Elsheimer's detailed drawing is not a 'first idea' but a fully developed design know as 'compositional drawing'. The artist was trying to work out the best way to arrange numerous figures into the foreground of a very small scene. Elsheimer almost always made his paintings on copper, which unlike canvas or panel (wood), could not easily be enlarged if the scene became crowded. This is almost exactly the same size as the finished painting. He must have wanted to experiment with his design on the same scale as the intended painting to ensure that his final composition was a success. Too few of Elsheimer's preparatory drawings survive for us to know if this was his standard practice, which makes this rare drawing all the more valuable.
This is the second of three surviving preparatory drawings that Elsheimer produced for his celebrated painting ‘Il Contento’. The other two are in the Cabinet des Dessins in the Louvre, Paris. Few of Elsheimer’s pen drawings for his paintings survive. This sheet is extremely detailed and shows a number of the figures that appear in the finished painting, albeit with some slight alterations. The nude female striding towards the action from the left and the older man pulling the goddess’ cloak are very close to their painted counterparts. The bustling action of the foreground gives way to a blank backdrop, with only a mere suggestion of a landscape sketched in with the brush. Elsheimer used washes of ink to suggest light and shade, and to make his figures appear more fully three dimensional.
Elsheimer specialised in detailed brilliantly coloured paintings on copper. He combined figures and landscape vistas with precision and delicacy paying particular attention to the effects of light. His work was greatly admired and profoundly influenced many artists in Rome, especially those from Northern Europe, including Rubens and Claude. Elsheimer was born and trained as a painter in Frankfurt. He travelled to Venice and stayed there for two years before moving permanently to Rome. Tintoretto's paintings in Venice exerted a lasting influence on his own short career. Knowledge of his compositions spread through the circulation of prints made from them.