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Famous Printmaking Artists – Woodcut – Albrecht Durer

Famous Printmaking Artists – Woodcut – Albrecht Durer

Dürer – the woodcut genius

Albrecht Dürer was a master in various media, but it was in woodcut design that his creative genius reached its highest expression making him famous across the world and changing the history of printing techniques and art itself.

The importance of the godfather in the life of this famous Printmaking artist.

No, we will not write anything about the mafia, but this gentleman’s godfather, Anton Koberger had, undoubtedly, a great influence on this story.

Anton Koberger abandoned his career as a goldsmith to become a major publisher and printer, probably in the year of Dürer’s birth. In fact, he owned twenty-four movable presses and several typographies inside and outside Germany. His most famous publication was the Hartmann Schedel Chronicles of Nuremberg, published in 1493. This publication contained an unprecedented number of woodcuts (exactly 1809), many with repeated use of the same block, executed in the Wolgemut workshop, where Dürer was an apprentice. Like any trainee of our time, Dürer almost certainly has worked on this project, receiving a thorough training in the execution of drawings on wooden boards.

After his marriage in 1494 (typical family arrangement of that time) and after his first trip to Italy that same year, he returns to Nuremberg and opens his own workshop.

Between 1495 to 1505 he carried out several works, especially woodcuts, notable for their size, balance, and complexity of composition, which helped to establish his reputation. Among them is the series of illustrations from the Apocalypse (1498), considered to be the beginning of a new era concerning this art; the engravings of The Great Fortune, where the Italian influence is felt in the Vitruvian proportions and attributes of the idealized figure of the goddess Fortuna or Nemesis; and The Fall of Man, of which he was so proud that he inscribed his complete name on it. In other works, he only used his famous monogram. The Apocalypse series includes fifteen woodcuts, published as a book. The Four Horsemen, stands out, by its importance, representing the forces of Death, War, Hunger, and Pest.

Woodcutting, which implies designing on wood, was for him the ideal way to express his thoughts and ideas.

Did Dürer really cut himself the woodblocks?

The question generated a long dispute, spanning centuries. It is now generally accepted that Dürer drew the designs on wood, leaving the mechanical part of the work to be executed by a Formschneider (woodblock cutter) of Nuremberg. (Remember the part about the division of works in our post about woodcut?)

One of the strongest evidence that supports this conclusion is the fact that Dürer left many autobiographical writings, mentioning various kinds of work on which he was employed. He appears as a painter, a designer, an editor of works engraved on wood, but never as a woodcut artist.

However, we can accept that the artist did not cut the woodblocks for all his woodcuts, but it is too much to accept that he absolutely did not cut any of them. With the considerable amount of woodcuts and wood carving carried on his workshop, probably even his pets learned how to carve.


Back again from… Venice!

After a new trip to Italy and back to Nuremberg in mid-1507, his reputation had spread throughout Europe and was treated with camaraderie and friendship by the masters of the time. Rafael himself was honored to trade drawings with him (who would not?). And in 1512 Emperor Maximilian I, from whom he received special protection, appointed him the painter of the Court.

During this period he also completed the series of woodcuts of the Great Passion and the Life of the Virgin, both published in 1511 and a second edition of the scenes of the Apocalypse. From 1511 to 1514, Dürer concentrated on the engravings, both in wood and in copper and the thirty-seven woodcuts of the Little Passion were his masterpiece of that period.

In his last years, he contracted an indeterminate disease that is believed to have been malaria, drastically reducing his work rate, also due to the time he spent in preparation of his theoretical works in geometry and perspective, proportions and fortifications.

Of course… TOP genius in all themes! 😉

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A simply magnificent publication!

The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer (Dover Fine Art, History of Art)

In this book you can find all of his extant woodcuts, a collection of over 300 great works containing all the familiar cuts long treasured by the world’s art lovers: the celebrated series on the Life of the Virgin, The Apocalypse of John (17 cuts), The Great Passion, St. Jerome in his Study, Samson Fighting the Lion, The Fall of Icarus, The Six Knots, The Men’s Bath, St. Christopher, The Virgin in Glory, The Rhinoceros, The Last Supper of 1523, illustrations from Dürer’s “The Art of Measurement” and from his four books on human proportion, and many others. This book is the only available source for many of these works.

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  • Donald Furst February 12, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    With the extraordinary micro-precision of these woodcuts, not just any plank would work. Do we know what species of tree yielded these masterpieces?
    Was it linden wood?

    • TOP Team February 12, 2018 at 8:33 pm

      Thank you very much for your comment and interest shown.
      We can not answer for sure but probably liden wood was used because of its very little grain and a high density.
      In Germany it was the classic wood for sculpture and is known for its intricate carving.
      Other woods from fruit trees (eg. lemon tree) and boxwood (the best for wood engraving) have probably been used as well.


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