ALBRECHT DÜRER AND HIS PRINTS

G. KISLYKH

Erasmus of Rotterdam, a famous humanist and Dürer’s contemporary, who lived in 1466–1536, wrote in 1528: “…what does he not express in monochromes, that is, in black lines? Light, shade, splendour, eminences, depressions; and, though derived from the position of one single thing, more than one aspect offers itself to the eye of the beholder. He observes accurately proportions and harmonies. Nay, he even depicts that which cannot be depicted: fire, rays of light, thunder, sheet lightning, lightning, or, as they say, the ‘clouds on a wall’; all the sensations and emotions; in fine, the whole mind of man as it reflects itself in the behaviour of the body, and almost the voice itself. These things he places before the eye in the most pertinent lines – black ones, yet so that if you should spread on pigments you would injure the work. And is it not more wonderful to accomplish without the blandishment of colors what Apelles accomplished with their aid?”1.

Dürer was a painter, a graphic artist, an engraver, a humanist, a scientist – the first German artist to study mathematics and mechanics, construction and fortification, the first German artist to apply his scientific knowledge of perspective and proportions to the art; the only 16th-century German artist to leave behind him a literary heritage. His singular talent, breadth of views, versatility of knowledge put him on the same level with such great Renaissance artists as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

The richness of Dürer’s fantasy, the depth of his artistic thought, his talent and skill are especially seen in his engravings, etchings and woodcuts which are the most significant part of Dürer’s legacy.

In Dürer’s time, during the Northern Renaissance, Germany was shaken by social, political and religious upheavals culminating in the Reformation.

German culture was strongly influenced by Italy, especially by the Italian humanism. Books by ancient authors and modern Italian scholars came from the South and spread across Germany. In the beginning of 16th century humanist circles existed in major German cities, propagating classical literature and art. Influenced by humanism, German artists started to move away from Gothic traditions and assimilate the experience of the Italians. They were especially interested in studying the laws of the perspective and the proportions of the human body.

Having begun his art education under the guidance of his father, a goldsmith and a silversmith, having learned painting and xylography from Michael Wolgemut, the greatest artist of Nuremberg, Dürer stayed forever attached to different kinds of art. He was the first German painter to be interested not only in copperplate engraving as his predecessor Martin Schongauer, but also in woodcut. He used the two techniques simultaneously and permitted them to influence one another. But while Dürer used the woodcuts to reflect the emotional tension of his time, he worked on copperplate engravings trying to find solutions of artistic and philosophic problems that were important for him during his whole life. The different use of these two techniques can be explained by the fact that they were made for different audiences.

Woodcuts were closely related to folk images and illustrations. They were easier to understand and made for ordinary people. Copperplate engraving technique created by the goldsmiths permitted to solve specific artistic problems and was used to make prints for a more sophisticated audience.

Dürer did not show his preference for one of the techniques but he started with xylography. During his tour of Germany in his youth he supposedly took part in designing woodcuts for the popular books of the 15th century, including Das Narrenschiff by the German satirist Sebastian Brant (1458–1521)2.

Already the first woodcuts created by Dürer in Nuremberg3 were different both in quality and in style from anything made before him. Nevertheless, it is evident that in the beginning he was subject to various influences. He was especially influenced by the 15th-century German decorative woodcuts and by the Italian works which often came to Nuremberg, especially to Wolgemut’s workshop.

Albrecht Dürer was strongly interested by what he heard from his humanist friends and other people about Italy and Italian art. That is why, becoming an independent artist, he immediately went to Italy where he started copying monumental works and engravings by Andrea Mantegna, one of the greatest figures of the Italian Renaissance. It was under his influence that Dürer’s woodcuts showed a penchant for heroism and monumentality. 

