BMA Voices: Woodcuts, color and the experience of the visual arts

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series "The Large Passion". The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1943.32.271

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series “The Large Passion”. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1943.32.271

Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator

The development of the woodcut in Europe during the early 15th century allowed for the mass production and circulation of religious images printed on paper. Most early woodcuts consisted of simply carved outlines that, when printed in dark ink, produced images of limited detail. In order to make these plain pictures more eye-catching and naturalistic, bright colors in the form of water-based paints were brushed on by hand. Trees in the landscape became more recognizable with green leaves, and emotions were more deeply stirred when the blood dripping off the wounds of Christ were painted in deep red.

Color was an important, if not essential, aspect of many woodcuts during the first century of printmaking, however, in the early 16th century Albrecht Dürer began creating woodcuts which were so carefully designed and intricately carved that they were considered complete as black lines grounded on white paper. Erasmus of Rotterdam, a noted humanist and Dürer’s contemporary, celebrated him as “the Apelles of our age” who “could express absolutely anything in monochrome, that is, with black lines only,” and warned that: “if you were to add color (to his prints), you would spoil the effect.” Indeed, most Dürer prints that survive to this day are preserved in black and white and it is commonly considered inappropriate if color was added to them. Still, the earlier tradition of painting woodcuts persisted on into Dürer’s day and beyond, demonstrating how sustaining the desire to see color is to the experience of the visual arts.

In 1511, Dürer published 11 large scale woodcuts depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ. A key image from the series (below) depicts the moment when Jesus, having been scourged and then outfitted with a crown of thorns and a robe, is mockingly presented to the people of Jerusalem as the “King of the Jews.” In the uncolored impression above, the figures and the setting are rendered in fluid outlines given volume and texture with networks of finer lines and cross hatching. The horror of the moment is enhanced by deep shading that envelopes Christ and the mob standing before him. In coloring the print with a vibrant palette of bright blue, red, yellow, green and even gold and silver pigments, the image loses some of its moodiness, but the scene becomes more legible – the people in the crowd are easier to differentiate and the distant landscape comes into clearer view. The coloring also makes the image more visceral as the red paint forces the view to focus on the bleeding figure.

Dürer himself did not color this print, the paint was applied in a carefully controlled style that is more closely aligned with a tradition of manuscript illumination than the somewhat thinner brushwork found in Dürer’s watercolors, but it is likely that print was colored at a time close to Dürer’s lifetime. Chemical analysis of the paints used to color this woodcut indicate that the pigments were all appropriate for a 16th-century work of art, however one pigment, a deep blue cobalt-containing material known as smalt, was not in common use until after 1550. So although the print was colored early, it was illuminated several years after Dürer’s death, perhaps for a collector who wished to celebrate the great artist’s achievements by creating a uniquely enhanced print.

Which version do you prefer?

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series "The Large Passion". The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Charles W. Newhall III, and Todd Ruppert, Baltimore; and with exchange funds from Garrett Collection, and Gift of Theodore W. Strauel, Pound Ridge, New York, BMA 2000.91

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series “The Large Passion”. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Charles W. Newhall III, and Todd Ruppert, Baltimore; and with exchange funds from Garrett Collection, and Gift of Theodore W. Strauel, Pound Ridge, New York, BMA 2000.91

For more information on history of hand-colored prints, see the BMA Exhibition catalogue: Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance & Baroque Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts. (2002)

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

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