|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
Antique Prints: Durer The "Little Master"
( Original Published 1903 )
Among the least reprehensible, and also among the least widely diffused, of the recent fads of the collector, there is to be reckoned a certain increase in the consideration accorded to the work of Martin Schongauer. If Martin Schongauer's ingenious and engaging plates -naive in conception, and, in execution, dainty-came ever to be actually preferred to the innumerable pieces which attest the potency and the variety of Durer that preference might possibly be explained, but could never be justified. As it is, however, no reasonable admirer of "the great Albert" can begrudge to one who was after all to some extent his predecessor, and not in all things his inferior, the honourable place which, after many generations of comparative neglect, that predecessor has lately taken, and now seems likely to hold. Schongauer, even more it may be than Albert Durer himself, was, as it were, a path-breaker. The interest of the Primitive belongs to him ; and the interest of the simple. Some of his religious conceptions were expressed in prettier form-and form on that account more readily welcomed-than any that was taken on by the conceptions of the giant mind that even now draws us upon our pilgrimage to Nuremberg, as Goethe draws us to Weimar. The Virgin of Schongauer is more acceptable to the senses than the average Virgin of Durer, whose children, on the other hand (see especially the delightful little print, The Three Genii, Bartsch 66), have the larger lines and lustier life of the full Renaissance. A touch of what appeals to us as a younger naivete, and a touch of what appeals to us as elegance, are especially discernible in the earlier artist's work; and that work too, or much of it, has often the additional attractiveness of exceptional scarcity. Likewise, it is to most of us less familiar. But when all these elements of attraction have been allowed for, the genius of Albert Durer-so much deeper and so much broader, at once more philosophical and moro dramatic, and expressed by a craftsmanship so much more changeful and more masterly-the genius of Albert Durer dominates. If our allegiance has wavered, if we have been led astray for a period, by Martin Schougauer himself, it may be, or by somebody less worthily illustrious, we shall return, wearily wise, to the author of the Melancholia and the Nativity, of the Knight of Death and of The Virgin by the City Wall. To study long and closely the work of the original engravers, is to come, sooner or later, quite certainly to the conclusion that there are two artists standing above all the rest, and that it was theirs, pre-eminently, to express, in the greatest manner, the greatest mind. One of these two artists, of course, is Rembrandt. And the other is Durer.
Adam Bartsch, working at Vienna, in the beginning of this century, upon those monumental books of reference which, as authorities upon their wide subject, are even now only partially displaced, catalogued about a hundred and eight metal plates as Albert Durer's contribution to the sum of original engraving. The Rev. C. H. Middleton-AVake, working in 1893-and profiting by the investigations, all of them more or less recent, of Passavant and G. W. Reid, of Thausing, Durer's biographer, and Mr Koehler, the Keeper of the Prints at Boston, Massachusetts-has catalogued one hundred and three. The number-not so considerable as Schongauer's, by about a couple of scoredoes not, as first thought, seem enormous for one the greater portion of whose life was given to original engraving; but then, it must be remembered, Durer's life, though not exactly a short, was scarcely a long one. And, again, whatever may have been the processes he employed, and even if, as Mr MiddletonWake supposes, etched work, as well as burin-work, helped him greatly along his way, the elaboration of his labour was never lessened; the order of completeness he strove for and attained had nothing in common with the completeness of the sketch. His German pertinacity and dogged joy in work for mere work's sake, never permitted him to dismiss an endeavour until he had carried it to actual realisation. Each piece of his is not so much a page as a volume. The creations of his art have the lastingness and the finality of a consummate Literature, and of those three material things with which such literature has been compared "marbre, onyx, email,"- as the phrase goes, of one who wrought on phrases as Cellini on the golden vase, and Durer on the little sheet of burnished copper.
