An extensive landscape with The Good Samaritan signed 'Johan König fe:' (lower centre) oil on copper 28 x 38 cm. (11 x 15 in.) unframed
PROVENANCE: Acquired by the present owner's family at least one hundred years ago.
It has often been argued that Johan König met Adam Elsheimer in Rome in 1610. The discovery of this remarkable copper panel would strongly add to the evidence, since, in this work he comes particularly close to his fellow-German master. After being recorded to have worked in Venice around 1608, and before returning to Augsburg, where he spent the rest of his highly successful career, König was first documented in Rome between 1610 and 1614 and could have encountered Elsheimer shortly before the latters death on the 11th December, 1610. The importance of König in western art was that he furthered Elsheimers innovation of recognising landscape as a theme in its own right. As can be seen in the present composition, compared, for example, with Elsheimers Tobias and the Angel (known as the Small Tobias, Frankfurt Historisches Museum), König took this development even further, making the traditional Biblical subject-matter almost entirely incidental: an excuse to depict his own poetical vision of nature. This in turn paved the way for the realistic depiction of nature in its own right by the great masters of Dutch landscape painting later on in the century. In his emulation of Elsheimers treatment of landscape, in which effects of light and atmosphere and details of foliage were evocatively rendered on small copper cabinet paintings, König was perhaps the finest of Elsheimers followers in Rome, the other two artists that stand out being Carlo Saraceni and Jacob Pynas. Indeed, it was Königs attention to detail, going beyond that of the master that is one characteristic that sets him apart.
The lake on the left hand side, bordered by dense woodland reflected in the water and with tiny figures on the shore is a direct reference to Elsheimers Tobias and the Angel. This composition, according to Joachim Sandrart, the seventeenth century German artist and commentator, caused quite a stir in Rome and became widely known, not only through the many engravings and etchings made after it but also through the great number of copies and adaptations. Of these, Hendrik Goudts engraving of 1608 is the best known (see figure 1). The wider landscape that we see here, made up of separate planes beyond, is also consistent with Elsheimers compositions (for example, his Aurora in the Anton-Ulrich Museum, Brunswick; also engraved, see fig. 2). More specifically, however, the traveller himself is strongly reminiscent of Elsheimers figure of Christ, who is shown in a very similar reclining position in the Testing of the Cross (one of the seven panels in The Finding and Exaltation of the True Cross, known as the Frankfurt Tabernacle). Intriguingly, the unusual detail of the chestnut horse with a white nose appears to have been taken directly from a copper of The Adoration of the Magi (Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) in which the horses truncated head is also shown appearing from the right hand side of the painting). Although this painting was attributed to Elsheimer in last years exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, an argument has been made to place this work closer to Hans Rottenhamer the Elder, thus supporting the suggestion that König also worked in Rottenhamers studio in Augsburg prior to travelling to Italy.
The figures in the foreground and in particular the vivid purple costume of the Samaritan show a further indebtedness to the Venetian artists of the late sixteenth century, whose influence has been seen in both Elsheimers and Königs staffage. Indeed, König must also have visited Venice, since it is documented that he made a miniature copy (now untraced) of Paolo Veroneses Marriage at Cana. His historical and mythological subject-matter often adopted motifs from Venetian painting: the figures in the Toilet of Bathsheba in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, for example, are derived from Tintorettos Susannah in her Bath (Musée du Louvre, Paris).
The dating of Königs works is more problematical. The composition of the present panel comes especially close to Königs similarly sized Landscape with Tobias and the Angel (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe), which also shows a landscape similarly divided into distinct planes with the main figural group in the bottom right hand corner. Two further panels depicting a Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (London art market, 2001 and 2005) also bear direct comparison with the present painting. None of these works, unfortunately is dated. A painting of Minerva and the Nine Muses in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, dated, 1619, however, clearly shows a very different style of landscape painting, more reminiscent of Paul Brill with figures taken from Rottenhamer. The aforementioned stylistic debts to Elsheimer, together with the artists reference in the upper right of The Good Samaritan to the Roman remains at Tivoli might thus argue for a date close to his visit to Rome and his evidently close association with the older German master. Alternatively, it may be that he found this type of composition as popular as it is today and continued to answer an obvious demand later on in his career.
After returning to Augsburg, König established pre-eminence there, becoming Dean of the painters guild in 1622 and in the following year was elected to the Greater Council of the City. At this time he collaborated on the decoration of the new Rathaus for the city, painting an allegorical cycle of different forms of government and a monumental Last Judgment for its courtroom, which again shows a Venetian influence. The turmoil surrounding the Thirty Years War appears to have prompted his return in 1631 or 1632 to his native Nuremberg, where he is known to have continued producing his popular cabinet paintings.
The painting depicts the parable of the Good Samaritan. According to Luke, a lawyer who was among Christs listeners, enjoined by the preacher to love his neighbour as himself, asked how one should define such a person, and was answered with the famous parable. A traveller on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers and left injured. A priest and a Levite both passed by without assisting him. König shows these two making off on the path in the middle ground to the right and centre of the composition. A Samaritan, however, did stop and help. We see him in the right foreground, bathing and dressing the travellers wounds, before carrying him to an inn and leaving money with the innkeeper so that he might be properly cared for. The Samaritans aid is significant, since his people were traditional enemies of the Jews and the painting therefore offers us a timeless lesson in charity and toleration.