Four studies of a right hand

ca. 1588-89

Black and red chalk
Inv. No. 805

31 × 20.8 cm

zur  Biographie

In the last two decades of the sixteenth century, Hendrick Goltzius, a draughtsman, engraver and painter of Haarlem, rose to become one of the best-known and most influential artists in Europe through the prints he executed and published. A brilliant graphic technique and an elaborate, highly stylized language of forms were the hallmarks of »Haarlem Mannerism«, of which Goltzius was the chief exponent, and the basis of its international success.


This »study sheet with four hands« was produced as a set of models to aid the artist and his assistants in the depiction of hands, which in portraits and figural depictions are the most expressive elements after the face. At the same time, however, it is to be seen as a virtuoso piece of draughtsmanship. Here, using chalks of only two different colours, Goltzius achieves an almost »hyper-realistic« effect: the coloured, three-dimensional depiction – with an anatomical precision that extends even to physical details such as the protruding veins – is further heightened by the fragmentary nature of the images and the contrast between the detail of the hands and the way the sleeves lose themselves in the abstract field of the paper. Similarly, the realism with which the hands are portrayed is exaggerated by the stylized, »manneristically« affected positions in which they are shown.


Since early childhood, when he had accidentally fallen onto a heap of glowing coals, Goltzius had had crippled hands. The technical virtuosity which he consistently displayed and which may be seen, at least in part, as his reaction to this handicap, made him all the more famous. This gives the drawing in the Städel Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings a special meaning, for the hand shown at the bottom of the sheet corresponds to several drawings Goltzius made of his own disfigured right hand. He was unable to straighten the fingers that are bent inwards. It seems, therefore, that in this drawing he depicted his own hand, looking for something that it could be seen doing in a picture despite its deformity: turning the pages of a book was a suitable activity. The hand at the top, which is shown making a rather conventional gesture, thus represents the artist’s right hand in an ideal, uninjured, state.

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