A History of Printmaking: The First 100 Years

A History of Printmaking: The First 100 Years

Viewing rooms seem to be designed for the stark emptiness of concrete-floored contemporary galleries. We are happy, however, that the install shot that introduces our first attempt at this platform is not the only way that small-to-very-tiny old master prints can be presented and would like to take you on a brief journey through the first hundred years of printmaking.
Textiles were imprinted with woodblocks in China at least since the third century CE, both the Incas and the Aztecs practiced textile printing before the Spanish arrived, and the oldest examples in Europe date from the twelfth century. However, it took until the early fifteenth century for prints as we know them today to be made. Two preconditions were required: one was paper which began to be more widely available starting only around 1400; the other was, with regards to engraving (and later also etching), a conceptual leap that encouraged artists to apply techniques used for the adornment of exquisite vessels, weapons, and armor to plane sheets of metal. Usually made of copper, those plates became the matrix from which one could print images on multiple pieces of paper. Thus began the new era of the reproduceable work of art.

Image Credit:

C.G. Boerner

German or Netherlandish

Pietà - Virgin and child on a Crescent Moon Surrounded by the Five Holy Wounds of Christ

ca. 1500

each 45/46 x 35/36 mm


C.G. Boerner, Neue Lagerliste 79, 1983, no. 3

superb impressions in very good condition with small margins all round

together $ 8,000

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

MARTIN SCHONGAUER (ca. 1450/early 1450s Colmar - Breisach 1491)

Two Shields Supported by an Oriental

diameter 76 mm


Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Lucerne, Katalog 11, Lucerne, n.d., no. 231, described as “superb early impression in perfect condition with small margins“; Carl and Rose Hirschler, née Dreyfus, Haarlem (Lugt 633a), acquired in March 1928; thence by descent

$ 20,000

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MARTIN SCHONGAUER (ca. 1450/early 1450s Colmar - Breisach 1491)

Six Apostles: St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Thomas, St. Philip, St. Bartholomew, St. Matthew (from the series of The Twelve Apostels)

ca. 1480

each 89/90 x 43-51 mm

engravings; all fine impressions; the sheets in very good condition with thread margins all round

Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Lucerne, catalogue 38, November 1938, nos. 457–462; Carl und Rose Hirschler, née Dreyfus, Haarlem (Lugt 633a); thence by descent

each $ 14,000

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ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471 - Nuremberg - 1528)

Die Heilige Anna Selbdritt – The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

ca. 1500

115 x 71 mm

engraving; Bartsch 29; Meder 43 a (of c); Schoch/Mende/Scherbaum 27. WATERMARK: bull’s head (Meder 62)

Norbert Handwerk, Munich and Switzerland (with his paraphe in pencil verso); his sale, Christie’s, New York, November 19, 1986, lot 481; Samuel Josefowitz, Pully, Switzerland

A fine impression of this rare print; trimmed to or just outside the subject, missing a tiny part of the lower left corner; otherwise in very good condition.

$ 19,000

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Albrecht Dürer, Nativity (Detail)

ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471 - Nuremberg - 1528)


ca. 1498

324 x 223 mm

engraving; Bartsch 73; Meder 63 second (final) state, before the scratch on the right calf of Hercules b (Meder lists further editions with the scratch from a to f); Schoch/Mende/Scherbaum 22. WATERMARK: small jug (Meder 158; dated ca. 1525)

P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London (their stock nos. in pencil verso C3437 and C14119)

A richly inked impression, even displaying tonal wiping in some of the darker areas, most notable on the body and shawl of the female nude; trimmed on the plate mark all round; the sheet is untreated with only some faint browning along the left edge.


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HANS SEBALD BEHAM (1500 Nuremberg - Frankfurt/Main 1550)

Virgin and Child with the Pear


114 x 76 mm

engraving; Bartsch 18; Pauli and Hollstein 19 first state (of two)

A very good impression of this rare print; in very good condition, with thread margins on three sides, trimmed on the platemark bottom right and bottom. Hollstein indicates that earlier impressions, such as this one, do not have a scratch above the head of the Virgin.

