On the right of Adam Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt a full moon hangs above trees which are silhouetted against the night sky. Nothing ruffles the surface of the stream, which reflects both the trees and the carefully detailed face of the moon. A scattering of bright stars spreads to the Milky Way, which strikes across the sky from the top left corner. The wedge of trees which rises from right to the left is pitch black, but two other sources of light push back the darkness. In the centre foreground a mother and child on an ass are lit by the torch carried by a bearded man who holds his hand out towards the child. One can see that the ass has already entered the stream – the torchlight catches a ripple by its foot. On the far left, light from a fire two herdsmen have made carves a foliage-lined hollow out of the night, gilding at its edges the heads and flanks of animals and the surface of the stream. The only strong colour is Joseph’s red coat; the rest is moon-silver, pale fire-lit yellow, midnight blue or black. It is a small picture, so you lean forward to read it. You enter its space and wonder, item by item, what next? Will the moon rise or set? Will the family stop with the herdsmen? A picture like this is as close as a single frame can come to telling a sequential story. In the opening pages of The Woodlanders Thomas Hardy shows light pulling fragments of life out of darkness in much the same way. A stranger approaches a village: ‘they turned into a half-invisible little lane, whence, as it reached the verge of an eminence, could be discerned in the dusk, about half a mile to the right, gardens and orchards sunk in a concave, and, as it were, snipped out of the woodland.’ The lit windows are uncurtained; the stranger stops opposite each one, ‘endeavouring to conjecture, from the persons and things he observed within, the whereabouts of somebody or other who resided here’.
Elsheimer’s narrative inventions and peopled landscapes influenced both Rembrandt and Claude Lorraine. The Flight into Egypt, almost certainly the last thing he painted, is dated 1609 and he died a year later in Rome. When Rubens learned of his death he wrote: ‘our entire profession ought to clothe itself in mourning . . . in my opinion he had no equal in small figures, in landscapes . . . for myself, I have never felt my heart more pierced by grief than by this news.’
The narrative sources of Elsheimer’s pictures – the Bible, Ovid – are not esoteric, but he sought out obscure passages and he enriched contexts. These are some of his subjects: St Paul, a prisoner on his way to Rome, is shipwrecked near Malta. He and other prisoners reach the shore, where the inhabitants welcome them and light a fire to dry their clothes. A snake bites him as he collects wood. He throws it on the fire. He survives the bite and the people think he is a god. Latona, travelling with her twins, Apollo and Diana, stops to drink at a lake in Lycia. Peasants on the shore prevent her getting to the water and mock her. She turns them into frogs. Tobias, travelling with his dog and his guardian, the archangel Raphael, is attacked by a great fish while washing in the Tigris. The angel tells him to land the fish and take out its heart, liver and gall. He uses these to exorcise the demon that had bewitched his wife and to cure his father’s blindness. Coronis, Apollo’s pregnant lover, is unfaithful to him. He kills her with an arrow, and then regrets it, collects herbs but fails to revive her. His unborn son – he takes him from her womb – is brought up by Chiron and becomes Asclepius, god of medicine. Jupiter complains that the people on earth worship only Contento, god of contentment and happiness. He has Mercury visit a festival, abduct Contento and replace him with his twin brother, Discontento, dressed in Contento’s clothes.
It is in his pictures from stories like these that Elsheimer is most original; his brand of night-time poetry is not matched, even in the work of admirers who did grander and greater things. Not that he didn’t have his own debts, both to Northern painters, in particular Altdorfer, and to Italians (he was almost certainly in Venice in 1598, and was in Rome from 1600 until he died). They can be seen in work from his first few years as a mature painter where he showed that he could manage the twisting and overlapping bodies which set the rhythm in Baroque pictures. An early one, the National Gallery Baptism of Christ, is dominated by just such naked figures – John and Christ. They are not shown, however, in a corner of classical Tuscany but set against a scene of North European forest and mountains – a landscape like a stage backdrop. The backdrop shares none of the light which descends through a ring of dancing putti onto the central figures, who are so far downstage that it outlines them brightly from behind, leaving most of their faces and bodies in shadow. What we are offered is a tableau, and not, as in later pictures, a scene from a play. In the Baptism you see everything in a single flash of light; in The Flight into Egypt you sense that the actors have entered stage right and will exit stage left. In Il Contento downstage is occupied by a frieze of figures (including a naked courtesan carrying doves) who rush forward to stop Mercury abducting Contento, while another, distant frieze, dominated by a rider on a white horse, moves right. The foreground scene is dominated by temple lamplight, the background by daylight. Controlling sources of light is part of Elsheimer’s way of telling a story. Caravaggio used light to create shadows which edit out superfluity and make figures more legible. Elsheimer, in his most remarkable pictures, makes different kinds of light – daylight, firelight, lamplight, moonlight – elements in their own right.
Rarely has so great a contemporary professional reputation been won by an artist who produced so few pictures, and such little ones. The Flight into Egypt is small – 16 inches wide – but that is big for an Elsheimer. Of the 30-plus little paintings on copper securely attributed to him all but three are to be seen at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 3 December. (The self-portrait in the Uffizi is his only large painting on canvas.) Even this near complete showing of his surviving work puts no strain on the capacity of the long narrow space in which Dulwich hangs loan exhibitions.
Not a lot is known about him. He had friends among Rome’s most distinguished humanists and scientists, married the Scots-born widow of another painter, and died poor – after a spell in a debtors’ prison. Maybe Hendrick Goudt, who seems to have been a pupil and who engraved a number of his works and lent him money, had him put there. Goudt certainly claimed paintings he left when he died. The little that is known about his personality fits well with what you might guess from the pictures. In 1625 the Spanish painter Jusepe Martinez made a note of what he had heard about him:
He was very withdrawn and of an introspective disposition, so much so that he walked the streets as though in a trance, and spoke to no one who did not speak to him first. He thought himself a much less significant artist than he actually was; his friends rebuked him, telling him he should change his manner and have more confidence in himself, as was his due; his answer was always that he would follow their advice as soon as he found his works satisfactory.