Albrecht Durer Woodcut of Samson Rending the Lion

This woodcut print by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is one of the older works to have come into the studio. But considering its age, the work is in fairly good shape. Along the left there are some rust stains. The top region has a number of holes courtesy a few hungry insects. General brown discoloration is due to acid stains. And the paper was split in the middle.

A water bath was used to help coax the print from its mount, which was a very delicate process. Fortunately, both the print and the backing were of good paper quality, and the adhesive that had been used appears to have been either rice paste or wheat paste. Both are conservation friendly as they’re pH neutral, non-acidic, and are reversible in water.

A second water bath was used to help lift the acid stains even more. Rice paper was used like a barge to give greater control over the submersion, and to support the print when it needed to be lifted from the water. The heat press helps dry and flatten the print.

The Met has the original woodcut for Samson Rending the Lion and they have a wonderful writeup: “Dürer elevated the medium of woodcut to an unprecedented level of technical virtuosity. In Samson Rending the Lion, he achieved striking pictorial effects that vie with those created in contemporary engravings. Remarkable gradations of tone were realized in the lion’s mane—all the more amazing if one considers that each tapered black line in the print was formed in the woodblock by chipping away the wood on either side of the intended line. Such expert and self-assured handling is particularly characteristic of Dürer’s early woodcuts, dating to the 1490s. A print engraved about twenty years earlier by Israel van Meckenem served as the source for Dürer’s powerful depiction of the Old Testament hero who, “suddenly seized” by the spirit of God, “tore the lion to pieces as if it were a kid” (Judges 14:6). The weaponless Samson is here shown on the lion’s back, one foot pressed into its neck as he forces open its mouth.”

Albrecht Durer was born in Nuremberg, Germany on May 21, 1471, the second of eighteen children in the family of a master goldsmith. Fifteen of the children died at an early age and Durer’s mother was often sick, especially in the last years of her life. Although his father was not pleased with his artistic ambitions, at the age of fifteen, Durer was apprenticed to a painter.

Durer is arguable the greatest artist in German history. By adopting the new forms of the Italian quattrocento and connecting them to the already robust tradition of the German print, he almost single-handedly provoked the Northern Renaissance. He had an insatiably inquisitive mind and this led him to be an avid travel, which he started in 1490 before he was nineteen. Up to this time he had spent a four year apprenticeship with master painter and engraver, Michael Wolgemut. He then went to Colmar, France to work under Martin Schongauer, but it took him two years to reach Colmar, and by then Schongauer was dead. His wanderings across Europe included two trips to Venice that were capped  by a year-long sojourn in The Netherlands, where he was a celebrity among celebrities.

In moving from Nuremberg to Venice, Durer reversed a whole direction of cultural priorities. The center to which German artists had previously looked were Bruges and Ghent in Flanders, along with the northern Gothic style shaped there by artists like the Van Eycks and Hugo van der Goes. What fascinated Durer was Italian humanism and all that flowed from the discovery of classical antiquity.

Durer married Agnes Frey in 1494, and in the same year made his first visit to Venice. He would return there in 1505 and stay for two years. Meanwhile he built a great house which still stands on the castle hill in Nuremberg. Durer was a rather indifferent and rude husbands. On his own he took his wife’s dowry and setup a graphics workshop, the products of which his wife was tasked with sitting at the markets and fairs and trying to sell them. He seldom traveled with her and many years later, when he did take her on a trip to the Netherlands, he allowed her to accompany him to only one of the many banquets given in his honor. When they did stay at home, she was left upstairs to eat with the maid.

The success of Durer’s work led the way for other German artists, Matthias Grunewald, Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Holbein the Younger and Martin Luther’s great friend, Lucas Cranach, all of whose work made Germany for half a century the leader of the Northern Renaissance.

 

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