First woodcuts by Dürer were quite different from anything that was created before him. The Bath House is interesting not only on account of its large format, but also because of unexpected movement. Dürer’s strokes are dynamic; in Samson, they embody the tension of fighting. Not only the contents and the composition are much more complicated in Dürer’s works than in the decorative woodcuts of 15th century, but the technique of xylography itself becomes much more impressive. Its whole graphic structure is now closely linked with the sheet made by the artist. In Samson, an intricate pattern of lines twisting into tight rings is connected to the composition, a tangle where the bodies of a man and a lion are interlaced. The lines carry emotional expressiveness. Undoubtedly, Dürer tried to cut the wood himself. Nothing else can explain the elasticity, clearness and tension of every stroke which are evident already in Dürer’s early engravings.

In 1498, the artist finished his first great cycle of woodcuts, Apocalypse, a major work of art of the German Renaissance. In 15th–16th centuries, stories from the Bible and the Gospels dominated the art, but Dürer interpreted them in a totally different way.

The Apocalypse was in tune with the German attitudes of the end of 15th century. It reflected wars, hunger, pestilences and rumours about the end of the world, the Last Judgement expected in 1500. A series named Apocalypse with Pictures was made for very broad audiences. It consisted of fifteen large sheets. The text was printed on the reverse side of the pictures. The first edition was published in two languages, in Latin and German.

The Apocalypse developed from sheet to sheet, culminating in the Four Horsemen. The Plague, the War, the Hunger and the Death sweep the Earth like a wind, wiping everything off its face as they ride. All the humanity, symbolized by an emperor, a bishop, a city woman and a peasant, perish under the hoofs of their horses. All people are equal face to the Judgement, destroying and purifying – that is one of Dürer’s main ideas, felt in the whole series. The young artist seems to be an active participant of the events depicted. He puts great masses of people in his woodcuts, dividing them into the just and the sinners, making all of them passionate. He is formidable and relentless as a judge; yet he is wise. When the purified earth is again blessed with peace and happiness, he rejoices and glorifies the renewed world together with the chosen ones.

The graphic language of the series is less abstract, more dynamic and more daring than in the earlier woodcuts by Dürer. Every picture has its own emotional key, built on emphasizing the main event. The key-note of the Four Horsemen is the swiftness of the movement. Clothes flapping in the wind, strong gestures, weapons raised menacingly, people fleeing in panic and falling down – every detail strengthens the feeling of the accelerating tempo. Crossing of the diagonal axes along which the composition is built, emphasize its expressivity.

The composition Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon is different, with the main idea of fight between the good and the evil, the light and the darkness. The sheet is divided horizontally into two uneven parts. The events taking place in the sky occupy most of the picture; only a small portion of the sheet shows the earth. The frantic fight in the sky presents a strong contrast with the calm landscape of the earth. The intricate Gothic lines in the top part are opposed to a quiet and clear picture in the bottom part of the image. And, finally, the main idea of the print is conveyed in a composition consisting of two parts – the darkness above and the light below.

Some elements of the Apocalypse are Gothic – overcharged multifigure compositions, oblong proportions, intricate, fragile lines. Nevertheless it became a modern work: not only because it was it directly linked with the events and attitudes in Germany in the end of 15th century, but also because of the way Dürer interpreted the story. His characters are active, passionate, resolute, heroic. The breadth of coverage, the emotional strength, the wholeness and the monumentality make Dürer’s Apocalypse the greatest work of art of the Northern Renaissance.

Simultaneously with the Apocalypse, the artist started to create the first sheets of the series Large Passion, choosing the most dramatic scenes of the last days of Jesus Christ (The Flagellation, The Betrayal of Christ). In these large format woodcuts Christ is represented not as a suffering person but as a virile and handsome hero fighting the evil.

In 1500–1511, while he was finishing the Large Passion series, Dürer started another series, focused on a new topic, Life of the Virgin. Both cycles were finalized in 1511, almost at the same time. Twenty woodcuts illustrating the tale of Mary’s life, were very different from the Apocalypse. They represented the artist’s ideal of peaceful and worldly life. The images of the apocryphal legend became more vital and lifelike. Dürer made them look like his contemporaries and transposed them into the 16th-century German reality. A new interpretation of the Biblical event meant also a new composition and a new graphic style.

