For a long time an enigmatic master Bernhard Strigel, the best-known representative of a family of artists from Memmingen, can count on his guardian angels to rewrite his history.
Bernhard Strigel (1460–1528), Angel in a Yellow Tunic Holding a Censer, oak panel, 48.7 x 61 cm/19.17 x 24.02 in.
There is almost an air of déjà vu. However, thurifer angels, abundant in stained glass and sculpted decorations since the Middle Ages, are not legion in late Gothic German painting. If Angel Dressed in a Yellow Tunic Holding a Censer may seem familiar, it is because it is the counterpart to the Angel with a Censer mentioned by Laurence des Cars, in her book Louvre Abu Dhabi: naissance d'un musée published in 2013. Censing Angel, oil on panel by Bernhard Strigel, dated circa 1520, which once belonged to the engineer and painter Henri Rouart, made a notable appearance at the Hôtel Drouot in 2008 and was acquired by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Sold by Jean-Marc Delvaux with an estimate of €60,000/80,000, it fetched €1.1 million, an unbroken record for the artist. Like its counterpart Angel Dressed in a Yellow Tunic and Holding a Censer was hidden away in a French collection. Its story is like something out of a detective novel.
The Master of the Hirscher Collection was identified in 1881, when Wilhelm von Bode, the eminent curator of the Berlin Museum, found a long inscription on the back of a portrait of Johannes Cuspinian and his family, then owned by the Königliche Museen. The Latin text stated that Bernhard Strigel, artist and upstanding citizen of Memmingen, was summoned to Vienna in 1515 to paint Emperor Maximilian and his family based on the portrait of Alexander the Great Apelles painted with his left hand using a mirror. One of the first Germanic group portraits, the work is now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. In 1520, the painting belonged to humanist Johannes Cuspinian, one of Maximilian’s advisors and the city's prefect. During Strigel’s second stay in Vienna, Cuspinian suggested he use it as a template for his own family portrait.
On the Cusp of a New World
The 60-year-old painter from Memmingen was at the height of his powers thanks to his two stays in Vienna, where he steeped himself in works by Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung, Albrecht Altdorfer, and Joachim Patinir. This is clear in the landscape of Angel in a Yellow Tunic Holding a Censer. Although discolored by yellow varnish, the green and blue tones of the mountain and foliage, whose waves are highlighted by golden dots, add to the scene’s enigmatic and spiritual dimension. The lush nature is not entirely phantasmagorical since the miniature buildings under the angel's hand were common features of Germanic art at the period. During his two stays at the court of Vienna, Strigel gained self-confidence by studying works by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The prominence of the figure in Angel in a Yellow Tunic Holding a Censer and Angel with a Censer (Louvre Abu Dhabi) clearly set these two paintings apart from his earlier ones. A comparison with The Annunciation to Saint Anne (Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum), a work still very much influenced by Roger van der Weyden, speaks for itself. Memories inherited from the Middle Ages were fading away, and so were the lessons learned in the Strigel family studio, where this close friend of Bartolomeus Zeitblom long painted in the manner of Bouts. In 1520, Strigel’s work began to reflect the upheavals of his era, which, to quote Guillaume Frantzwa’s book published last year (Perrin), were on the cusp of a new world.
An Altarpiece Painted at the Dawn of the Reformation
A mystery lingers. Nothing about Strigel’s work has come out since the only monograph, published by Gertrud Otto in 1964. She was familiar with Angel with a Censer, which once featured in the collections of Henri Rouart and, later, Henry Lerolle. Otto established a link with four panels depicting Slumbering Soldiers from the Holy Sepulcher altarpiece that Strigel painted in 1521–1522 for a chapel in Memmingen’s Frauenkirche (three are now in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, one in the York City Art Gallery). The hypothesis sounds good but there is nothing to back it up, if not the similarities due to their small size. The fact that they were painted at around the same time naturally accounts for the artistic similarities. Fresh from his success in Vienna, Strigel probably painted several altarpieces, which were soon dismantled during the Reformation. That is what happened to the Holy Sepulcher altarpiece.
A Tuscan Destiny
The Turquin auction house recently ascertained that both angels arrived in France at the beginning of the century. The similarly sized one that was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 2008 and acquired by the Abu Dhabi museum a year later was certainly confused with the painting attributed to Dürer at the 1813 Dubois sale: “A kneeling angel with outspread wings and lowered eyes is holding a censer on a landscape background; he is wearing a purple robe, and beautiful blond hair adorns his head. Preciously finished piece with bright colors.” It was painted on wood (59.5 x 46 cm/23.42 x 18.11 in). The Toulouse angel appears in the catalog of the 1816 Dubois and Pommier sale: “A kneeling angel with outspread wings and wearing a yellow tunic covered by a gold-embroidered red cloak is holding a censer. A preciously painted piece, beautiful colors and well preserved.”
Monica Preti Hamard and Hélène Sécherre identified Dubois, “police commissioner in Florence”, as a copy of the catalog says, as François-Louis-Esprit Dubois. He was a judge in Colmar, a member of the Convention nationale in 1792, General Commissioner of Police in Lyon and, from 1809, Director-General of the Police in Tuscany, where he acquired nearly 400 paintings in three years, including Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi (Washington D.C., The National Gallery of Art). Back in Paris, he relinquished some of his Italian works in 1813. Then, having caught the collecting bug, he went all out, often working with his acolyte and “roommate” Louis-Vincent Pommier. Ms. Sécherre traced the fascinating journey of this "dealer-collector" in the proceedings of the symposium "Le Goût pour la peinture italienne autour de 1800, prédécesseurs, modèles et concurrents du cardinal Fesch" (“The Taste for Italian Painting Around 1800: Predecessors, Models and Competitors of Cardinal Fesch"). But beware of pitfalls. It would be tempting to imagine that Dubois found the angels in Alsace, but an Italian provenance seems more likely given the background of the other paintings in the 1813 sale.
The Abu Dhabi angel acquired during the sale by expert Delaroche soon entered Ferdinando Marescalchi’s collection under the title Angelo incensante, nel gusto d’Alberto Duro, as Ms. Preti demonstrates. It appears in the 1817 inventory of his painting gallery after his death and in “Nota dei Quadri componenti la Galleria del fu Conte Ferdinando Marescalchi in Bologna” in 1824. It later belonged to Henri Rouart, as already mentioned. In 1816, the angel was bought by the comte de Saint-Morys fils, who as a child posed for Greuze and died in a duel in 1817. Then the trail goes cold until its reappearance in a Toulouse family collection and identification by the Turquin auction house. Even if it wasn't hidden away in an attic, it reminds us of something. This angel also came from somewhere else since, unusual as he is, he had already visited the Virgin in The Annunciation at the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe. He simply combed his hair and swapped one pair of wings for another. He decided to go all out by taking his most precious gems from his chest. Thus he is ready to celebrate Christmas.