Splitting hares: a Dürer double bill

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Two versions of leporine painting go on show in Vienna and Bremen

By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 13 March 2014

Dürer’s Hare (left), 1502, and Hoffmann’s copy, from 1582

Two versions of Dürer’s Hare are emerging, quite by chance, at the same moment—although only one is the real thing. For over four centuries, two watercolours have shared the limelight, each regarded as an original by Dürer at different times.

The version now accepted as authentic, which is rarely shown for conservation reasons, goes on display at the Albertina in Vienna on 14 March. It will be in an exhibition on the history of the gallery (until 29 June). Another watercolour, now regarded as a later copy by Hans Hoffmann, is being offered for sale by the Bremen-based Neuse Galerie for around €1m.

Right from the start, Dürer’s Hare, 1502, was the stuff of legend. One source claimed that the artist had saved the animal during a flood, another that he had modelled his drawing on a cat. A more likely story relates to Dürer’s meeting with Giovanni Bellini in Venice, when the Italian master asked to see the special brush he had used to paint the fine detail of the animal. Dürer offered Bellini several quite ordinary brushes asking him to take his pick; it was Dürer’s skill, not equipment, which accounted for his success.

After Dürer’s death, his original watercolour passed to a Nüremberg family before being acquired by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 1588. It remained in the imperial collection and is now at the Albertina.

Hoffmann’s copy, dating from 1582, was once regarded as an original by Dürer. The watercolour was only downgraded and firmly reattributed to Hoffmann in 1876. It was eventually donated to the Bremen Kunsthalle, and in 1945, it was plundered after Soviet forces entered Germany. In the mid-1990s, Hoffmann’s copy turned up with a Belgian businessman, who had received it from a Russian trader. It was then put up for auction at Lempertz in Cologne in 1999, which led to a restitution claim from the Kunsthalle.

A deal was struck, and the Kunsthalle’s claim was dropped in return for half the auction proceeds. Hoffmann’s Hare sold in 2008 for €580,000, going to Galerie Neuse in Bremen. Galerie Neuse has just offered it for sale, in a full-page advertisement in the February issue of The Burlington Magazine.

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