Of the hundred and three prints which, in the FitzWilliam Museum, Mr Middleton-Wake placed in what he believes to be their chronological order-many, of course, their author himself dated, but many afford room for the exercise of critical ingenuity and care-sixteen belong to the series known as "The Passion upon Copper," which is distinguished by that title from the series of seven-and-thirty woodcuts known generally as "The Little Passion." The "Passion upon Copper," executed between the year 1507 and the year 1513, are pronounced " unequal in their execution," " not comparing favourably with Durer's finer prints," and " engraved for purposes of sale." Now most of Durer's work was " engraved for purposes of sale "-that is, it was meant to be sold-but what the critic may be supposed to mean, in this case, is, that the designs were due to no inspiration; the execution, to no keen desire. Four much later pieces-including two St Christophersare spoken of with similar disparagement. I am unable to perceive the justice of the reproach when it is applied to the Virqin with the Child in Swaddling Clothes-a print of which it is remarked that it, like certain others, is " without any particular charm or dignity; being taken quite casually from burgher-life, and only remarkable for the soft tone of the engraving." No doubt the Virgin with the Child in Swaddling Clothes is inspired by the human life-and that was "burgherlife " necessarily-which Durer beheld ; and it is none the worse for that. It is not one of the very finest of the Virgins, but it is simple, natural, healthy, and it is characteristic, as I seem to see, not only in its technique, but in its conception. What more fascinating than the little bit of background, lavished there, so small and yet so telling ?-a little stretch of shore, with a town placed on it, and great calm water: a reminiscence, it may be, of Italy-a decor from Venice-a bit of distance too recalling the distance in the Melancholia itself. But we must pass on, to consider briefly two or three points in Durer's work: points which we shall the better illustrate by reference to the greater masterpieces.
The year 1497 was reached before the master of Nuremberg affixed a date to any one of his plates. That is the not quite satisfactory composition, curiously ugly in the particular realism it affects-and yet, in a measure, interesting-A Group of Four Naked Women. Thausing doubts, or does more than doubt, the originality of the design. Mr Middleton-Wake holds that in execution, at least, it shows distinct advance upon Durer's earlier work, and amongst earlier work he in- eludes no less than three-and-twenty of the undated plates: putting the Ravisher first, with 1494 as its probable year, and putting last before the Gronp of Naked Women, a piece which he maintains to be the finest of the earlier prints, the Virgin and Child with the monkey.
Looking along the whole line of Durer prints in what he deems to be their proper sequence, Mr MiddletonWake observes, as all observe indeed, wonderful variations-differences in execution so marked that at first one might hesitate to assign to the same master, pieces wrought so differently. He argues fully how their dissimilarity is due " either to a marked progression in their handling" or to an alteration in their actual method. For quick perception of such partly voluntary change, the student is referred to an examination of the Coat of Arms with the Skull, the Coat of Arms with the Cock, the Adam and Eve, the St Jerome, and the Melancholia. The year 1503 was probably the date of the two Coats of Arms ; the great print of the Adam and Eve carries its date of "1504"; the St Jerome is of 1512; the Melancholia of 1514. The practical point established for the collector by such differences as are here visible, and which a study of these particular examples by no means exhausts, is that he must most carefully avoid the not unnatural error of judging an impression of a Durer print by its attainment or its non-attainment of the standard established by some other Durer print he knows familiarly already. The aims technically were so very different, he must know each print to say with any certainty-save in a few most obvious cases-whether a given impression, that seems good, is, or is not, desirable. The " silver-grey tone," for example, so charming in one print, may be unattainable in, or unsuitable to, another.
