A-level: Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings

Albrecht Dürer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497-98, and St. Jerome in his Study, 1514

[0:00] [music]

Beth Harris: [0:04] We’ve talked about Dürer as a great painter from northern Germany, but Dürer was also a great printmaker.

David Drogin: [0:13] This is an excellent example to talk about Dürer’s printmaking in part because it’s a woodcut. There are several different types of printmaking that are popular in the late 1400s and early 1500s, and the woodcut was the first and most popular type of printing at the time.

[0:28] There’s a couple of reasons for that, but maybe one of the most important ones is the way that a woodcut is made. When we’re looking at a woodcut like this, what we have to keep in mind is that all of the lines that have been printed on the page were raised up off the surface of the printing block.

[0:45] And so we need to imagine that on the piece of wood that this was printed from, when we look at this cloud, there was a thin piece of wood standing up from the surface, and the carver, sometimes Dürer himself, had carved away everything that’s white and blank. It’s like a stamp. It’s very labor-intensive, but it’s worth it in the end because you can make a lot of them.

[1:03] And you can make money that way, as Dürer did. You can spread your point of view that way because they can be distributed. They’re very portable. And so a lot of effort goes into it at first, but then once you’re making the prints, there’s a lot of them, they’re inexpensive, they can be carried around easily, and so they helped spread your name or your ideas very quickly.

[1:21] I was going to say that they were popular because they could be combined with the printed word, which is printed more and more often at this time because like letters in a typewriter, the images are raised up off the surface like the letters, and so they could all be combined in the same printing press and used together.

Beth: [1:36] The printing press.

David: [1:37] He was interested in other kinds of media too, because although he could achieve, as we can see, a great deal of light and shadow and some detail in these woodcuts, there are, ultimately, limitations to the woodcut process, even though Dürer was a great master, as we can see.

[1:53] And the primary problem is, as we’ve said, that you’re cutting away what you don’t want to print, it’s not a very direct way of making a representation. You’re not drawing with a pen or painting with a paintbrush. You’re making the marks that you don’t want to appear on the paper, if that makes any sense, and that creates difficulties.

[2:08] Also, it’s very hard in a woodcut to get very fine lines or very sharp details because if you want a very thin line, like the lines in the clouds are to a certain extent, you have to imagine these are very thin fins, basically, of wood that are sticking up, and in the printing press, they might crush.

[2:25] So Dürer is interested in other methods of printing that can give him these kinds of details and tonal gradation. What he’s able to do is, then, instead, later in his life, take advantage of the engraving printing technique, which is very different from the way a woodcut is made. The primary difference is that, with an engraving, the gestures that you make are the lines that will appear on the paper…

Beth: [2:47] Like drawing.

David: [2:48] …like drawing. With an engraving, you work with a metal plate and you use a very sharp instrument with a V-shaped tip—it’s called a burin—and you push that through the metal. The lines that you’re making with this tool can be extremely thin. You can make the very faintest of lines.

[3:05] Here, we can see how Dürer has been able to achieve the kind of detail and textural nuances and subtleties of shade and light that he would never, ever be able to achieve with a woodcut.

Beth: [3:16] Shadows and light.

David: [3:16] You’re carving the lines. Then the ink goes all over the plate, including in the lines. You wipe off the surface of the plate so that the ink is only in the lines. Then you put it through a printing press that presses much harder than a woodcut printing press.

[3:29] This is one of the disadvantages of engravings. There are a couple compared to woodcuts. One of them is that, because of the high pressure of the printing press and the faint, very delicate dots and lines of an engraving, you can’t make as many good prints. You can print fewer engravings than you can a woodcut, surprisingly.

Beth: [3:48] And that would make them more expensive.

David: [3:50] That makes them more expensive, along with the fact that the raw materials that you’re using are also more expensive, metal instead of wood.

Beth: [3:57] And by the way, this is “Saint Jerome in his Study,” by Dürer.

David: [4:00] This is “Saint Jerome in the Study,” a later print by Dürer from the early 1500s. It’s amazing how he’s able to achieve with an engraving the characteristic features of Northern European painting like the effects of light and shadow, the sense of texture, the sense of detail, and also this idea of the solitary man working at probably the translation of the Bible that Jerome is famous for.

[4:21] That sense of devotion and solitary pensive thought is also rather Northern. We should also add that there are influences of Italian art here. It’s quite evident that Dürer has used one-point perspective. In the early 1500s, there were not many Northern European artists who had the mastery of perspective as Dürer did, since he had traveled to Italy twice in the 1490s.

Beth: [4:40] Yes, which he did. He’s a bit showing off here, I think.

David: [4:41] Absolutely.

[4:42] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. David Drogin and Dr. Beth Harris, "A-level: Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings," in Smarthistory, May 18, 2017, accessed June 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/albrecht-durers-woodcuts-and-engravings-2/.