Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Virgin and Child

Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg)
Oil on spruce
11 x 7 3/8 in. (27.9 x 18.7 cm); set in panel 11 x 8 1/4 in. (27.9 x 22.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
Accession Number:
Not on view
At first glance, this small painting seems to represent simply the Virgin’s loving attention to her Child, wriggling on her lap. Certain details, however, subtly foreshadow Christ’s sacrifice: Mary’s red dress and cloak signal the color of Christ’s Passion, and her right hand, which is gripping the cloth taut beneath the Child, recalls the actions of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who supported the weight of the dead Christ on a white burial shroud after the Deposition from the cross. The paint surface is unfortunately severely abraded, but what little remains of its original appearance supports Dürer’s authorship.

Dürer’s authorship of this painting has been challenged, even though the monogram and date of 1516 appear autograph and are integral with the original paint layers. After seeing the panel in the 1928 Nuremberg exhibition, Max J. Friedländer, followed by Friedrich Winkler, accepted the attribution to Dürer. However, by 1938 Gustav Glück, along with Hans Tietze and Erika Tietze-Conrat, had registered doubts and considered it to be an imitation or forgery; Erwin Panofsky also questioned it. The debate has continued to the present day. Complicating the question is the severely compromised condition of the picture. A photograph published in the catalogue of the 1906 exhibition "Early German Art" shows it as heavily overpainted before it was cleaned and restored first by Alois Hauser the Younger under Friedländer’s supervision, sometime before 1936, and again around 1945 by Murray Pease at the Metropolitan Museum. Today the work is a ghost of its former self, but its quality and its specific association with Dürer’s works in other media support an attribution to the master himself.

This diminutive panel belongs to a group of paintings, drawings, and prints, most notably from the second decade of the sixteenth century, in which Dürer considered the theme of the Virgin and Child. There are a number of pen-and-ink sketches from that period depicting the wriggling infant on his mother’s lap, including drawings in the Seattle Art Museum, dating to about 1514; at Windsor Castle, dated 1515; and in the Albertina, Vienna, of 1512. In these, as in The Holy Family, a drypoint of 1513, Dürer favored a particular pose for the Virgin—often looking down lovingly upon her child, with tilted head and heavy-lidded eyes—an attitude especially close to that of the Museum’s Virgin. Also, as in this painting, the drypoint shows the Child’s neck largely hidden by his bulbous head, which is peculiarly perched between his shoulders and awkwardly protruding arms. In all these examples, dating from approximately the same years, the Child’s pudgy arms and legs emerge animatedly from his stocky torso, as Dürer convincingly captures the essence of a squirming baby.

Parallels to the Museum’s picture are also found among Dürer’s other paintings. The pose of the Virgin’s head (even her slightly open, smiling mouth), the small size of the panel, and the intimate nature of the scene recall his Virgin and Child of about 1503 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Despite considerable differences in their states of preservation, the present work and the Museum’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (MMA 14.40.633) show distinct similarities in style and in particular details of handling and execution. In each, the Virgin’s attitude is one of quiet reverence toward her child. There are close parallels in the angle of the tilt of Mary’s head and her physiognomy in both paintings: a prominent forehead, heavy-lidded, downcast eyes, a long, straight nose, full lips in a hint of a smile, and a round, protruding chin. Both show Dürer’s interest in robust, even swollen, forms for the Christ Child, especially in the hands and fingers. The shift in hue of the Virgin’s attire from a pale rose to a deeply saturated red (left to right across the upper torso) is subtly achieved in each. The oddly crinkled cloth beneath the Christ Child in this work is paralleled by the white draperies at Saint Anne’s neck and across her upper torso.

Subtle differences between Dürer’s images of the Virgin and Child from this period not only reveal his various approaches to the subject but also illuminate gradations in meaning. At first glance, the Museum’s painting appears to represent simply a mother’s loving attention to her lively child, but certain details suggest that a deeper meaning is intended. The Virgin’s red dress and cloak signal the color of Christ’s Passion. The nakedness of the Child, with his genitals exposed, emphasizes the human nature of the divine Son of God. Mary’s right hand, positioned to hold the white cloth taut beneath the Child, recalls the actions of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who supported the weight of the dead Christ on a white burial shroud after the Deposition from the Cross. This complex conflation of Christ’s infancy with his adult sacrifice is a theme that Dürer portrayed more than once during these years. In fact, the drypoint mentioned above presents this subject even more directly, anachronistically including Mary Magdalen, John the Evangelist, and Nicodemus as observers of the young Holy Family. More than a simple depiction of daily life, then, this panel perhaps subtly foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice and death on the Cross.

