Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It remains an open question whether Dürer cut his own woodblocks or drew the design on the block and commissioned a highly skilled woodcutter to do the actual carving. The unparalleled subtlety with which the image was chiseled into the surface has been used as evidence both for and against Dürer's participation. The intricacies involved in shaping the patterns of curving and tapering lines in order to create pictorial effects never before achieved in woodcut must certainly have required Dürer's close supervision, if not his hand on the knife. The block, still in use more than a century after the artist's death, was recut in places to strengthen the image, which had begun to wear away. This is one of two Dürer blocks in the Metropolitan Museum's collection.


  1. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/19.73.255

  2. "The present work, with the exception of two subjects, is taken from the original engravings drawn by Albrecht Durer himself on the wood, and engraved under his own superintendence. [The consensus is that Durer cut the blocks himself for his early works including The Ship of Fools until he could train professional woodcutters to reach the level he had achieved, worlds beyond anything anyone had done up to that time in terms of subtlety, fineness of line, density, etc.] . . . [T]he present, it is believed makes the fourth edition of the genuine blocks. I say genuine blocks, for so great was the popularity and estimation of the work, that there has been more than one obvious imitation of them, besides several avowed copies constantly circulating throughout Europe. The Small Passion is stated by all writers on the subject . . . to have originally consisted of thirty-seven subjects. . . . [He then distinguishes two lifetime editions of the complete work, as opposed to individual printings of individual works that Durer sold or gave away when he traveled]. The third edition of the genuine woodcuts was published at Venice, in 1612, by a Librarian who, according to Heinecke, purchased them in the Netherlands. . . . The engravings republished in the present volumes are from the same blocks. Thirty-five of the thirty-seven of them have found a secure resting place in the British Museum. They were purchased in 1839 by Mr. Josi, the present keeper of the prints, from the Rev. P. E. Boissier, whose father bought them many years ago in Italy. . . . The four impressions of these blocks which were printed by Mr. Otley in his History of Engraving, (p. 730) show the extent of the damage which the blocks have suffered. But in the present edition of them, the defects have been remedied by using stereotype casts of the blocks, which have been taken by a special permission of the trustees of the British Museum [that would never have happened in this century!]. New border lines have been added, the worm-holes stopped, and those parts skillfully recut by Mr. Thurston Thompson, who has also re-engraved with full feeling, the subjects of the Sitting Christ and of Jesus Parting from his Mother. The process of stereotyping has had the good effect of restoring almost the original sharpness and crispness of the lines, and of rendering the present impressions nearer the state of the earliest impressions than they would have been had they been taken from the blocks themselves. This statement may seem paradoxical, but it will be seen that it has a reasonable explanation. In order to take a metal cast of a woodcut, a cast is first taken in moist plaster of Paris. This is thoroughly dried by baking, which causes it to shrink throughout, sometimes as much as the eighth of an inch in a cast of six inches in length. The result of this slight shrinkage has been to reduce these thickened lines nearly to their original fineness, and several of the present impressions are so crisp and clear that they will not suffer by comparison with choice early impressions.

    Select bibliography: Walter L. Strauss in his catalogue raisonne, Albrecht Durer Woodcuts and Woodblocks (Abaris Books, 1980), provides a summary of comments upon each individaul work. Strauss' Commentary volume in the Illustrated Bartsch series updates his earlier commentary. As always, Panofsky's Life and Art of Albrecht Durer (Princeton University Press, 1945, revised editions culminating in the 1971 edition) are crucial for an understanding of the work of this great artist and printmaker.