Portrait of a Man and His Wife by Ulrich Apt the Elder

Portrait of a Man and His Wife by Ulrich Apt and Workshop (1521)Queen's Gallery London
Portrait of a Man and His Wife by Ulrich Apt and Workshop (1521)
Queen’s Gallery London

My featured artist today is probably unknown to most of you as he was to me.  He is the late Gothic painter Ulrich Apt the Elder, who was born in Augsburg around 1460.  The work I am featuring today fascinated me when I saw it the other day at the Northern Renaissance Dürer to Holbein exhibition, which is being held at the Queen’s Gallery in London and runs until April 14th 2013.  It is a wonderful exhibition and one I can thoroughly recommend.

Ulrich Apt the Elder was the fourth son of the German painter Peter Apt who trained and worked in the German city of Augsburg.    Little has been written about the artist but we do know from documents that he became an independent master at the age of twenty-one and became an important member of the Guild of Painters, Glaziers, Carvers and Gilders.  He concentrated on religious commissions and it is thought that his first major commission he obtained was in 1491 when he completed a very large fresco of St. Christopher in the Augsburg Cathedral.   He also accepted many portraiture commissions from the leading citizens of Augsburg society, who were enamoured by his conservative style. He was given a very important and lucrative commission from the city of Augsburg in 1516 for frescoes to decorate their town hall.  It is known that Ulrich had built up his business to such an extent that he had all but established a monopoly in mural painting in Augsburg, and from his tax records it can be seen that his business thrived and he had become extremely wealthy.  His three sons worked with him and he trained several Augsburg artists of the next generation.   There has been much discussion amongst art historians as to who actually painted the various works which came from the workshop as a number were done collaboratively and a number of the painters including those of his family had similar styles.    Apt’s eldest son Jacob became an independent master in 1510 and died in 1518.  The second, Ulrich Apt the Younger, was active as a painter in 1512 and continued until 1520.  The youngest, Michael, became a master in 1520 and is documented working as a painter until 1527.    It is thought that during his lifetime he made many journeys to the Low Countries and it is following these visits that his artistic style became noticeably more predisposed towards Netherlandish painting.   Ulrich Apt the Elder’s works, because of this, began to influence other Augsburg artists of the time.  Apt’s studio decided to follow the Netherlandish manner and tradition.  However not all of his contemporary artists from Germany followed this artistic path, for painters such as Hans Holbein the Elder and Hans Burgkmair favoured, and were influenced by, the works of Italian painters, particularly those from Venice

My Daily Art Display’s featured oil on limewood work today is entitled Portrait of a Man and His Wife and was completed in 1512.  In all, the artist painted three versions of this work.  One may wonder why he should do that and the answer could well lie with why the picture was painted in the first place.   It is thought to be a painting to commemorate a wedding and therefore, as we do nowadays, commemorative copies celebrating the marriage were given as gifts to various close relations as well as one being kept by the happy couple.  One copy of the painting is now held in a prívate collection, one is now owned by the Queen of England, having been first acquired for the collection of King Charles I, who received the painting as a gift from Sir Henry Vane, the Comptroller and then Treasurer of the King’s Household.   A third version is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which acquired their painting in 1912.

In the painting we see the bride and groom, behind which there is a landscape in which there is a centrally positioned church.  Bearing in mind the date of the painting and the fact that it was carried out in Augsburg, art historians believe it to be the wedding of Lorenz Kraffter and Honesta Merz, a couple, who went on to have nine children.  The groom was the son of James Lindsay of Crafford who immigrated to Augsburg from Scotland.   What is interesting to note is the positioning of the man and woman in relationship to the background landscape.  The man is placed in the middle of the finely and beautifully detailed landscape with a castle shown at his back.  From this, we are to deem that this man is of great importance and holds at position of great consequence in Augsburg society – a “man of the world”.  However, look at how the artist has positioned the bride.  She is placed against a blank and dark wall which alludes to her role in life, that of domesticity and enclosure within the marital home.  The landscape in both paintings is criss-crossed by narrow winding paths and two meandering rivers, which curve around the church and castle.  In the New York version the river is given a bluish tone.   Another interesting aspect of the paintings is the three sets of numbers, two of which one can see on the lower sill of the window.  They are “52,  “35”  and “1512” which although not clearly shown in my attached pictures is plainly on view in the painting I stood in front of, and is in between and above the two other numbers.  The “52” indicates the age of the man whilst the “35” denotes the age of the woman and the “1512” alludes to the date the painting was completed by the artist.  The husband is dressed sumptuously in a gown lined with marten and the manner in which he is dressed denotes his high-standing in the local society

The incorporation of a detailed landscape view seen through a window has probably derived from artists such as Hans Memling and its inclusion in this work highlights the power of the Netherlandish influence on the artists of Augsburg in the latter part of the fifteenth century.  Hans Holbein the Elder, another Augsburg painter, would often incorporate architectural settings in his portraits. Although this is essentially a wedding portrait and the focus of the painting is the bride and groom, look at how Ulrich has spent much time in the fine painstaking details of the background landscape with its trees and buildings.

Although I cannot find a picture of the third copy of this painting it is easy to see the differences in the two paintings on offer today, which may lead one to believe that different artists in Ulrich Apt the Elder’s workshop may have had some part in the execution of the works.   A tracing for the figures was obviously shared since they match almost perfectly.  The one in the privately owned Schroder collection is said to be of the highest quality and it is believed that all of that work was carried out by Ulrich Apt himself.  The version held in the Royal Collection, which was previously considered to be a seventeenth-century copy of that in the Schroder collection, has revealed that after recent cleaning and conservation work, it is a very good version by Apt and his workshop.

Originally thought to be by Quinten Massys, and at the end of the seventeenth century it was attributed to Holbein the Younger and furthermore, in the nineteenth century it was thought to be a portrait of his parents. However in 1928, the German art historian Karl Feuchtmayr identified the artist as Ulrich Apt.

Portrait of a Man and His Wife by Ulrich Apt the Elder (1512)Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Portrait of a Man and His Wife by Ulrich Apt the Elder (1512)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s copy, shown above, is different in a number of ways to the one held in the Royal Collection.   The first and most obvious difference is the colour of the woman’s dress.   In the Royal collection she is wearing a dress, the color of which is drab brown, whereas in the New York painting it is light turquoise.   According to the MMA, their copy of the painting has been severely overcleaned in the flesh tones. They also comment that splits that run horizontally across the panel at the levels of the sitters’s mouths and foreheads have been filled and in-painted.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

2 thoughts on “Portrait of a Man and His Wife by Ulrich Apt the Elder”

  1. Thanks for this, Jonathan.We were at the exhibition last week and noticed particularly this painting so it was good to read more about it.

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