[2013; from Ainsworth 2013]
The support is composed of two boards of spruce and has been trimmed on all sides. The panel has been attached to a secondary support made of three horizontal pieces of oak and a tertiary support comprising two vertical pieces of oak, beveled along the perimeter and thickly coated with wax. On the recto, two wooden inserts coated with gesso flank the original panel. There is a very slight convex transverse warp in the original panel. A long split extends from the top through the Virgin’s forehead into her left eye. Additionally, at the right, there are two short splits, one extending from the top edge, the other from the bottom edge.
The ground preparation is white. Examination of the x-radiograph (see Additional Images, fig. 1) and the edges of the small losses revealed what appeared to be a priming layer containing lead white. The paint surface is severely abraded from harsh cleaning, and there are large losses in the Virgin’s arm at the right as well as losses associated with the long split described above. The flesh is patchy, and the modeling throughout almost completely effaced. Facial details are badly abraded, although two tiny opaque red strokes in the Virgin’s mouth are visible with magnification, as are tiny black fragments of her eyelashes. Finely painted light yellow details, including the signature and date, the nimbus, and the highlights in the hair of the Virgin and Child, have survived somewhat intact. The green background and the cloth beneath the Christ Child are, by comparison with the whole, relatively well preserved.
Infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 2) revealed two types of underdrawing in a fluid medium: one, describing the contours, is broad and confident with tapering ends characteristic of the use of a brush; the other, more faintly visible (describing the hair, for example) is finer and more detailed.
[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Signed and dated (right center): 1516 / AD [monogram]
Friedrich Lippmann, Berlin; Dominic Ellis Colnaghi, London (by 1906–?at least 1909); J. Pierpont Morgan, New York (until d. 1913; his estate, 1913–17)
London. Burlington Fine Arts Club. "Early German Art," 1906, no. 30 (as by Dürer, lent by Dominic Colnaghi).

Nuremberg. Germanisches Museum. "Albrecht Dürer Ausstellung," April–September 1928, no. 109 (as by Dürer).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Gerard David: Flanders's Last Medieval Master," April 1–May 9, 1972, no catalogue?

[Max J.] Friedländer. "Die Ausstellung altdeutscher Kunst im Burlington Fine Arts Club zu London—Sommer 1906." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 29 (1906), p. 586, as the original by Dürer on which the ruin in the Reichel collection is based.

Charles Ricketts. "German Art: Dürer & His Successors." Burlington Magazine 9 (July 1906), p. 267, calls it "a damaged and humble copy of a poor and lost orginal".

Early German Art. Exh. cat., Burlington Fine Arts Club. London, 1906, p. 91, no. 30, pl. XVIII, as "evidently the original of a badly damaged copy " in the collection of Carl Anton Reichel in Grossgmain since 1904; states that the MMA work "is in a good state of preservation"; notes that it was formerly in the F. Lippmann collection.

Gustav Glück. "Fälschungen auf Dürers Namen aus der Sammlung Erzherzog Leopold Wilhelms." Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des allerhöchsten kaiserhauses 28 (1909–10), p. 16, fig. 12 [reprinted in "Aus drei Jahrhunderten europäischer Malerei," Vienna, 1933, vol. 2, pp. 235–36, fig. 99], considers it and the Reichel picture forgeries; finds the Virgin's head identical with one in a painting in Graz that he calls a copy of a copy.

Theodor von Frimmel. Lexikon der Wiener Gemäldesammlungen. Vol. 2, Munich, 1914, p. 544, as a copy after the Reichel picture.

Max J. Friedländer in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Ulrich Thieme. Vol. 10, Leipzig, 1914, p. 69, as by Dürer.

"The Pierpont Morgan Gift." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 13 (January 1918), p. 17, as by an unknown German artist of the sixteenth century.

Pierre du Colombier. Albert Dürer. Paris, 1927, p. 175, judging by photographs, states that it appears to be quite ruined.

Eduard Flechsig. Albrecht Dürer, sein Leben und seine künstlerische Entwickelung. Vol. 1, Berlin, 1928, p. 434.