Upon the question of the meaning of certain prints of Durer, any amount of ingenious, interesting conjecture has been expended in the Past. One of Mr Stopford Brooke's sermons-I heard it preached, now many years ago, in York Street-is a delightful essay on the Melancholia. For suggestions as to the allegorical meaning of The Knight of Death, it may be enough to refer the reader to Thausing (vol. ii. page 225) and to Mrs Hoaton's Life of Durer. The Jealousy, Durer speaks of, in his Netherlands Diary, as a "Hercules." The Knight and the Lady, Thausing says, is one of those Dance of Death pictures so common in the Middle Age. Of the Great Fortune, Thausing holds that its enigmatical design, with the landscape below, has direct reference to the Swiss War of 1499, and this we may agree with; but, explaining, it may be, too far, he writes in detail, "The winged Goddess of Justice and Retribution stands, smiling, on a globe; carrying in one hand a bridle and a curb for the too presumptuous fortunate ones; in the other, a goblet for unappreciated worth." Mr Middleton Wake, wisely less philosophical, urges a simpler meaning. The city of Nuremberg, he reminds us, had, in compliance with Maximilian's demand, furnished four hundred foot soldiers and sixty horse, for the campaign in Switzerland, and at the head of these troops was Pirkheimer, to whom on his return his fellow-citizens offered a golden cup. "We assume," says Mr Middleton-Wake, "that it is this cup which Durer places in the hand of the Goddess." With the Swiss War are also associated the Coat of Arms with the Cock and the even rarer (certainly not finer) Coat of Arms with a Skull. The one may symbolise the anticipated success, the other the failure, of the campaign into Switzerland.
A reference to the Richard Fisher Sale Catalogue (at Sotheby's, May 1892) affords as ready and as correct a means as we are likely to obtain of estimating the present value of fine Durer prints. Mr Fisher's collection was unequal; but it was celebrated, and it was, on the whole, admirable. It was, moreover, practically complete, and in this way alone it represented an extraordinary achievement in Collecting. Its greatest feature was Mr Fisher's possession of the Adam and Eve in a condition of exceptional brilliancy, and with a long pedigree, from the John Barnard, Maberly, and Hawkins collections. This was the first Albert Durer that passed under the hammer on the occasion, and so opened the sale of the Durers with a thunderclap, as it were-Herr Meder paying £410 to bear it off in triumph. Then came the Nativity, the charming dainty little print, which Durer himself speaks of as the "Christmas Day." Mr Gutekunst gave £49 for it. A fine impression of the Virgin with Long Hair fetched 151 ; an indifferent one of the more beautiful Virgin seated by a Wall, £10, 15s. The St Hubert sold for £48-a finer impression of the same subject selling, in the Holford Sale, just a year later, for £150 -the Melancholia, £39; but, it must be remembered, the Melancholia, though always one of the most sought for, is not by any means one of the rarest Durers. The Knight of Death passed, for £100, into the hands of Mr Gutekunst. An early impression of the Coat of Arms with the Cock was bought by Mr Kennedy for L20; the Coat of Arms with the Skull going to Messrs Colnaghi for £42. In the Holford Sale a yet finer impression of this last subject was bought by Herr Meder for £75.
Before I leave, for a while at least, the prosaic questions of the Sale-Room, and pass on to direct attention to the artistic virtues of the "Little Masters," let the "beginning collector," as the quaint phrase runs, be warned in regard to copies. It has not been left for an age that imitates everything-that copies our charming Battersea Enamel, tant bien que mal, and the "scaleblue" of old Worcester, and the lustre of Oriental-it has not been left for such an age to be the first to copy Durer. In fact, no one nowadays bestows the labour required in copying Durer. He is copied nowadays only in the craft of photogravure. But, of old time, Wierix, and less celebrated men, copied him greatly. This is a matter of which the collector-at first at least-has need to beware. It must be stamped upon his mind that Durer's work at a certain period did much engage the copyist. It engaged the copyist only less perhaps than did the work of Rembrandt himself, through successive generations.
And now we speak, though briefly, of the seven German "Little Masters," of whom the best are never "little" in style, but, rather, great and pregnant, richly charged with quality and meaning: "little" only in the mere scale of their labour. The printbuyer who is in that rudimentary condition that he only considers the walls of his sitting-rooms, and buys almost exclusively for their effective decoration, does not look at the Little Masters. Upon a distant wall, their works make little spots. But in a corner, near the fire-on the right-hand side of that arm-chair in which you seek to establish your most cossetted guest, the person (of the opposite sex, generally) whom you are glad to behold-a little frame containing half-adozen Behams, Aldegrevers, to be looked at closely (pieces of Ornament perhaps; exercises in exquisite line), adds charm to an interior which, under circumstances of Romance, may need indeed no added charm at all from the mere possessions of the collector. Still-there are moods. And if the German Little Masters come in pleasantly enough, on an odd foot or so of wall, now and then, how justified is their presence in the portfolio-in the solander-box-when the collector is really a serious one, and when he no longer bestows upon living, breathing Humanity all the solicitude that was meant for his Behams !
