In 1926 Max J. Friedländer attributed a group of late 15th century paintings of the 'Virgin Mary and Christ Child' in identical poses to an unknown artist whom he called the Master of the Embroidered Foliage (see: M. J. Friedländer, Die Altniederländische Malerei, IV, Berlin, 1926, pp.118-9).
Friedländer compared the way that the foliage was painted in these works to the repeated pattern of stitches in embroidery, thus the unusual name for the artist. In 2001 Annette Scherer attributed three paintings of 'Adam and Eve' to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage (op. cit., pp. 363-70). The present, beautifully preserved, panel belongs to this group.
The picture, only recently rediscovered in a South German private collection, is an exceptional example of the refined technique of this Master. Spatial effects are obtained with an almost machinelike regularity when rendering foliage by means of properly and pedantically spaced highlights. The symmetrical arrangement of trees and bushes in the hilly landscape is a common pattern to all compositions with biblical scenes attributed to the Master. Flowers, different herbs and pasture are arranged in an amazing and detailed variety in the foreground. This meticulous and complex naturalism enriched by numerous anecdotal details is typical for the compositions, as well as the axis-symmetric arrangement of the figures, which are very tall and slender by proportion.
One of the two other versions of 'Adam and Eve' was formerly in the collection J.B. Kidston in Basingstoke, Hampshire (48 x 31 cm.), its present whereabouts are unknown (fig. 1) (Scherer, op. cit., 2007, p. 33, ill. 21). The second version (47.5 x 33 cm.) is in the Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen (fig. 2) (Gombert, op. cit., p. 33, ill. 24). All three paintings are very similar but differ slightly in details. The present one apparently has more in common with the version in the Wilhelm-Hack Museum. Adam wears the same loin-cloth of leaves and an identical leonine fable creature hides behind a bush to the left side. But the doe in the background to the left, appears only in the present painting, while in the left foreground of the Kidston picture, a kingfisher can be found.
Recent analysis (Scherer, op. cit., 2007) reveals that the group of paintings of the 'Virgin Mary' attributed to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, was not created by a single artist, but probably painted by different artists using a common source. Also in the case of the three paintings of the 'Adam and Eve', different artists appear to have shared as a common template for the main figures, the famous painting 'Adam and Eve' by Hugo Van der Goes in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (inv. no. GG_945). The Kidston version relates closest to the composition by Hugo van der Goes. Adam's hairdo is most similar to the Van der Goes altar piece, and it is the only one where Eva holds an apple in her hand. Like the prototype it presents the Fall of Man, when Eva has taken the fruit from the Serpent in the presence of Adam. To Scherer this is an argument that the present painting and the version in Ludwigshafen have been executed later (op. cit., 2007, p. 36). As was common practice in medieval workshops, probably one same artist in the Master's workshop executed the landscapes and another one the figures. This workshop practice of creating several versions, suggests that there was a lucrative market for this particular composition of 'Adam and Eve'. The variations in the backgrounds and details were possibly introduced to satisfy the wishes of individual buyers.
The painting 'Adam and Eve' is painted on a single sheet of oak panel, which does not appear to belong to a larger context, and thus differs from Van der Goes' altarpiece, where the representation of 'Adam and Eve' is part of a diptych. This marks a new movement in the transalpine art; opening the way to the development of small works of art which turned from the so called "Andachtsbild" (image of devotion) to collector's items.