The Meeting of Joachim and Anne at the Golden Gate shows two elderly people meeting each other on a street in a German town. The artist marks out his characters, pushing them forward and fitting them into an arch. The scene is quiet and poetic and the whole structure of the picture emphasizes it – the pleats in the clothes are smooth, the outlines are soft, echoing the rhythm of the arches. Architecture, landscape and everyday life are essential in this cycle. For instance, The Birth of the Virgin takes place in a house of a German townsman, and all the details of its scenery are reproduced with great authenticity. It is characteristic that Anne, the protagonist of the woodcut, is deep in the background while the foreground is occupied by townswomen, dressed in 16th-century fashion, with different but easy attitudes. Only an angel on the cloud reminds us that the scene is taken from a religious legend.

In The Flight into Egypt the landscape plays a special emotional role. It is one of the earliest depictions of nature in German art. The mysterious forest where fantastic trees are combined with the ones from central Germany makes the picture look like a fairy tale.

Quiet and calm narrative harmonizes completely with the author’s artistic method. Dürer moves away from images created by the contrast of black lines and white tone of the paper; he prefers to work with strokes, achieving a greater softness of transition. That is why there is no drama in the Life of the Virgin. The cycle is a poetic tale, full of love, joy, sadness, where reality interlaces with legend and everyday life with fairy-tales.

The cycle Small Passion consists of thirty-six small format woodcuts. It did not take much time to create and was printed in many copies, for broad audiences. The longest of all the Dürer’s cycles, it started with the image of the Fall of Adam and Eve and finished with Last Judgement. The sheets seemingly not connected with the main topic were added by the artist to emphasize the main idea of the series – the atoning death of Christ, liberating the humanity from the original sin. The compositions are free from everyday life details, so abundant in The Life of the Virgin. The whole attention is always concentrated on the main event.

In all his woodcuts, whether in series or in separate sheets, Dürer always oriented himself on the broadest audience possible. He forestalled the Church reformers who tried to make the Holy Scriptures understandable for people. Before Martin Luther translated the Bible in German, Albrecht Dürer translated it into the universally accessible language of images. That is one of the reasons why his woodcuts were so popular among his contemporaries.

Besides his cycles regrouping most graphic images he made, Dürer always created separate pictures on religious topics: scenes, images of saints and apostles. These pictures are also an important part of his legacy.

The woodcut was an ideal technique for the artist when he wished to convey the heroism of fighting with dramatic contrast of black and white or to show the everyday life. In the latter case the lines softened and the shapes became smoother to be in line with the calmness of the story. But the language of the woodcut stayed conventional and decorative even if the artist enriched it with strokes. While he used xylography, Dürer could not make a three-dimensional plastic image that he aspired to create for many years. He managed to achieve it in his copperplate engravings. This technique, together with drawing, taught him proportions and perspective already when he was young, and later permitted him to express his ideas about the physical and spiritual ideal of the man.

Already in his childhood, in his father’s workshop, Dürer learned the technique of copperplate engraving and its best specimens. Later he went to Colmar where he did not manage to meet Martin Schongauer, the greatest 15th-century engraver (he was already dead), but could see the plates engraved by him. Early copperplates made by Dürer, such as the Prodigal Son (1496), already showed that he was a great engraver. A new version of the story of prodigal son, showing the depth and intensity of human suffering, and the technical perfection of this engraving made it popular in Germany and in foreign countries.

Already in 1500s, the artist wished to master the laws of the perspective and study the human and animal proportions. Not content with empirical method, he turned towards Ancient Roman authors and his Italian contemporaries. At the same time, he developed his own ideas about the ideal proportions of the body, its plastic wholeness, the harmonic connection of the human being with the environment. This search influenced not only his engravings, but his woodcuts as well, for instance, the Life of the Virgin.

Many images present in Dürer’s engravings can be perceived as results of his studies. In Saint Eustace (1501), for instance, the hunting scene gives the artist a pretext to depict different animals: dogs, a horse, a stag. Dürer represented their specific features, anatomy and proportions with great exactitude. At the same time, he created a perfect natural composition, using the landscape as the uniting element. The richness of silvery tints increases the beauty of this sheet.

