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: Dürer's Fall of Man


Sam Sachs II

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
With the acquisition of a brilliant state of the engraving the Fall of Man1 (figure 1), by the German master, Albrecht Dürer, the Institute adds to its Print Room a significant and rare work of art. The engraving was acquired through the Lillian Z. Turnblad Fund and is generally thought to be the crowning achievement of Dürer’s study of the nude, made at a time when he had just completed his assimilation of the Italian Renaissance manner. The Institute’s state of this engraving is unusually well preserved; authorities in the field consider it one of the very finest impressions of the plate now in existence.In 1504, the date of the Fall of Man, Dürer was thirty-three and approaching one of the summits of his career. At this time, the art of Germany remained belatedly Gothic and, therefore, somewhat archaic in spirit compared to the development of Renaissance styles in Italy. The stiffness of line and the struggling naturalism of Michael Wolgemut was characteristic of the works of most artists of the period. Dürer showed such tendencies, but to a lesser degree; his earlier studies of nudes, such as Fortune or the Four Naked Women both of 1497, and The Dream of 1500, are still more related to the Northern Gothic manner rather then to Italian art, despite the fact that Dürer had already made his first trip to Italy.2Of course, some of Dürer’s greatest graphic works, among them the fifteen woodcuts illustrating the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse, were made at this time precisely; of these, The Four Horsemen, with its rather grim, late Gothic theme of vengeful death, and its powerful linear expressiveness, is perhaps most famous, and justly so. Even when Dürer shortly after began to “Italianize,” his work never surpassed the intensity or power of this woodcut.By 1500, Dürer had been trained in Italian methods of figure construction, and possessed a considerable knowledge of perspective, which he attempted to incorporate into some of his works. He knew and had studied the prints of Pollaiuolo, Mantegna, and the revived classicism of Italian art was very much on his mind. Between his return from Italy in 1495 and 1500, more than two-thirds of his engravings are of secular or allegorical subjects, although the woodcuts of the period are predominantly religious or popular in theme. The influence of Italian art was also strongly impressed on him through his acquaintance with the Italian artist-engraver Jacopo de’Barbari, who had come to Nüremberg in 1500, at the age of fifty. Barbari was an established Italian artist, with an impressive reputation in the North; perhaps more important for Dürer, he was well-versed in the science of perspective, and the new Italian system of figure proportions. While Barbari would not disclose the exact details of the rules of his geometrical proportions, his work was decisive in Dürer’s independent exploration of Italian methods. Dürer carefully studied works by accomplished Italians and read texts of Leonardo da Vinci and Vetruvius on the subject. The effect of his studies and extensive experimental drawings is summed up in the engraving of the Fall of Man in 1504.An Italian influence is evident in the figures of Adam and Eve, and in their stances. By comparing them with those in Barbari’s engraving of Mars and Venus 3 (figure 2), one sees immediately the relationship between the two prints. The Northern influence is evident still, both in the complex iconography, and in an engraving technique whose intricate and lavish detail resembles that commonly found in the work of the goldsmith. The delicate rendering of flesh tone and the stiff, metallic curls of Adam’s hair (figure 3) also define a wide range of textures. If the skin of the two human figures is warm and palpably soft, the snake seems cold and slippery; the bark of the tree appears rough, but the fur of the rabbit, cat, and mouse, marvelously soft and downy. It should be remembered, however, that Dürer created this work primarily as a model of proportion and human beauty, rather than as a virtuoso display of his engraving skills. His main purpose was to define “ideal” human beauty in its masculine and feminine aspects. It was to this end that his studies in mathematically determined proportions and geometrically established equilibrium and pose had been directed, based upon the entire classic repertory available to the artist. His sources are clear in some of the details. Adam and Eve are probably taken from contemporary engravings of the Apollo Belvedere (a recent archeological discovery of the period, admired by Dürer) and the Medici Venus; the setting of a dark, primeval forest derives from Pollaiuolo’s