Max J. Friedländer in "Die Gemälde Dürers auf der nürnberger Ausstellung." Albrecht Dürer, Festschrift der internationalen Dürer-Forschung. Leipzig, 1928, p. 11, ill. p. 9, groups it among tolerably well-preserved paintings by Dürer dating between 1510 and 1520.

Friedrich Winkler. Dürer, des Meisters Gemälde Kupferstiche und Holzschnitte. Stuttgart, [1928], pp. 416, 444, 450, ill. p. 63, as by Dürer.

Bryson Burroughs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Catalogue of Paintings. 9th ed. New York, 1931, p. 107, as by Dürer.

Eduard Flechsig. Albrecht Dürer, sein Leben und seine künstlerische Entwicklung. Vol. 2, Berlin, 1931, p. 587, no. 953.

Hans Tietze. "Dürer in Amerika." Anzeiger des germanischen Nationalmuseums (1932–33), p. 94 [reprinted in Art Bulletin 15 (September 1933), p. 264, fig. 19], rejects the attribution to Dürer, stating that the elements of his style were combined here by a feeble imitator.

Emil Waldmann. Albrecht Dürer: Sein Leben und seine Kunst. Leipzig, [1933], p. 138, pl. 139.

Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, pp. 54–55, no. 203, questions its authenticity.

Max J. Friedlaender. "The Literature of Art: A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections, by Charles L. Kuhn [1936]." Burlington Magazine 69 (July 1936), p. 44, maintains its authenticity; states that it was restored under his own supervision and that the removal of overpainting revealed its genuineness.

Hans Tietze and E. Tietze-Conrat. Kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke Albrecht Dürers. part 2, Vol. 2, Basel, 1938, p. 79, no. A196, ill. p. 218, as an imitation.

Erwin Panofsky. Albrecht Dürer. Princeton, 1943, vol. 2, p. 11, no. 33, questions the authenticity and the inscribed date.

Erwin Panofsky. Letter to Margaretta Salinger. March 29, 1946, calls it "a kind of pasticcio, possibly late-sixteenth century".

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 184–86, ill., attribute it to Dürer, calling the Reichel version a copy after it.

Erwin Panofsky. Albrecht Dürer. 3rd ed. [1st ed. 1943]. Princeton, 1948, vol. 2, p. 11, no. 33, notes that "a recent cleaning emphasized rather than lessened the discrepancy that exists between the style of the picture and the elaborate inscription".

H[einrich]. Th[eodor]. Musper. Albrecht Dürer: Der gegenwärtige Stand der Forschung. Stuttgart, 1953, p. 224, regards it as hardly to be considered an original work by Dürer, perhaps a repetition of an early work.

Friedrich Winkler. Albrecht Dürer: Leben und Werk. Berlin, 1957, p. 262 n. 1, considers it difficult to make a pronouncement, noting great weakness in the execution of the lower part, especially the head and thigh of the Christ Child; states that the Virgin's head, the signature, and the date appear authentic.

Angela Ottino della Chiesa. The Complete Paintings of Dürer. New York, 1968, p. 110, no. 149, ill.

Fedja Anzelewsky. Albrecht Dürer: Das Malerische Werk. Berlin, 1971, pp. 238–39, 245, no. 127, pl. 156, favors an attribution to Dürer, noting the delicate cross-hatched underdrawing.

Wolfgang Stechow. "Recent Dürer Studies." Art Bulletin 56 (June 1974), p. 261.

Peter Strieder. Dürer. Milan, 1976, p. 185, no. 47, ill. [English ed., "The Hidden Dürer," Chicago, 1978].

Fedja Anzelewsky. Albrecht Dürer: Das Malerische Werk. rev. ed. [first ed., 1971]. Berlin, 1991, text vol., pp. 244–45, 250, no. 127; plate vol., colorpl. 153.

M[atthias]. Mende in Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon: die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker. Vol. 30, Munich, 2001, p. 301.

Peter Klein. Letter to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. April 3, 2006, states that both the original panel and the right addition are made of spruce wood.

Philipp Zitzlsperger. Dürers Pelz und das Recht im Bild: Kleiderkunde als Methode der Kunstgeschichte. Berlin, 2008, p. 82, attributes it to Dürer and notes that in our panel and the Madonna with a Pink (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, also of 1516, he has largely succeeded in the handling of sfumato modeling.

Maryan W. Ainsworth in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 110–12, 296–97, no. 24, ill. (color) and fig. 95 (overpainted state).

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