To talk more gravely, the German Little Masters should indeed be collected far more widely than they are, amongst us. Scarcely anything in their appeal is particular and local. Their qualities-the qualities of the best of them-are exquisite and sterling, and are for all Time.
The seven Little Masters, on whom the late Mr W. Bell Scott-one of the first people here in England to collect them-wrote, in an inadequate series, one of the few quite satisfactory books, are, Altdorfer, Parthel Beham, Sebald Beham, Aldegrever, Pencz, Jacob Binck, and Hans Brosamer. One or two of these may quickly be discerned to be inferior to the others; one or two to be superior; but it would be priggish to attempt to range them in definite order of merit. It may suffice to say that to me at least Aldegrever and the Behams appeal most as men to be collected. The Behams-Sebald especially-was a very fine Ornamentist. Aldegrever, it may be, was an Ornamentist yet more faultless. Some examples of his Ornament the collector should certainly possess. And then he will come back very probably to the Behams, recognising in these two brothers a larger range than Aldegrever had, and a spirit more dramatic-an entrance more vivid and personal into human life, a keen in terest in human story. They were realists, not without a touch of the ideal. And in design and execution, they were consummate artists, and not only-which they were too, of course-infinitely laborious and. exquisite craftsmen.
Adam Bartsch has catalogued, in his industrious way, according to the best lights of his period, the works of the Little Masters. His volumes are the foundation of all subsequent study. To Altdorfer he assigns ninety-six pieces (I speak of course here, and in every case, of pieces engraved on metal); to Barthel Beham, sixty-four; to Sebald Beham - whose life, though not a long, was yet a longer one than Barthel's -two hundred and fifty-nine; to Jacob Binck, ninetyseven; to George Pencz, a hundred and twenty-six; to Heinrich Aldegrever, no less than two hundred and eighty-nine; to Brosamer, four-and-twenty. But of late years, as was to be expected, certain of these masters have been the subjects of particular study. Thus we have, in England, the dainty little catalogue of Sebald Beham, by the Rev. W. J. Loftie-a book delightfully printed in a very limited edition. That book brings up the number of Sebald Beham's assured plates to two hundred and seventy-four. Dr Rosenberg has also, in much detail, written in German upon the plates of this fascinating artist; and still more lately M. Edouard Aumuller has published, at Munich, in the French tongue, elaborate, though indeed scarcely final, studies of the Behams and of Jacob Binck.
Of the German Little Masters, Albrecht Altdorfer is the earliest. He was only nine years Durer's junior; nearly twenty years separate him from others of the group. Born it really even at the present moment seems difficult to say where, Altdorfer, Dr Rosenberg considers, was actually a pupil of Diirer's-an apprentice, an inmate of his house, probably, soon after Durer as a quite young man, already prosperous and busy,took up his abode, with his bride, Agnes Frey, at the large house by the Thiergarten Gate. But whatever was the place of Altdorfer's birth and whatever the place of his pupilage-and neither matter, as it seems, is settled conclusively-Ilatisbon is the city in which his life was chiefly spent. There he was architect as well as painter and engraver; an official post was given him; and during the last decade of his career his architectural work for Ratisbon caused, it is to be presumed, the complete cessation of his work of an engraver. Merits Altdorfer of course has-variety and ingenuity amongst them-or his fame would hardly have survived; but Mr W. B. Scott, whose criticism of him was that of an artist naturally rather in sympathy with the methods of his endeavour, never rises to enthusiasm in his account of him. His drawing is not found worthy of any warm commendation, nor his craftsmanship with the copper. The great lessons he might have learnt from Durer, he does not seem fully to have appropriated. His design is deemed more fantastic. But his range was not narrow, and apart from his practice in what is strictly lineengraving, he executed etchings of Landscape-caring more than Durer did, perhaps, for Landscape for its own sake: studying it indeed less lovingly in detail, but with a certain then unusual reliance on the interest of its general effect. Some measure of romantic character belongs to his Landscape: "partly intensified," says Mr Scott, " and partly destroyed, by the eccentric taste that appears in nearly everything from his hand." The pine had fascination for him.'° And he loaded its boughs with fronds, like the feathers of birds, and added long lines, vagaries of lines, that have little or no foundation in Nature."