The Nemesis (1502) is linked to his studies in proportions of the female body. The winged goddess of revenge flies above the world, standing on a sphere. Her figure was among the first constructed by the artist following the Vitruvius’ theory of proportions. But author’s real life experiences proved themselves stronger than his theoretical calculations: Nemesis is far from being a classic ideal, looking rather like a corpulent German woman. Dürer’s technical mastery reaches its perfection: the artist does not draw anymore; he seems to sculpt new tangible shapes.

The same aspiration can be seen in Adam and Eve (1504) which concludes Dürer’s study of proportion. The artist visibly appreciated this work: it is the only one where he wrote his whole name instead of putting just his monogram. Adam and Eve were supposedly based on the ancient statues of Apollo Belvedere and Medici Venus or rather on the drawings of these sculptures. In this sheet, Dürer achieved even greater plasticity of shapes. He sculpts with his strokes creating an absolute illusion of three-dimensional figures, illuminated with soft smooth light playing on the naked bodies. Dürer’s copperplate engravings were very popular among humanists, painters and art lovers of different countries. They were imitated and copied even in Italy4.

One of the main reasons behind the second Dürer’s journey to Venice (1505–1507) was the necessity to litigate against Italian engravers who copied his works selling copies under their own names. The stay in Venice largely influenced the subsequent development of the artist. Dürer was a mature and well-known master, but he never stopped to improve his skills. It is true that he was now especially attracted by the painting. He tried to grasp the coloristic techniques of great Venetians and, when he went to Bologna, he acquainted himself with theoretical treatises on perspective.

After his return from Italy, he turned once more to engraving. His Passion cycle on copperplates, consisting of sixteen sheets, is made with great accuracy and refinement. In this series the artist is more than ever interested in depicting the interior spiritual force of the human being. The hero, noble and full of dignity, is contrasted with greedy, cruel and malign crowd. The engraver chose the light effects that convey the dramatic tension. Almost in all the engravings of the series the bright ray of light emphasizes the figure of Christ, contrasting it with the surrounding darkness.

In 1513–1514 Dürer created his most famous three engravings, whose impressions were called ‘Master Prints’ already in his lifetime – Knight, Death and the Devil, Saint Jerome in His Study and Melencolia I. Each of them embodied Dürer’s ideas about different sides of human activity, being a symbol of one of three ways that a man could take, according to the views of Dürer’s time.

Active life, firmness, strength of mind, almost fanatical confidence – all these qualities, characteristic of such Reformation figures as Martin Luther, Ulrich von Hutten, Thomas Müntzer and Philip Melanchthon, found their embodiment in the figure of the Knight (Knight, Death and the Devil).

A hard, self-absorbed work of a humanist scholar, neglecting the vanities of the world and tumultuous passions, is shown in the engraving Saint Jerome in His Study. Finally, the torment of artistic creation is incarnated in Melencolia I, which, according to Erwin Panofsky, one of the modern specialists on Dürer, is his spiritual self-portrait.

Saint Jerome in His Study is among the best Dürer’s creations. All the structure of the engraving reflects the Renaissance mentality of the artist. It is a cabinet of a scholar: a large room, full of light, and an old man in the far end of the room, at his desk. Everything is so calm and harmonic in the picture that the man, the space and surrounding objects seem to be parts of a whole. The many items of everyday life do not overshadow the importance of the story. Quite the contrary, such attributes as a skull and an hourglass, symbols of transiency of life, convey a philosophical sense to the whole picture. Even the room itself, full of objects as it is, seems transformed by the sunlight coming through the windows. Dürer does not infringe upon the specificity of the copperplate engravings, but he manages to achieve new and unexpected effects. Making thick lines, very thin ones, dotted ones, enhancing or reducing the number of strokes, the artist not only creates an illusion of shapes and volumes, but even conveys the texture of different materials: silk, animals’ hair, wood, the smooth surface of the bench. He uses short parallel dashes to depict the vibrant patches of sunlight on the bench, on the table, on the floor. With his admiration for the objects surrounding the man, Dürer is a typical representative of the Northern Renaissance. The light plays an important role in all three ‘master stamps’. In Saint Jerome it creates the mood and has a special meaning.

