Written by Guido Scholten
Next to working as a student assistant at the VU Art & Culture department, and to being a student in the MA specialization ‘Kunst, Markt, en Connaisseurship’, in the past months I did an internship at the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague.
During this internship I was working on the major research project on fifteenth-century Dutch and German printmaking being run by Joyce Zelen. I got to grips with the drypoints by the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet and studied all the 89 prints from his hand that survive.
Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, Solomon's Idolatry, circa 1485, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
The majority of fifteenth-century prints are the work of unknown masters. Often these printmakers signed their works with a monogram which we are no longer able to connect with a name, or they did not sign their prints at all. In this case printmakers have often been assigned a ‘Notname’, which alludes to one striking work of art or an element of their work, as with the Master of the Berlin Passion, or the Master of the Gardens of Love.
Just over a hundred years ago, the German art historian Max Lehrs (1855-1938) carried out thorough research into fifteenth-century printmaking in the Netherlands and Germany. It became his life’s work. His years of research resulted in numerous publications, including the monumental Geschichte und kritischer Katalog des deutschen, niederländischen und französischen Kupferstichs im XV. Jahrhundert, which was published between 1908 and 1934.
Art historian Max Lehrs, ca. 1910, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Deutsches Kunstarchiv
A new standard work
To this day Lehrs’s Geschichte und kritischer Katalog remains the standard work on fifteenth-century printmaking. However, there have of course been developments in this area of expertise in the past hundred years. Modern techniques have come along, for example digital photography, which means that it is now much easier to research this rare material and to compare impressions. In addition a number of prints which Lehrs described have been destroyed, or are now in different locations. It is high time to re-examine this exceptional group of early prints and catalogue them properly. Right now staff at the RKD are working on a series of volumes for the The New Hollstein Series on the hundred or more anonymous German and Netherlandish engravers of the fifteenth century and those of their prints that survive.
Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, Card players, circa 1485, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Technique of drypoint
One of the most beautiful groups of anonymous prints is the work of the so-called Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, also known as the Housebook Master. The oeuvre of this master consists of the earliest known prints made using the technique of drypoint. Because the images have been directly ‘scratched’ into the copper plate with a sharp, pointed tool used rather like a pen, these prints have more the character of a drawing than of a burin engraving. In the process of working the plate, a narrow strip of metal is thrown up alongside the lines of the image, known as burr. The ink clings to the burr as well as resting in the hollows of the drawn lines, and when printed this gives the lines a velvet-like effect, which is quite distinct from the appearance of engraving. Besides the unique character of the technique, there is also something rather special about the imagery of these prints. The artist has presented a particularly touching picture of life in the fifteenth century through themes ranging from religious subjects to scenes of courtly as well as daily life, for example fighting peasants and a dog scratching himself.
Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, Dog scratching, circa 1475, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet
I have consulted all existing literature about the master and have studiously compared his prints with one another, putting them into a database. Following that I physically checked the data against the surviving prints in Amsterdam. The Rijksprentenkabinet collection preserves 80 of the 89 prints known by the master, who owes his ‘Notname’ to the place.
Sixty-eight of the prints by the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet are unique, that is they are known from a single surviving impression. For the remaining 21 prints, two or more impressions have survived. I gathered high-resolution images of the remaining prints held in collections all over the world, and this enabled me to examine the various impressions ‘side by side’ and compare them. This has led to a number of new insights, including recognising several previously unnoticed differences of state: that is changes made to the plate between different printings.
At work in the study room of the Rijksprentenkabinet, 2019