Ornamental design with a mask and an eagle between two fauns below
Heinrich Aldegrever (German, 1502–1555/61)
Sheet: 6.7 x 4.9 cm (2 5/8 x 1 15/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
Aldegrever was the most important Westphalian painter/printmaker of the 16th Century. He produced some 300 engravings, a third of which were ornament designs, such as those here under consideration. Initially he trained as a goldsmith and then switched to painting. Though traditionally thought to have gone to Nuremberg as a journeyman, he more like likely went to the Netherlands. While the influence of Albrecht Dürer was virtually inescapable to ambitious artists of his generation, Aldegrever also appears to have emulated Lucas van Leyden in applying a light touch with the burin and in creating grotesqueries inspired by Roman taste.
Born in Paderborn, he established himself as a master in Soest by about 1525. His family name was Trippenmaker (clog maker), but he adopted the name we recognize in 1527. When Soest turned Protestant in 1530, Aldegrever made the transition without hesitation. Though an enthusiastic Lutheran, Aldegrever crossed sectarian lines. He accepted patronage from Catholics and engraved dignified portraits of Anabaptists. Even so, changes in attitude toward church decoration may explain the scarcity of his surviving paintings. A winged altarpiece from the mid-1520s survives, but the sole painting known from the 1530’s is a portrait.
Aldegrever was open to new artistic influences and embraced Mannerist tendencies in the 1530s. Throughout the decade he was highly productive and produced work displaying considerable knowledge of late Renaissance Italian style. Since his work as a painter was curtailed, this Italianate taste was primarily expressed in his engravings. He sought narrative subjects that allowed him to explore the nude, and in ornament he exploited a vocabulary that included spirals, fluting, acanthus leaves, mythical beasts, and medallions.
The great mystery of Aldegrever’s career is the lack of works dated between 1541 and 1549. He made this engraving shortly after resuming his activity as an engraver. In these later works, Aldegrever reverted to earlier models of High Renaissance style, such as the work of Giovanni Antonio da Brescia and Marcantonio Raimondi and his circle. He avoided the scrolling strapwork then coming into style. Instead, he crammed his surfaces with detail. The abundance of tiny detail tests the eye of the viewer with seek-and-find games of birds, satyrs, fruit, children, instruments, etc. Though the density of the image made it perhaps less useful as a design for adaptation by artisans producing other luxury goods, it seems to challenge the accomplishments of plaquette makers and enamelists. Aldegrever’s engraving lays claim to being a tour de force in its own right, its laughing mask mocking anyone who would attempt to equal its craftsmanship.
Hill-Stone (New York); by whom given to MFA, 19 September 2007.
Gift of Lesley Hill and Alan Stone