The symbolic role of the light is important in Knight, Death and the Devil. The foreground is dark. A courageous Knight moves through a gloomy gorge, finding himself between the Death and the Devil. The background is inundated with light. These are two different worlds but to get into the second world, the Knight has to overcome the gloom and the horror of the first one.

In Melencolia I the rainbow and the radiance of a falling comet, illuminating the sky, emphasize the universal importance of the event. A chaotic heap of objects and wings on the woman’s back confirm that sentiment. The woman seems an unearthly being but tormented by human doubts and anguishes.

In those engravings Dürer concentrated his main ideas: on the one hand, the heroism in overcoming the external difficulties and self-mortification, rendered with all the passion characteristic of Reformation-era Germany, on the other hand, self-absorption, dissatisfaction and almost Faustian melancholy. Melencolia I is the last one of the three ‘master prints’, and can be considered as the final part of the ‘triptych’. The dissatisfaction it expresses is a result of an intense physical and spiritual activity. Three ‘master prints’, seemingly not connected with each other, are united by meaning. In these, according to Thomas Mann, there is a “whole complex of destiny”, with the hero being at the same time the victim, a “forerunner of a new, higher humanity”. Here Dürer’s art has a connection with Rembrandt who will work in the 17th century.

The 17th century with its interest to the complicated, always evolving inner world of the human being started to use the new technique of etching, though it first appeared in the beginning of 16th century and first attempts at mastering the peculiarities of this technique were made by Dürer. True, the etching with its impulsive lines, strong contrasts of light, dramatic mood and its easiness of sketch lacked strength and persuasiveness to convey the artistic ideas of the 16th century. Besides, the technique was imperfect (first etchings were made on iron, it oxidized quickly, destroying the plate) which was also an obstacle to its quick development in 16th century. Dürer made only six etchings and never returned to this technique because it did not correspond to his aspiration to create rationally constructed and classically harmonious images. Woodcut and copperplate engraving suited him better.

Dürer was the first to demonstrate how many possibilities were offered by the xylography, showing, on the one hand, its decorative properties, on the other hand, its dramatic, expressive character. 15th-century woodcuts had both, but were simplistic and conventional. Dürer made the language of lines more complicated, added space and many small details to his woodcuts, transformed them into a detailed story, bringing the depicted scenes closer to the real life. At the same time, he did not overlook the specific features of xylography; on the contrary, he made them even more expressive. Dürer’s woodcuts favoured the qualitative leap in the development of the technique, and his copperplate engravings achieved a high level of mastery, especially the three ‘master prints’: Knight, Death and the Devil, Saint Jerome in His Study and Melencolia I.

In the end of 15th century the first engravings, made of outlines, were replaced with plastic engravings. The greatest of Dürer’s predecessors, Martin Schongauer, used the light-and-dark shading. But, showing the volumes, the artist was not concerned with the problems of light; his figures, almost sculpted, built on a clear outline, had no connection whatsoever with the space. Dürer was the first to state a problem of relations between the objects and the space and their placement in the space – and the first to solve this problem in the copperplate engraving. He worked out a very complicated system of shading, which permitted him to add light to his engravings and build all his images on tonal gradation. One can see that the development of the engraving went in the direction of approaching the painting, the three dimensions and the space. Dürer managed to achieve the perfection. He was the first to elevate the engraving to the level of high art, to the level of painting and sculpture.

His graphic works are incredibly rich and diverse not only from the technical point of view (woodcuts, cooperplate engravings, etchings, drypoints) but also in genre (illustration, portrait, everyday life, decorative engravings). Dürer often depicts simple people (Peasant Couple Dancing, Three Peasants in Conversation, Peasants on Their Way to the Market). The artist seems to foresee the immense Peasants’ War of 1525, endowing his characters with rough and mighty strength, determination and bellicosity. All this is visible despite his customary irony and condescension of a townsman looking at the peasants.