$ 4,000

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9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

Martin Luther (after LUCAS CRANACH)

DANIEL HOPFER (ca. 1470 Kaufbeuren - Augsburg 1536)


229 x 156 mm

etching; Bartsch 86; Hollstein 96 first state (of two); Metzger 102 first issue (of four)

John Postle Heseltine, London (Lugt 1508); C.G. Boerner, Neue Lagerliste 75 (1981), no. 7 (our stock no. 10339)

An exceptionally fine early impression printed in Hopfer’s studio. It predates the issues of the plate printed by Kilian in the early seventeenth century and shows no signs of wear (the corrosion marks appear on the plate early on and caught ink in this impression due to its generous inking.

$ 28,000

attributed to DANIEL HOPFER (ca. 1470 Kaufbeuren - Augsburg 1536)

The Franciscan Monk Frater Ossváld Pelbart Reading in a Garden


178 x 118 mm, the roundels averaging 38 mm in diameter

white-line woodcut from five blocks

title-page of Pomerium de Sanctis fratris Plebarti ordinis sanctis Francisci. These title-pages are the earliest datable examples of white-line woodcuts.

$ 6,000

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9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471 - Nuremberg - 1528)

Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel – Christ among the Doctors

ca. 1503

297 x 209 mm

woodcut; Bartsch 91; Meder 203 proof before the text; Schoch/Mende/Scherbaum 181. WATERMARK: high crown (Meder 20)

Josef V. Novák, Prague (cf. Lugt 1949); Robert Scholtz, Budapest (Lugt 2241); Dr. Gottfried Eissler, Vienna (Lugt 805b); C.G. Boerner, Leipzig, sale 136, 1921, lot 322; Charles H. Watkins, Boston (stamp verso, not in Lugt); private collection, Switzerland (acquired from N.G. Stogdon, Inc., New York, 1987); N.G. Stogdon, catalogue 8, 1991–92, no. 18; private collection

$ 24,000

HANS BURGKMAIR THE ELDER (1473 - Augsburg - 1531)

Des kunig von Schotten begrebnus – The Burial of the King of Scotland

ca. 1514/16

221 x 197 mm

woodcut; Muther 854, no. 139; Hollstein 527; Petermann 207 second state (of six); Geissler 197 fig. 171

Princes of Liechtenstein (Lugt 4398)

$ 18,000

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This new cultural technique was used – and its products were used up. It took at least half a century until prints were not just “consumed” as indulgences, as playing cards, or as models in artists’ workshops. Only toward the end of this first “century of the print” collectors started to treasure them for their artistic value, and it is therefore fair to say that fifteenth century prints were generally rare already during Dürer’s lifetime. Examples are the two tiny engravings featured here. Both are unique, no other impressions are known and they have, until now, not been recorded in the scholarly literature. Martin Schongauer is perhaps the first printmaker whose work found a wider distribution and appreciation. He was the model which Dürer followed when he decided to concentrate a large part of his artistic production on printmaking. Dürer is the first printmaker who sees himself as an artist and not merely as an artisan.
Dürer’s most important “target group” were humanist scholars – today we would call him intellectuals – as well as wealthy patrician interested in culture and supporting the arts. Engravings such as his Hercules are not only a technical tour-de-force. The composition incorporates a multitude of motifs that might (or might not) allude to classical texts or that derive from examples of Italian art which in turn reflect works from classical antiquity. The complexity of both content and form is meant as an invitation to the learned viewer to open up a discourse. How successful he was can be seen in the fact that this discourse still continues in today’s art historical attempts to find convincing interpretations of Dürer’s Denkbilder (images to think about).
The “older” technique of the woodcut was also developed further. The first years of the sixteenth century witness the appearance of so-called white-line cuts. Here, the way images were usually conveyed is reversed. The inked block provides a black background from which only the lines defining the composition have been cut out to allow for the white of the paper to remain visible – a technique that was also used in so-called metal cuts. Again, it was Dürer who brought a technical sophistication to the previously rather simplistic woodcut medium. His elaborately carved woodcuts were meant to rival the image-making of the engravings. Other artists followed suit as can be seen in a proof impression of a woodcut by Hans Burgkmair that was meant for one of Emperor Maximilians ambitious memorial projects.

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