The Death of Aeschylus

Tobias Verhaecht Netherlandish

Not on view

According to legend, the Greek playwright Aeschylus met a tragic death: one day, an eagle that had just caught a tortoise mistook Aeschylus’s bald head for a shiny rock, and accidentally killed the author by dropping the animal onto him. Tobias Verhaecht depicted this bizarre event in this drawing that was probably intended as a design for a stained glass window. In the upper left, the eagle hovers above the unsuspecting writer, sitting by the waterside.

The narrative occupies only a small part of the composition, for the circular drawing is dominated mainly by the outstretched coastal landscape. This is typical feature of the art of the time, as landscape was increasingly given greater prominence relative to biblical or historical narratives, and would eventually develop into an independent genre. The bird’s eye perspective with its high horizon equally was a common compositional structure in sixteenth-century Netherlandish landscape art, and caused them to be referred to as ‘world landscapes’ in art historical literature.

An exact copy of Verhaecht’s Death of Aeschylus by his pupil, Pieter Houck (active 1603–29) is in the collection of Göttingen University.[1] It carries the inscription "Peeter houck ghescreven te Lange Steijn den 24 April A. 1606" ("Written by Peeter Houck at Lange Steijn, the 24th of April 1606". "Gheschreven" or "written" refers to the process of painting stained glass, and thus indicates that the composition was meant as a design of a window. The inscription led Wolfgang Stechow to conclude that our drawing would have served the same purpose. The date 1606 provides a terminus ante quem for a date of manufacture of our roundel.[1] A relatable drawing, depicting the Old Testament story of Jonah and the Whale, of almost the same size is in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin (inv. no. 3895).

Verhaecht’s work is highly recognizable because of the vigorous and broad pen strokes he uses in foreground scenes, and his application of typical brown and blue washes. In this drawing, these media are cunningly used to obtain the suggestion of depth: as the landscape recedes into the distance, pen lines become more delicate and thin. The washes are used to make a distinction between the consequent planes in the landscape, equally reinforcing the illusion of recession in space.

[1] Pieter Houck, Death of Aeschylus, pen and brown ink, with brown and blue wash and bodycolor, 270 mm. diameter. Cf. G. Unverfehrt (ed.), Zeichnungen von Meisterhand. Die Sammlung Uffenbach, [exh. cat.] Göttingen (Kunstsammlung der Universität Göttingen), 2000, pp. 94–95, cat. no 29.

[2] W. Stechow, ‘Verhaecht and Houck, Teacher and Pupil’, Master Drawings XIII, no. 2, Summer 1975, p. 146.

The Death of Aeschylus, Tobias Verhaecht (Netherlandish, Antwerp 1561–1631 Antwerp), Pen and brown ink, brown and blue wash

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