Of both the Behams, Mr Loftie assures us that they were pupils of Durer. Greater even than the artist I have just been writing about, they show, it seems to me, at once an influence more direct from Durer, and an individuality more potent, of their own. Barthel, the younger of the two brothers-one whose designs Sebald, with all his gifts, was not too proud to now and then copy-was born at Nuremberg in 1502. "Le dessin de ses estampes," writes M. Aumuller, "est savant et gracieux, et son burin eat d'une elegance brillante et moelleuse." The words-though it is impossible, in a line or two, to generalise a great personality-are not badly chosen. Exiled from Nuremberg, whilst still young, Barthel Beharn laboured at Frankfort, and, later, in Italy-a circumstance which accounts for something in the character of his work. For, in Barthel, the Italian influence is unmistakable; he is, as Mr Scott says truly, " emancipated from the wilful despising of the graces." In Italy, in 1540, Barthel died.
Sebald Beham, the more prolific brother, whose years, ere they were ended, numbered half a century, was born in 1500. He remained at home-not indeed at Nuremberg, but long at Frankfort-yet, remaining at home, his work was somehow more varied. A classical subject one day, and peasant life the next, an ornament now, and now a design symbolical like his Melancholia-these interested him in turn; and, as for his technical achievement, his Coat of Arms with the Cock (for he, like Durer, had that, as well as a Melancliolia) would suffice to show, had he nothing else to show, his unsurpassable fineness of detail. °` Cette superbe gravure," M. Aumnller says-and most justifiably, for technical excellence cannot go any further, nor is there wanting majesty of Style. At the Loftie Sale some happy person acquired for £4 this lovely little masterpiece: at the Durazzo Sale, £5 was the price of it. Analysis of Sebald Beham's prints shows that of his noble work on metal seventy-five subjects are suggested by sacred and nineteen by "profane" history. Mythology claims thirty-eight designs, and Allegory thirty-four. Genre subjects, treated with the various qualities of observation, humour, warmth, absorb some seventy plates. Of vignettes and ornaments, there are about two score.
In 1881-several years after he had finished his Catalogue-the Rev. W. J. Loftie sold in Germany his remarkable collection of Sebald Beham's works. Next perhaps, in importance, in recent times, to Mr Loftie's collection, was that of Richard Fisher-dispersed at a sale I have already spoken off. From the Fisher Sale, which was so comprehensive in its character, we will take note of the prices here in England of at least a few fine things-premising that whatever be the prices fetched by an exceptional rarity, a very few pounds (often only three or four), spent carefully, will buy, at a good dealer's, a fine Beham. In the Fisher Sale then, the Madonna and Child with the Parrot fetched £5, 10s.; the Madonna with the Sleeping Child, £17, 10s. (Meder); the Venus and Cupid, £3, 10s. (Deprez) ; the magnificently drawn Leda, only eleven shillings-but then it must have been a bad impression, for a fine one at the Loftie Sale fetched £4, 10s., and at the Kalle Sale, £6-Death Surprising a Woman in her Sleep, £3, 12s. (Meder) ; the Bu, foon, and the Two Couples, £5; the Two Buffoons, First State, £7, 12s. (Deprez); the Ornament with a Cuirass and the two Cupids, £3, 10s. At the same sale, Aldegrever's Virgin Sitting had gone for £7, 10s., and Barthel Beham's Lucretia for £4, his Fight for the Standard for £4, his Vignette with Four Cupids for £4, 4s. But it ought perhaps to be remembered that in several cases the representation of the Little Masters in Mr Fisher's Sale was not good enough to bring the prices which, under favourable circumstances, are wont to be realised by the finest impressions. In regard to Barthel Beham, I will add that the highest price accustomed to be fetched by any print of his, is fetched by his rare, strong portrait of Charles the Fifth. Having said what I have of it, I cannot say that it is undesirable, but it is quite undesirable if it stands alone-for it is exceptional rather than characteristic: in mere size, for one thing. A First State of it has fetched as much as sixty pounds: a Second State averages about twelve.
