A History of Wood Engraving – Chapter 4 Part 1

These pages are a comprehensive history of wood-engraving.

Source – The Illustrated London News.

From a series of articles published between April 20th 1844 and July 6th 1844












Though the earliest of the wood-cuts designed by Albert Durer appeared towards the close of the fifteenth century, yet as by far the greater number appeared in the sixteenth, it appears preferable to commence this section with some account of his works, in order to mark more emphatically an important epoch in the history of wood-engraving, for no artist of his time contributed more to its advancement.

He was born at Nuremberg, on the 12th May, 1471, and continued with his father, who was a goldsmith, and, consequently, akind of engraver, till his sixteenth year; when, having conceived a great desire to become a painter, he was placed as a pupil with Michael Wolgemuth, for three years, to learn the art of painting. On the expiration of this term, he left his master, and proceeded, in 1490, to travel, for further instruction and experience, according to the custom of both German artists and artisans of that period.

In the course of his travels, which probably did not extend beyond Germany, he visited Colmar, where he was kindly entertained by the brothers of Martin Schongauer, a painter of great eminence, and the best copper-plate engraver in Germany of his time.

He did not, however, see the great artist himself, though some writers have supposed that he was Durer’s master in the art of engraving.

Durer returned to Nuremberg in 1492, where he shortly afterwards married Agnes Frey, a woman of considerable personal charms, but of bad temper.

It has been said that she was the plague of his life, and that she hastened his death by her urging him to unremitting exertions, for the sake of getting money.

In looking over Durer’s numerous works, it is painful to think that some, which seen to have been engraved con amore, may have been in reality “worked on” by the artist, when incited, but not inspired, by his shrewish wife.

The earliest date to be found on any of Durer’s copper-plates is 1494.

Whether he received any instruction in the art of engraving, beyond what he might acquire, when working with his father, as a goldsmith is unknown.

It is deserving of remark that one of the earliest subjects which occupied Durer’s pencil as a designer on wood, was the Apocalypse – a subject which had been a favourite with the old wood-engravers, and whose illustrations of it, and of an apocryphal history of St. John, constitute one of the oldest of the block books. It appears also to have been printed and published by Durer, on his own account, as the block-books were by the old wood-engravers.

It consists of sixteen cuts, of folio size, with the simple title, in German, “ The Revelation of St. John,” and the imprint at the end, “Printed at Nuremburg, by Albert Durer, painter, 1498.”

Another work of Durer’s, consisting of illustrations of the History of the Virgin, which had also formed the subject of one of the old pictorial block-books, appeared in 1511; and a series of eleven large cuts, illustrative of Christ’s passion, was published by him about the same time.

The wood-engravings which constitute those three works are decidedly superior to any that preceded them.

The drawing is free and vigorous, and the composition, or arrangement of the several objects, displays great skill in this department of pictorial art.

The expression, action, and costume of the several figures, though displaying many of the peculiarities of the German school, as well as of Durer’s individual ideal, evince yet more strongly the active imagination and the practiced hand of a truly great artist.

His eye for nature is evident in them all; and he seldom neglects an opportunity of introducing some object or incident which reminds the spectator of real life, although possibly it may not harmonize with his ideal of the subject.

Though his men and women appear much more like Germans of the fifteenth, that Jews and Gentiles of the first century, yet they all suggest the idea of real persons doing what is appropriate to the character and situation assigned to them by the imagination of the artist.

There may be, indeed, anachronisms discoverable in the costume, and the treatment of the subject may seem not sufficiently elevated, yet a spirit which speaks to the mind pervades the whole.

The landscapes are skillfully introduced; and in them, for the first time in any wood engravings, trees are naturally represented, by their appropriate characteristics of different kinds of stems, branches, and foliage.

In many old wood-engravings a tree is indicated by a scrubby looking symbol, which bears as much resemblance to the thing represented, as a bad drawing of an old birch broom bears to a living oak.

In Durer’s works, whether paintings, copper-plates, or wood-engravings, and also in the works of several other German artists of his time, a striking peculiarity may be observed in the drapery of the female figures.

