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Master of the Liechtenstein Adoration

(active in the Southern Netherlands (?), circa 1550)

Soldiers Discovering the Body of Holofernes. Pen and black ink, grey wash, heightened with white gouache, on brownish laid paper. 19.3 x 29.7 cm.

The present sheet with its powerful and dramatic composition is a recent addition to the small corpus of drawings by the Master of the Liechtenstein Adoration, whose outstanding ability and unique style distinguish him from his fellow artists in mid-16th century Northern Europe.

This mysterious and gifted master has long eluded identification. The notname Master of the Liechtenstein Adoration was first introduced by Friedrich Winkler in 1963 when he was reviewing a group of sixteenth-century drawings with biblical scenes, most of which belonged to the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein in Vaduz (and before that in Vienna) until they were sold in 1948 (“The Anonymous Liechtenstein Master”, in: Master Drawings, 1963, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 34–38). The drawings by this anonymous artist, numbering around twenty in all, have now been dispersed over several collections. The majority are executed in pen and black ink with white heightening on paper in opaque colours ranging from lilac to deep purple and brown. Virtually all the works by the artist are executed in the same distinctive, easily recognizable style with figures in highly expressive poses and bold foreshortening. Furthermore, his compositions often have a compelling perspective with an effective use of chiaroscuro that is comparable to works by artists active in the Southern Netherlands such as Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502–1562), although there is also an affinity with the South German Danube School.    

Apart from the present drawing the artist produced at least two other versions of Soldiers Discovering the Body of Holofernes. One of them, executed with the master’s characteristic lilac preparation, is in the collection of The Art Institute Chicago (inv. no. 1999.683). The other, made with a brownish preparation similar to that used in the present drawing and comparable to it in stylistic and compositional terms, is now in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden (inv. no. C1966–60).

The theme of the discovery of the beheaded body of Holofernes is rare in Northern European art before 1550 and our anonymous master impressively displays his great originality of invention by presenting three different but equally striking versions of it. The correlation between the three sheets is also underlined by the fact that they are of almost the same dimensions. While the purpose of the drawings remains unclear, they provide clear evidence of a highly expressive and intriguing artistic personality.

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