As a painter, Dürer was very much interested in portraits. In his last years of life he started to make engraved portraits. The most important among them are the portraits of the great 16th-century humanists Erasmus of Rotterdam and Philip Melanchthon, of Dürer’s friend Willibald Pirckheimer, of important political leaders Frederick III and Albrecht of Brandenburg. On each portrait, the artist emphasized the importance of a person depicted and praised his great qualities and deeds in a Latin inscription. All the portraits made by Dürer are a kind of monument to his contemporaries.

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Dürer’s graphic heritage is large. At present, 105 copperplates are known (including etchings and drypoints) and 189 woodcuts, together with important works performed for the Emperor Maximilian I.

Dürer’s prints were so popular in the 16th century that his workshop made an immense number of impressions. Sometimes Dürer’s helpers printed them even in his absence. That is why so many impressions were created in Dürer’s lifetime.

Usually the author made a trial impression, then made corrections and alterations in the image on the plate and then printed it again. This scheme could be repeated a number of times. These so-called ‘states’ can be easily seen in prints from copperplates. It is much more difficult to see them in the case of woodcuts because once made, a woodcut could be changed only in very tiny detail. Before publishing the series, Dürer made few impressions from the final plates on good paper, without text. Such impressions, as well as trial ones, were not for sale. They are very rare.

After Dürer’s death, especially in the first half of the 16th century, new and new impressions of his engravings came to the market. They were often published again in the second half of the 16th and in the 17th century. But the plates decayed and, in the 18th century, new prints from Dürer’s plates are very rare; only few plates, having survived by chance, permitted it.  

The quality of prints made from the same plate depended on the rigorousness of the impression, quality of ink and paper, condition of the plate and quality of carved lines. A thorough impression made from a well inked plate had a clear and clean image. As the time passed, lines of the woodcuts fell out, cracks and fissures appeared on the wooden base. But the copperplates wore out much quicker. Thin, delicate engraving on the copperplates fell victim to the time. The drawing became obliterated, the lines became less deep, less ink came inside the lines and the strokes; new impressions were grey and thin. If a copperplate was much used, scratches appeared, gradually increasing in quantity.

The importance and the value of every impression from a Dürer’s plate depend on time when it was created. To date the prints, one should take into account the presence of scratches, loss of a part of picture, cracks on the plate, and watermarks on paper, permitting to determine the age of the print.

When a researcher studies single sheets, it can be very difficult for him to authenticate them. First copies and forgeries of Dürer’s prints appeared already in the beginning of the 16th century. For instance, in 1502, soon after the publication of Apocalypse, the cycle was copied and published in Augsburg without Dürer’s monogram. Later the quantity of forgeries became immense.

At present, the copies of Dürer’s works can be divided into three groups: firstly, the copies made by known or unidentified artists who sometimes left their monograms; secondly, copies made by unknown artists who have altered the original image (for instance, enlarging it or scaling down, flipping it or changing details and parts of the composition); thirdly, forgeries that faithfully reproduce all the special features of Dürer’s prints. The last ones strongly hamper the work of researchers.

1 From the dialogue De recta latini graecique sermonis pronunciatione. Translated by Erwin Panofsky, cit. in: Panofsky E. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. 4th edition, Princeton, 1955, p. 44.

2 In the late 15th – early 16th century a xylography was created by a painter, who made a drawing, and a carver who cut it in the wood. The quality of the woodcut depended on talent and mastery of both. Dürer was the first artist to keep in his workshop carvers trained by himself, ones that would rigorously fulfill all his requirements.

3 After his return to Nuremberg and the opening of his own workshop, Dürer dedicated himself to woodcuts: the sale of prints became the main source of subsistence for the artist and his family. Dürer’s wife and mother sold his prints on the days of fairs and great Church holidays in Nuremberg and Augsburg, in book markets in Frankfurt on Main. German merchants and probably also Dürer’s special agents took his prints to sell together with other goods in different parts of Germany and in foreign countries.

4 Italians appreciated Dürer more as an engraver than as a painter. Some prints probably were put into Venetian churches (Дюрер А.. Дневники. Письма. Трактаты. Т.. 1. С. 69).