This peculiarity consists in the sharpness and stiffness of the folds, which suggest the idea of the drapery having been starched and cast on the figure when wet, and of then being allowed to dry there without being moved.

This appearance indeed was probably occasioned from the custom which the German artists of that period had of casting their draperies on little lay figures, in a thin kind of paper, which they allowed to dry before making their drawing.

Another great work of Durer’s, but not one of his best, is a large triumphal arch designed by him for the Emperor Maximilian.

It consists of ninety-two pieces, separately engraved on wood, and forming when united one vast subject, which is about ten feet high by nine and a half wide.

Durer also designed for the Emperor a triumphal car, which was engraved on wood by Jerome Resch, one of the most celebrated wood-engravers of his time.

This subject consists of eight pieces, which, when joined together, are upwards of 7 feet long by eighteen inches high.

The Emperor Maximilian was a great patron of the art of wood-engraving. Besides the two subjects above mentioned drawn by Durer, the following were also drawn and engraved on wood by the Emperor’s order for the purpose of commemorating the principal events of his life and perpetuating his fame.

  1. The cuts to a volume entitled the “Adventures of Sir Theurdank,” and allegorical poem, said to have been the joint composition of the Emperor and his secretary, Melchior Pfintzing, and narrating several of the personal adventures of the Emperor himself under the character of Sir Theurdank, the pink of courtesy and knighthood.

This work, which was first printed at Nuremberg in 1517, contains a hundred and eighteen cuts, probably all designed by Hans Schauffein, whose monogram and mark occur on about half a dozen of them: his mark is a little shovel, a rebus of his name Schauffein, which in German signifies a little shovel or baker’s peel.

  1. The cuts in the work entitled the “Wise King,” a work relating to the history of the Emperor’s father, and his own education.

This work was not completed at the time of the Emperor’s death, though all the cuts appear to have been finished and impressions of them taken.

The original blocks having been discovered in the Jesuits’ College at Gratz in Stiria, the text and cuts were printed together for the first time, at Vienna, in 1755.

There are two hundred and thirty six old cuts in the work, and of this number ninety-two contain the mark of Hans Burgmair.

  1. Most of the designs for the Triumphs were made by Hans Burgmair, but the whole of the cuts do appear to have been finished at the time of Maximilian’s death, which happened on the 12th January 1519. Forty of the original blocks of this series having been discovered at Ambras in the Tyrol, and ninety-five more at the Jesuits’ College at Gratz, the whole were brought to Vienna and deposited in the Imperial Library; and in 1796 an edition of them was printed at Vienna, by permission of the Austrian Government.

The blocks are all of pear-tree, and at the back of several of them the names or marks of the engravers are written.

Of the hundred and thirty-five cuts of the Triumphs published there are sixteen which probably do not belong to the series, as the subjects are not to be found in the original drawings of Hans Burgmair, now preserved in the Imperial Library at Vienna, and as the style in which they are designed is so different from that of the others.

The Triumphs are the best, both in design and engraving, of all the wood-cuts executed for the Emperor, not excepting those designed by Albert Durer.

Besides the several series above enumerated, there are many other wood-cuts relating to the Emperor and his family, which appear to have been drawn and engraved by his order. The following cut is a fac-simile of one of the figures in the Triumphs:-

The whole number of wood-cuts which contain Albert Durer’s mark, and which were unquestionably designed by him, is about two hundred; the earliest are those of the Apocalypse, printed in 1498, and the two latest are his own portrait and the siege of a fortified town, both dated 1527, the year before his death.

Whether Durer, and other celebrated painters of his time, such as Hans Burgmair and Lucas Cranach, who were accustomed to make drawings on wood, were also wood-engravers, has frequently been debated, but never positively determined, and probably never will be. It has been indeed positively asserted that they were, but no satisfactory proof of the fact has been produced.

Assuming as an indisputable fact that they did not engrave all the cuts which bear their mark, and admitting that they did engrave some of them, the question then is, which really are the cuts engraved by themselves? But as this question cannot be decided, the result of the supposition that they did engrave on wood themselves, is that, as wood-engravers, they were not superior to many of the mere workmen of the period whose names have died with them.