great print, the Battle of the Nudes, or Ten Nudes.4For the sixteenth-century viewer, the Fall of Man embodied a complex Christian symbolism. The story of Adam and Eve is itself symbolic of the corrupting of man, through his inability to resist the temptation of the devil, represented here by the serpent. In addition, the print gives substance to a popular theory of the period, namely, that before the Fall only the animals were ruled by the so-called “Four Humors,” or bodily fluids, which controlled the “temperament,” and that man was still in his original state of harmonious perfection. (It should be noted that in his engraving, Eve has not yet eaten the apple, and she and Adam are still innocent of sin.) Following the temptation, here a moment away, man, too, would find one or another of the Humors, or fluids, dominant within him, rather than in balance. These four fluids, Choler, Blood, Black Gall and Phlegm, emphasized human traits of cruelty, sensuality, melancholy and sloth, respectively, and each was symbolized by an animal. The cat, for example, displays excessive cruelty when it toys with a mouse before killing it. Here, however, in the engraving, the animals are still at peace with one another, and the mouse can remain fearless in the face of its traditional enemy. The prolific rabbit is dominated by Blood, representing lust, and the elk is iconographically linked to melancholy. The fourth humor, sloth, is represented by the sluggish ox. There are also other pictorial elements which have specific iconographic meanings in the engraving: as an example, the mountain ash which Adam grasps with his right hand will ultimately become the cross on which Christ is crucified, thus linking the Fall with the Salvation.When Dürer had completed this engraving, which is technically, as well as artistically, one of his supreme works, he showed his own pride of accomplishment by signing the plate, not only with his usual monogram but, for the first time, with a complete inscription in Latin, in the Italian manner. On the cartellino, or card, hanging from the branch over Adam’s shoulder is the proud inscription: “Albertus Durer Noricus Faciebat—1504.” (Made by Albrecht Dürer of Nüremberg—1504.) This inscription is a further indication of the growing self-consciousness, and self-pride, which characterized Renaissance man, and which around 1500, owing largely to Dürer, began to make inroads in Northern European art.It is fortunate in itself that such a masterful work by Dürer should enter the Institute’s collection, but the condition of this print must also be described, for it is perhaps in this aspect that the engraving is most remarkable. The sharp, brilliant quality of the impression and its preservation are seldom, if ever, found in other examples. This impression, in fact, was chosen by Friedrich Lippmann for reproduction in his authoritative Reischdrucke (The Nation’s Prints).5 It is printed on paper which Dürer apparently reserved for only his best and most precious impressions; the engraving has a freshness which provides and experience for the viewer as close to Dürer’s original intention as it is perhaps possible to achieve. Because Dürer’s works were treasured even in his own day and, therefore, well-protected, this is one of those rare prints which has brilliantly withstood the ravages of time.Endnotes
  1. Dimensions: height 9 1/2 inches; width 7 5/8 inches. Engraving, 1504, Meder No. 1: 2/3; watermark: Meder No. 62 (Bull’s head with five-leaved flower). Ex-collections: A. Bourduge, L. No. 70; S. Kalmann, L. No. 1662b. Jospeh Meder, Dürer-Katalog, Vienne, 1932; Frits Lugt, Les Marques de Collections, Amsterdam, 1921, The Hague, 1956.
  2. Meder, Op. cit., Nos. 69, 70, 71.
  3. Arthur M. Hind, Early Italian Engraving, London, 1948, Vol. V, p. 153, No. 13; illus. Vol. VII, plate 708.
  4. Erwin Panofsky, Albrecht Dürer, Princeton, 1943, pp. 86, 87.
  5. Freidrich Lippmann, Reischdrucke, Berlin, 1891. Lippmann reproduced the finest impressions of old master prints in German collections. He selected the prints with the greatest of care, and it is significant that in the case of the Fall of Man he chose the impression belonging to the Kallmann collection over any in a public collection. It is the Kallmann print which the Institute has now acquired.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Albrecht Dürer: Fall of Man, engraving, 1504
    9 3/16 inches x 7 5/8 inches, Lillian Z. Turnblad Fund, 1958
  2. Jocopo de’ Barbari: Mars and Venus, engraving, 11 3/8 x 7 inches
  3. Fall of Man, (detail)
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Source: Samuel Sachs II, "Dürer's Fall of Man," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 48, no. 3 (July-September, 1959): 7-11.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009