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Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
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The image of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and Saint Anne is so common in Renaissance art, it hurts.

When Dürer decided that he wanted to paint yet another Anna selbdritt, which means “Anne in a group of three,” he decided that he was going to go a bit darker with this one. Instead of the loving scene by Leonardo da Vinci of Saint Anne and Mary with Christ and a lamb near some rocks, think more of Michelangelo’s Pieta, with Saint Anne comforting Mary as she gazes at Jesus sleeping, who’s looking much like he would later in life on the cross.

During the sixteenth century, Germans loved Saint Anne so much that they devoted a whole cult to the veneration of this saint, the mother of the Virgin Mary. German artists made countless variations on the arrangement of Saint Anne, Mary, and Jesus. Dürer was no stranger to this particular image. Although it’s still creepy, this work by Dürer is one of the more normal ones, in terms of proportion. Usually, artists painted Saint Anne larger-than-life, holding pint-sized versions of Mary and Jesus on either her knees or shoulders.

In this painting, Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary, and baby Jesus all appear to be of normal human size. (Is that too much to ask?) But most of all, Dürer wanted these holy people to seem like they existed in the same time as his German viewers. To do so, he made them look like contemporary Germans, using his wife Agnes as the model for Anne. It’s purely coincidental that the image of the “generic sixteenth-century German baby” looks like Ham from "The Sandlot."

While this painting was definitely not made any time near the 1990s, many supposed works by Albrecht Dürer have been suspect to questions of authenticity, including this one. Rumors of fakes have been floating around since the time Dürer was working. After a competitor copied Dürer’s infamous monogram, he was the first artist to enforce copyright law after taking the forger to court.

This painting hasn’t caught a break since the time of its creation. Nuremberg patrician Leonhard Tucher most likely commissioned the piece, and it stayed in his family for about a century. Despite having rejected the painting the first time he saw it on grounds of its authenticity, Maximilian I, elector of Bavaria, purchased the painting in 1630. Then, it floated around various rich Germans until an art dealer named Joseph Duveen brought it to the United States in 1911, when retail magnate Benjamin Altman bought it. Altman provided the work’s final resting place, giving it to the Met upon his death in 1913. For a while, scholars widely accepted Dürer as its author until a man named Claus Grimm stirred up drama in 2002, claiming that Dürer's workshop actually painted it based on drawings by the master. But the Met swears that he painted it.

No matter who painted it, this work was part of Benjamin Altman’s expertly-curated art collection, which included thirteen works by Rembrandt and many other old masters. Altman was a strong, silent type, and he loved art more than most other things. His donation helped the Met build the collection that it boasts today. 

Sources

Sources

  1. Abrams, Jeanne. “Benjamin Altman and His Enduring Gift to New York.” In The Life & Legacy of Benjamin Altman: New York City Merchant Prince & Philanthropist. New York: Altman Foundation, 2013. https://www.altmanfoundation.org/about/centennial/index/_res/i
  2. Christie’s. “10 things to know about Albrecht Durer.” Artists. January 2, 2019. https://www.christies.com/features/Albrecht-Durer-10-things-to-know-8053.... Accessed January 29, 2019).
  3. National Gallery of Art. “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.” Collection. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.6597.html. Accessed January 29, 2019.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Dürer)

Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is a tempera and oil painting by Albrecht Dürer. It is signed and dated 1519 in the centre of the right border, though this may have been added later. Originally painted on panel, it was later transferred onto canvas and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

History

It belonged to Gabriel Tucher of Nuremberg - he and his family were committed supporters of the artist. A preparatory sketch for the work survives in the Albertina in Vienna, possibly dating to 1519 and showing St Anne (modelled on the painter's wife Agnes) painted in grey with highlights on a dark background. In the painting she wears a bonnet closed under her chin, then very much in fashion in Nuremburg.

In 1630 Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria acquired it and it was displayed in Schloss Schleißheim until the mid 19th century. Repainting and its poor state of conservation led to its being sold from the Bavarian collections as merely a copy after Dürer and - after passing through private collections in Munich and Odessa - it reached the United States. There it was acquired by Benjamin Altman, who donated it to its present owner. Subsequent restorations have restored its status as an autograph work by the artist.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Dürer).