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Thaw Conservation Center

Image of print
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Original woodblock for his woodcut Coat of Arms of Michael Behaim

Dürer and the Woodcut

Woodcut | Woodblock | Side-by-side examination

While Dürer's key role in designing woodcuts is certain, his involvement in cutting the blocks can be debated. With the exception of printmaker Albrecht Altdorfer, it was general practice for German artists of the period to design the woodblock but assign the actual carving to a professional woodcutter. The letter pasted to the back of the Behaim block, in which Dürer asserts creative control, suggests that his contribution was the design only. This supposition is strengthened by technical examinations of other extant woodblocks for Dürer prints, such as those for the Little Passion in the British Museum, which betray the hands of four different professional woodcutters.

However, a noteworthy passage in Dürer's theoretical writings implies that he may have cut the blocks himself: "Thus it comes that a man may draw something with his pen on a half-sheet of paper in one day, or dig something in a little piece of wood with his tool, that will be finer and better than any big thing by another who industriously worked a whole year at it." This statement has been used by scholars to suggest that Dürer was, at times, both inventor and executor of his woodblock prints. But without any firm documentary evidence, the question of Dürer's status as woodcutter may never be answered.

Only a few of Dürer's woodblocks survive. A close examination of the woodblock used to create the print The Coat of Arms of Michael Behaim provides insight into the carving process.

The patterns of toolmarks seen in the woodblock speak to the specific chisels, gouges, and knives used to attain particular effects. Short repetitious passes with such tools create distinctive textures in some of the recessed areas of the woodblock. For example, the marks in the large blank areas at the top and bottom of the block are typically made by larger-sized chisels and flat gouges, while the toolmarks around the design's fine lines indicate the use of small, sharp chisels. Highly skilled carving was especially necessary to realize the shield's curvilinear floral pattern. (The rectangular open space at the bottom of the block is for the insertion and printing of movable type, which could be edited easily.)

Thin lines of raised wood are vulnerable to breaking over time from the repeated pressure of printing. The small breaks visible at the lower right edge of the woodblock translate into an interrupted, lighter line in the print.

Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan exhibition page »

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The programs of The Morgan Library & Museum are made possible with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.