To Aldegrever-perhaps the very greatest of the Ornamentists-the most general of recent students of the School, Dr Rosenberg, does the least justice. Mr Scott, upon the other hand, asserts his position with strength; nor will it be unprofitable for amateur or collector if I quote, at some length, what he says. The Behams, who were great, and Altdorfer, who was scarcely great, we have-for our present purposesdone with already. But about the others Mr Scott may well be heard. " George Pencz," he reminds us, "left the Fatherland and subjected himself to Italian influence, both in manipulation and in invention, while Brosamer and Jacob Binek are of comparatively little consequence." I hope-may I say in a parenthesis?that Mr Scott attached great weight to his "comparatively," for otherwise he did the charming work of Jacob Binek a rude injustice. But to proceed" Aldegrever is the most worthy successor to Durer, and is the greatest master of invention, with the truest German traditions of sentiment and romance, as well as the most prolific ornamentist. He remains all his life skilfully advancing in the command of his graver, to which he remains true. Like Lucas of Leyden, he lives a secluded life, and his miniature prints continue to issue from his hands with more and more richness and independence of poetic thought, until we lose sight of him, dying where he had lived, in the small town of Soest, without any writer to record the particulars of his modest life." It may be added that Rosenberg considers not only that Aldegrever was never under Durer's direct tuition-though carrying out the Durer traditions-but also that he was never in Nuremberg at all. And, by this moans isolating Aklegrever from the coterie that grew up in the Franconian town, Rosenbey; derives him rather from Lucas van Leyden. To which Mr Scott answers, that if Aldegrever never left his native Westphalia, never even visited Nuremberg and Augsburg, "he apprehended the movement wonderfully from a distance, and appropriated as much as he chose -happily for his works-as much as properly amalgamated with his Northern nature."
A great name has passed our lips in discussing this thing briefly. I wish that there were space herethat it had been a part of my scheme to treat, not so utterly inadequately, Lucas van Leyden. But in a book of this sort-which must seize, so to say, upon finger-posts, where it can-half of the business is renunciation, and I renounce, unwillingly, the fair discussion of the great early Flemish master. Direr himself approved of him: gladly exchanged original prints with Master Lucas of Leyden, who showed him courtesy on a journey. Numerically the work of Lucas is not inferior-rather the other way-to Albert Durer's His range of subject was hardly less extensive, though his range of mind was less vast. In a dramatic theme, Lucas of Leyden could hold his own with any one. He had less of unction and of sentiment-less depth, in fine, very likely. But the great prints of the Renaissance in the North are not properly represented in a collector's portfolios, if the work of this master of various and prolific industry is altogether omitted. His draughtsmanship, though it improved with Time, was never the searching draughtsmanship of Durer, indeed, or of one or two of Durer's followers. Yet it was expressive and spirited. And spirit, vivacity, a certain grace even, are well discovered in the rare work of Lucas in a particular field in which the Behams and Aldegrever triumphed habitually and in which Albert was occasionally great-I mean the field of Ornament. The rare Panneau d'Ornements (Bartsch, 164-dated 1528), in scheme of light and shade, in scheme of action, in ingenious, never-wearying symmetry of line, in tell ing execution, reaches a place near the summit. The collector, when the chance offers, does well to give the six or seven, eight or ten guineas perhaps, which, in some fortunate hour, may be its ransom.