It may be said, indeed, that those cuts ought to be ascribed to them which display the greatest excellence in the execution; but this is merely cutting the knot, not untying it, for how can it be known that the best cuts are of their own engraving, and how is their excellence to be estimated?

Of the large wood-cuts with Durer’s mark, there is one in particular which has frequently been referred to as a master-piece of wood engraving, and which, from its superiority in point of workmanship, has been supposed to have been executed in part, if not entirely, by Durer himself.

It is thus described in the catalogue of the late Wm. Young Ottley’s engravings:– “God the Father, seated in Heaven, supporting the dead body of Christ, a master-piece of wood-engraving, most probably in part executed by Albert’s own hand.”

Although it is undeniable that there is more work in this cut than in most of the others drawn by Durer, and that the lines, both single and crossing, are more clearly and delicately engraved, yet it no means necessarily follows that when viewed as a whole, and as a production of imitative art, it should be a master-piece of wood-engraving.

The excellence of any wood-engraving, when regarded as a production of art and not as a mere mechanical piece of workmanship, does not consist in delicately engraved single lines and elaborate cross-hatchings alone, but in the proper adaptation and sufficient execution of lines, of whatever kind, as the means of appropriately suggesting the artist’s idea of his subject to the mind of the spectator.

In this latter respect the so-called “master-piece” of Durer’s wood-engravings is deficient; too much mere mechanical labour has been bestowed on it; the means are too obtrusive , for the eye is more forcibly arrested by the evidence of the workman’s labour than the mind is affected by the artist’s design.

This cut – which has been so highly praised by some who appear to have mistaken elaborate execution for artistic excellence in wood-engraving – may, however, form a useful study to engravers and designers o wood, not indeed as an example to be imitated, but as affording so striking an instance of misapplied labour in the quantity of its cross-hatchings, which suggest no idea of wither colour or texture to the imagination, and are expressive of nothing but the workman’s pains.

Though no one of the cuts with Durer’s mark is so decidedly superior in execution to many others of the same period as to warrant the assumption of its having been engraved by himself, and, consequently, of his being one of the best wood-engravers of his time, yet as he was a man of great and various talents, and singularly expert in the employment of the instruments of art, it is yet possible that he might occasionally have taken up the graver, and engraved some portions of the cuts designed by himself.

He was one of the best painters of his time in Germany, and his talent in this branch of art was very highly estimated by many contemporary Italian painters, among whom was Giovanni Bellini, the master of Titian; though there were others – as he himself writes, in a letter from Venice, in 1506 – who said, that though he could engrave well, yet his paintings were not according to ancient art, and that he knew not how to manage his colours.

He was one of the best copperplate engravers of his time, and he appears to have been the first person who applied the process of etching – that is, of “biting-in” the lines by means of a corrosive liquid – for the purpose of obtaining impressions on paper from a plate of metal.

Two of Durer’s earliest etchings are dated 1511, and it has been conjectured that they were executer on iron plates. There appears reason to believe that the process of etching was employed both by German and Italian armourers in “biting-in” the ornamental figures on plate-armour, before it was applied by Durer to the purposes of engraving, in the more limited sense of the word.

Durer was also an excellent sculptor, or rather carver, as his productions in this department of art, both from their size and material are rather carvings than sculptures.

There is an admirable specimen of his talent in this branch of art preserved in the British Museum.

The subject is the “Birth of St. John the Baptist,” and it is executed in hone-stone; and, though the dimensions are only seven and three-quarter inches high by five and a half wide, the different figures are executed in bold relief, and their various characters and expressions are most distinctly portrayed.

This gem of art, though but a carving in hone-stone, formerly belonged to the late R. Payne Knight, who purchased it at Brussels, for five hundred guineas.

Durer not only excelled in the practice of art, but also wrote on the theory. His work on “The Proportions of the Human Body,” first printed at Nuremberg, in 1527, was translated both into Latin and French, and was several times reprinted. He also wrote two other works – “An Essay on the Fortification of Towns and Villages,” and “Instructions for Measuring with the Rule and Compass.”

He died at Nuremberg, on 6th April, 1528, in the fifty-seventh year of his age. He was a great artist and a good man.