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Around the galleries

Augsberg – the high point of the German Renaissance

— September 2013

Associated media

Daniel Hopfer i, Emperor Maximilian i in the Guise of Saint George, c. 1509/1510, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Fund (cat. 86)

Larry Silver reports on an important exhibition that is travelling across the USA

Art historical scholarship picks its favourites.  For the period of Renaissance and Reformation Germany, as the 2012 New York exhibition catalogue reminded us in its title, Dürer and Beyond, Dürer’s Nuremberg remains the art centre that gets the lion’s hare of attention, while other cities remain consigned to relative obscurity.  Such is the case with Augsburg, even though during the same period Augsburg became the financial centre of the entire region and maintained strong trading connections with both Venice and the Low Countries.  Moreover, the roster of celebrated Augsburg artists rivals Nuremberg in both quantity and quality: Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Burgkmair, Leonhard Beck, Jörg Breu, sculptors Adolph and Hans Daucher, and the etching family of Hans Hopfer, to name only the most celebrated.

A partial remedy to the neglect has now begun with a handsome exhibition of Augsburg graphics, held at the National Gallery in Washington last year (which will travel to American university museums in Austin and Poughkeepsie).  One of the co-authors, Freyda Spira, is a noted specialist in German art, a co-author of Dürer and Beyond, and a specialist in Hopfer and Augsburg graphics.  Her essay, ‘Between Court and City’, provides a handy survey of the artistic vitality of this urban centre, while also emphasizing Augsburg’s close ties to the Holy Roman Emperor in Austria, Maximilian I. 

Complementing Spira’s more cultural emphasis, co-curator Gregory Jecman appropriately notes the two major innovations that made Augsburg graphics renowned across Europe: specifically, the revolution in colour printing for books and woodcuts initiated by Erhard Ratdolt and Hans Burgkmair and the invention of new etching techniques for the local armour industry by Daniel Hopfer.

The exhibition proper opens with works that suggest the lasting importance of late mediaeval spiritual imagery in the early decades of printing.  Hand-coloured woodcuts predominate, including some of the earliest devotional prints attributed to Burgkmair as well as that artist’s late, multi-block imagery, represented by a 1527 eight-sheet Crucifixion

Burgkmair’s dazzling colour woodcuts, which emerged from the technique of colour book printing developed by Erhard Ratdolt (who had worked in Venice), here find noted exemplars: the 1510 Lovers Surprised by Death, in two different colour schemes; and the pendant equestrian portraits of Maximilian I and St George on Horseback.  Burgkmair’s great modelling ability in woodcuts emerges from his scenes on the theme of the Power of Women  (Samson and Delilah, Bathsheba) as well as in his figure studies of virtuous biblical Jews (male and female) and classical heroes and heroines. 

Etching is particularly well represented and even includes Burgkmair’s lone experiment, Mercury and Venus.  The exhibited etchings clearly show Hopfer’s wide range.  His prints of religious subjects include a number of imaginary church decorations with religious figures: choir stalls, a niche, and an altar with images of Christ or scenes from his life, and local church interiors with enactments of parables.  Other Hopfer-etched images display vicious or immoral behaviour, among them a woman with mirror, death, and the devil, or a soldier embracing a woman.  His portraits include the imperial court jester Kunz von der Rosen, an image of Maximilian in the guise of St George, and a portrait of young Emperor Charles V.

The Augsburg drawings include a silverpoint of a woman by Holbein the Elder, a pair of roundel designs for June and September (Hay Harvest, Wine Harvest) by Breu.  A very different image by Burgkmair is his pen drawing of a Fight in the Forest between a knight in his armour and a giant, furry wild man with a club.

Where this exhibition shines most fully and incorporates a major enterprise of Augsburg printmakers is in it final section, the close ties to the Holy Roman Empire and to the reigning Emperor Maximilian I.  As the recent Albertina exhibition on Maximilian showed in Vienna, Augsburg artists created a host of woodcut cycles both for book illustrations and for mountable print assemblies, as well as individual likenesses.  Etched ornamentation for the local court armourers, the Hemschmieds, and illustrated panegyric books –Weisskunig, Theuerdank, and Habsburg Saints – flowed as designs from the presses of Hopfer, Beck, and Burgkmair, organized from Augsburg by the learned city secretary Conrad Peutinger.

Thus the reach and the achievement of Augsburg drawing designs and prints provided a high point of the German Renaissance.  Though not so well known as Dürer’s Nuremberg, this city is given an impressive display through the works on paper in this important exhibition.  Regrettably, funding prevented a fuller introduction with more history and artistic essays, but Jecman and Spira have done much to raise awareness of this important art centre in its Golden Age on the eve of the Reformation.

The catalogue for this exhibition, Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings 1475–1540  by Gregory Jecmen and Freyda Spira is published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington/Lund Humphries, 2012. 120 pp., 30 illus, £20.00 softback. ISBN 978-1848221222


Professor Larry Silver
University of Pennsylvania
Larry Silver is the author of Peter Bruegel, Abbeville Press, 2011 and Hieronymus Bosch, Abbeville Press, 2006

Editor's notes

This exhibition closed in Washington in late December 2012.  It travels to the University of Texas, and then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.  The dates are:
Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas Austin, 5 Oct 2013–5 January 2014
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, 19 Sept–14 Dec, 2014.

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