This drawing demonstrates the important role of prints in disseminating new artistic inventions as it copies the figure representing the season of spring in an engraving after a design by Hendrick Goltzius. Goltzius based his female figure of Spring on Donatello‘s famous David (around 1440) and played on the sculpture’s androgyny, adding garlands and a basket of fresh leaves, attributes of the female personification of Spring.
Goltzius was praised by his contemporary Karel van Mander as being able to refashion his art through the careful study of others’ work. Here, the representation of Spring is modelled on the bronze sculpture of David by the early Renaissance artist Donatello (see illustration). As Goltzius had not yet travelled to Italy when he designed this figure, he must have based it on a reproduction, proving his ability to transform the slender poised body of David into a dynamic figure capturing the abundance of spring.
This drawing copies the main figure from the Allegory of Spring, an engraving by Jacob Matham after a design by Hendrick Goltzius. It depicts a semi-clothed, androgynous youth crowned with a garland of leaves and holding a basket bursting with flora. The figure’s sex is concealed by a cloth that wraps around the body, leaving the protruding stomach, small breasts and weighty musculature exposed. Loose boots surround the ankles, and the figure wears a necklace and a bracelet on each arm. All these features alert us that figure is a personification of Spring, the season associated with fecundity and regrowth. The theme of fecundity is echoed in the lower left corner of the drawing, where young couples are seated at an outdoor table, enjoying the weather and one another’s company.
Goltzius frequently quoted Italian sources in his work, and this personification of spring is base upon the sculpture of David by Donatello (around 1440). Goltzius creatively transformed this bronze sculpture, associated with male virility, victory and power in Renaissance Florence, into a personification of Spring which he would now re-sculpt in the copper of his own engraving plates for printing. Crucially, however, in 1589, at the time this print was produced, Goltzius had not yet taken his long awaited trip to Italy, only reaching the peninsula in 1590. Once in Italy he was able to study Italian painting and sculpture first-hand. As a result, Goltzius’s treatment of the human figure became increasingly monumental and sophisticated in his virtuoso prints after 1590.
As regards artistic imitation, Van Mander described Goltzius’s as a Proteus, ‘a man who was able to transform himself into every conceivable form’. Goltzius’s prints bear witness to his ability to refashion his art to meet a variety of purposes and aims. Before visiting Italy, however, Goltzius would have only been able to see the sculpture of David through drawings made by his contemporaries who had previously visited Italy, including his friends Bartholomeus Spranger and Van Mander. It is a testament to Goltzius’s supreme artistry that he was able to transform Donatello’s a bronze sculpture into a compelling personification of spring without having seen the sculpture in person.
Just as Goltzius looked towards his Italian predecessors for inspiration for this print, the draftsman responsible for this drawing has looked towards Goltzius and deemed his personification of Spring sufficiently interesting to be the subject of a large figural study. While the subject must account for some of the draftsman’s interest in Goltzius’s invention, this copy was also surely undertaken as a formal exercise aimed at studying Goltzius’s figural language and assimilating his manner of treating the human form. Yet, in his manner of drawing, the author of this study parted ways from Goltzius’s engraving technique. As Lawrence Nichols has written, Goltzius and Jacob Matham, the engraver of this print, pioneered ‘a system of concentric swelling and tapering lines which create a complicated but highly legible matrix of cross-hatchings, the interstices of which are often punctuated with tiny dots, forming a scintillating array of decorative patterns.’ The matrix of cross-hatchings are certainly present to an extent in the drawing as can be seen for example on the side of the figure’s left leg. However, the artist responsible for this sheet did not include the tiny dots. While based on Goltzius’s design and his graphic language, this drawing emerges as an independent object. Its mastery and innovation derive from Goltzius’s design and his sources but translate the scale and composition of his print to dramatic effect in the medium of pen and ink and wash.