1509; Oil on panel, 51.4 x 36.8 cm; Royal Collection, Windsor
The artist is one of the most original and creative figures of the German Renaissance. Born in the village of Schwäbisch-Gmund in south-west Germany, his family established close connections with Strasbourg. It was here that Baldung worked for most of his life, apart from four years in Nuremberg spent in Dürer's workshop (1503-c. 1507) and five years in Freiburg-im-Bresgau (1512-17) where he painted his masterpiece, The Coronation of the Virgin, for the high altar of the Münster. Baldung was a prolific artist and his oeuvre comprises numerous prints and designs for book illustrations and stained-glass, as well as paintings and drawings. He was the most individual of Dürer's assistants and his style and treatment of colour are remarkably expressive. The range of subject matter in Baldung's work matches his technical dexterity: religious and mythological themes, in addition to a fascination for witches, are vividly, almost shockingly, handled. In achieving this emphatic style, Baldung was influenced by Grünewald, Cranach, and artists of the Danube school. It is clear that he was inspired by the spirit of the Reformation and this encouraged an element of dualism in his work, most evident during the 1520s. Strasbourg was sympathetic to Reformist ideas and the artist himself was buried in the Protestant cemetery.
Portrait of a Young Man with a Rosary is an early work; it is, in fact, the first dated portrait in Baldung's oeuvre, painted on his return to Strasbourg two years after The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (Nuremburg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum). The style, combining linearity with a perfectly controlled understanding of the liquidity of paint, is clearly dependent upon Dürer, especially his portraits including that of Burkhard von Speyer in the Royal Collection, painted while Dürer was in Venice from 1506 to 1507. However, the liveliness of the almost quixotic characterisation is typical of Baldung. At the upper edge in the centre, as part of the signature, is an image of an owl attacking a bird on a branch, which perhaps symbolises the conflict between good and evil or day and night. This piece of symbolism should perhaps be seen in the context of the rosary held by the sitter.
The painting was part of the collection of Italian, German and early Netherlandish pictures formed by Prince Ludwig Kraft Ernst von Oettingen Wallerstein (1791-1870), which Prince Albert accepted as surety for a financial loan in 1847. The collection was put on display in Kensington Palace in 1848 in order to encourage a buyer, but this ploy failed and so the pictures came into the possession of Prince Albert. In 1863 Queen Victoria presented twenty-five of the best paintings to the National Gallery, London, in memory of the Prince Consort and in accordance with his wishes. Like several other paintings in the Oettingen Wallerstein collection, Portrait of a Young Man with a Rosary previously belonged to Count Joseph von Rechberg (1769-1833).