. This is not Dürer’s invention – a painting in the style of Martin Schongauer in the National Gallery, dated, rather broadly, 1469-91, demonstrates as much. However, it is a theme that Dürer returned to often: together with the ‘Schongauer’ I am showing you an engraving dated c. 1495 from the British Museum.
The bench is constructed, it would seem, from two planks – a relatively narrow one at the top, and below it a hefty slab of wood, sawn from an enormous trunk. They are held in place at either end by a post. Each is a humble affair, a short length of a modest branch – but the attention to naturalistic detail is superb. The upper plank is broken, and has been repaired, the curving edge of the break echoing the fall of the Virgin’s draperies.
Most unusually, the Christ Child’s body faces away from us, and he turns back to look at his mother over his right shoulder. With his left leg in front of his right, it is almost as if he is starting to walk away from her – but maybe I am just reading forward some two decades to when Dürer travelled to the Low Countries and saw Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, in which Jesus is stepping down from his mother’s lap, while simultaneously clinging to her hand. Dürer’s child holds the long stem of a flower, undoubtedly a reference to the Passion, but it is evoked with such brilliant spontaneity – and so few lines – that there is no possibility of identifying which species Dürer intended it to be. Mary supports her son with her right hand, and he leans gently on it – or perhaps she is preventing him from leaving. She holds a cloth which wraps around her hand, under his arm and around his back, but she doesn’t touch his flesh – like a priest holding a monstrance. The other end of the cloth is held in her left hand – his swaddling clothes, perhaps, but also a foreshadowing of the shroud. Her left forefinger is marked with curious rings – curious, that is, until you realise (and it took me a while) that Dürer is telling us that the end of the finger is in the shadow, as is what we see of Christ’s face, the lower half of his back and his delightfully pudgy bottom, which seems to rest ever so softly against Mary’s fully-lit hand. Her head tilts to one side, as if musing on her experience, as she did after the visit of the Shepherds at the Nativity: ‘…Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,’ (Luke 2:19).
There are two faint, parallel, vertical lines on the left of the detail above, the one further left rising from the angular fold at the edge of Mary’s drapery, next to the grass. These are part of the watermark in the paper, vital for authenticating the drawing, as we shall see below.
You have probably read about it already, as there have been articles in much of the press and across social media. It was bought at a house clearance sale for $30, only later to be identified as an original, and authenticated by Christof Metzger, a curator at the Albertina in Vienna (which has one of the world’s best collections of drawings), who will include it in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Dürer’s work. There were various barriers to this identification, not the least of which was that it only cost $30 – how could it be the real thing for that price? And then, by the time it was bought it had been covered in a coloured wash, which might have been added to give a sense of aging to the paper, to make it seem more like an ‘antique’. This would be a clear sign that it was a forgery, made with the intention to deceive. However, this ‘wash’ has been successfully removed, and although the sheet was cut down at an unknown date, it is in a remarkably good condition. It is drawn with pen and ink on a fine linen paper which has a watermark made up of a trident – which explains the two vertical lines (a third is ‘behind’ the drawing) and a ball, or ring, an emblem used by the Fugger family in Augsburg who owned (among other things) a paper mill. There are more than 200 sheets of this paper used by Dürer which survive. The trident can be seen more clearly above the drapery in the lower left half of a drawing in the British museum, which I am showing you to the right of the Agnews version of the same subject.
The form of the signature – the monogram ‘AD’ – is almost identical, with the horizontal of ‘A’ and the ‘D’ doubled in both examples, and similar flourishes at the top left and right. Together with the similarity in the theme, this has suggested a date of c. 1503 for the newly-authenticated drawing.
What was the purpose of this study? It might have been Dürer playing around, trying out ideas – throughout his career he created over 100 images of the Madonna and Child in different media. Or it could have been him developing those ideas for a larger work. Agnews suggest that the Madonna with a Multitude of Animals (seen on the left below), which Metzger has dated to 1506, is one possibility, although, as far as I can see, the National Gallery’s Madonna with the Iris would be another. Although designed by Dürer, it seems to have been painted by members of his workshop while he was away in Venice. But I will talk more about that painting when I discuss Dürer’s Journeys this coming Tuesday.
In the meantime, Agnews will sell the drawing by private sale, not at an auction, so if you are interested you’d better get in there quick. You could see it this afternoon, if you can be that spontaneous, and you might even get in at the weekend, although as the National Gallery is hosting a Dürer conference the world’s experts would probably get in the way. It will then go on show at Colnaghi in New York from 20-30 January next year, so if you are Stateside you could see it there. One thing though – start saving now. It may have been bought for $30, but one estimate of the sale price is in the region of $50 million.