Recent Acquisitions: Representations of The Circumcision by Dürer and Goltzius

Posted on March 01, 2009 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, spring/summer 2009

In 1593–94 Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558–1617), one of the most influential artists in the history of printmaking, engraved a set of six large scenes titled The Early Life of the Virgin. From the outset, the prints were regarded as models of several different styles: those of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), Raphael (1483–1520), Titian (c. 1490–1576), Lucas van Leyden (1489/94–1533), Jacopo Bassano (c. 1510–1592), and Federico Barocci (c. 1535–1612). Goltzius creatively borrowed recognizable elements from older paintings or prints and rearranged them to make entirely new compositions of his own, which he engraved in a manner associated with each artist. The series helped to establish his reputation as a versatile artist and became known as his Master Prints—the same expression used to describe three famous engravings by his great predecessor Albrecht Dürer. Efforts such as these to surpass the achievements of previous generations of printmakers marked Goltzius's work for the rest of his career.

In the case of The Circumcision, Goltzius came so close in appearance to a work by Dürer that—according to Karel van Mander (1548–1606)—it was mistaken for an authentic print by the Renaissance master. The Hood also recently acquired the original composition by Dürer, a renowned German artist active in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, which was one of twenty woodcuts depicting the Life of the Virgin based on St. Luke's Gospel and the apocryphal writings. The series was considered Dürer's most accomplished set of prints executed from 1500 to 1505.

Goltzius modeled the overall composition, several figures, and myriad details after Dürer's earlier print, but he also introduced a number of unique features that would have been recognized by some of his contemporaries. Most importantly, the setting was transformed from an ideal image of the Temple in Jerusalem to an accurate rendering of the Brewers' Chapel in the church of St. Bavo in Haarlem, and he added a self-portrait in the background. As Van Mander noted in his biography of the Dutch artist in 1604, "These [prints] prove that Goltzius was a rare Proteus or Vertumnus, who could assume all possible guises in his art and can recreate in all possible styles."

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Written March 01, 2009 by Kristin Swan