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Last updated: 68-25-15
Home / Gallery Tour 1 / Old Master Drawings and Prints / Gallery Tour 2 / Artists
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Old Master Prints: Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts for The Ship of Fools (1494)

Dürer: Apocalypse / Dürer: Large Passion / Dürer: Small Woodcut Passion / Dürer: Engraved Passion / Dürer: Other Passion
Dürer: Life of the Virgin / Dürer: Holy Family / Dürer: Saints and Martyrs / Dürer: Other Images
Ship of Fools 1 / Ship of Fools 2 / Ship of Fools 3 / Ship of Fools 4 / Copies After Durer

German Drawings: Hans Sebald Beham / Virgil Solis / Hans von Aachen / Johann Heinrich Roos
German 16th century printmakers: Heinrich Aldegrever, Jost Amman, Hans Sebald Beham, Hans Brosamer, Hans Burgkmair,
Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Durer, Albrecht Durer (After), Augstin Hirschvogel, Hans Holbein (After), Hopfer Family,
Monogrammist IS with the Shovel, Georg Pencz, Hans Schäufelein, Virgil Solis, Monogrammist W.S. (Wolfgang Stuber?).

"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters": Goya’s Caprichos etchings (1799), Durer's Ship of Fools woodcuts (1494), David Deuchar’s etchings (1786) after Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death, John Martin’s mezzotints for Milton's Paradise Lost (1823-25), and Georges Rouault’s Miserere mixed-media intaglios (1922-1928)
In what is considered his first independent commission after concluding his apprenticeship, Durer contributed a number of woodcuts to one of the first European best sellers, Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff / The Ship of Fools, a humanist work in which wisdom condemns the follies she sees everywhere she looks. By Brant's death in 1521, six German editions had been published using Durer's original woodblocks; there were also seven pirated German editions using copies of Durer's woodcuts. There were also translations—none of which had access to Durer's woodcuts—printed in various modern languages. The Ship of Fools was first published in 1494 as the reform movement, begun in the North as an attempt to renew a rather corrupt church, was about to find its true leader, Erasmus, whose mock encomium, The Praise of Folly (1508), leaves us to wonder whether Wisdom should really condemn folly if Folly is actually condemning folly though her mock praises. Erasmus implies that if Wisdom really thought the issue through, she might well change her mind, since, as Folly reminds us, St Paul insists that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. Like Goya’s Caprichos, Durer’s works also illustrate human follies, but from a rather different perspective: unlike Goya, who forces us to see from the perspective of participants in the world’s follies, Durer, following Brant’s lead, invites us to play spectator from the perspective of Wisdom, to mock the fools who never manage to get it right rather than to realize that we too live in a world that always gets it wrong. Most of our impressions are from the 1511 edition (published in Strassburg by Johan Pruss using Durer's original blocks though several are from the 1497 edition and 6 are from the 1520 edition); all are in remarkably good condition (especially considering that they were made before most of Europe even knew that Columbus had discovered what we like to think of as a "New World." (As Prospero, who remembered more of his and the world’s history, says to Miranda, when she, seeing a group of "goodly creatures" for the first time, hails the birth of a "brave new world": "’Tis new to thee.")

The first edition of The Ship of Fools contains 115 woodcuts, some of which are not by Durer. Walter L. Strauss in his catalogue raisonné, Albrecht Durer Woodcuts and Woodblocks, surveys the state of critical dispute about the number of pieces definitely created by Durer and not simply by others trying to imitate his accomplishments. Strauss and Panofsky are the most conservative; Winkler (1928) "who undertook the most thorough examination of the illustrations, concluded that seventy-three are by Durer" and in later editions added 5 more for a grand total of 78 by Durer. Wolfgang Hutt's Albrecht Durer 1471 bis 1528: Das gesampte graphische Werk: Druckgraphik (1970), assigns 74 of the woodcuts to Durer; Alain Borer and Cécile Bon's L'Oeuvre Graphique de Albrecht Durer (1980; identified as "Borer" in the descriptions) prints 78 woodcuts as Durer's. We follow the new catalogue raisonné of Durer's woodcuts for books, Rainer Schoch, Matthias Mende, and Anna Scherbaum, Albrecht Dürer: Das Druckgraphische Werk: Band III: Buchillustrationen (Munchen: Prestel, 2004), here referred to as SMS. This work prints and illustrates each of the 78 works Winkler accepted as by Durer. There is also a complete English translation of Brant's Ship of Fools by Edwin H. Zeydel (NY: Dover, 1944; rpt. 1962); quotations from the individual woodcuts illustrating the various kinds of folly come from Strauss, if included in Strauss, or from Zeydel if not. The typographic ornaments are not by Durer; sometimes we have shown them for their decorative value, sometimes not. The 1497 edition has one on either the right or the left side of the block; the 1511 edition has one on both sides; the 1520 edition was printed without the ornaments.
The Millstone Fool (SMS 266.03, Strauss 13r, Hutt 1340, Borer 100). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 116x83mm. Price: $2500.

The 1511 edition says, "Who puts himself between two stones, / And twisting words with glee condones, / Will soon earns ills and moans."
Incorrigible Fools (SMS 266.04, Hutt 1341, Borer 111). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 114x84mm. Price: $1850.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Some men with plows are very spry, / Yet end in trouble by and by, / The cuckoo finds their eggs on high." As the description of Julius Caesar's relationship with Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra ("He plowed her and she cropped") reminds us, the sexual implications of plowing other men's fields lead to cuckolds (symbolized by the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in other bird's nests) and destruction of marital bonds.
Venus, Cupid, and Death (SMS 266.06, Hutt 1343, Borer 113). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition, the bottom border lines beginning to wear. Image size: 116x83mm. Price: $2500.

The 1511 edition tells us: "My rope pulls many fools about, / Ape, cuckold, ass, and silly lout,,/ Whom I seduce, deceive, and flout."
A Feasting Fool (SMS 266.09, Hutt 1346, Borer 116). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1497 edition, the bottom border lines beginning to wear. Image size: 116x83mm. Price: $2250.

The text for the 1511 edition tells us: "He merits future poverty / Who always lives in luxury, / And joins the spendthrifts' revelry."
Wisdom Preaching to Fools (SMS 266.11, Strauss 13v, Hutt 1348, Borer 118). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from a late 15th century or early 16th century edition showing almost no wear to the block on laid paper with no staining. Image size: 116x83mm. Price: $2500.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Who to wisdom steadily pays heed, / And accordingly directs his every need, / Eternal honor shall be his meed."
Wisdom Preaching to Fools (SMS 266.11,SMS 266.11, Strauss 13v, Hutt 1348, Borer 118). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from a late 15th century or early 16th century edition showing almost no wear to the block on laid paper with no staining. (The photograph above is a detail of this page.) Image size: 116x83mm. Price: $2500.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Who to wisdom steadily pays heed, / And accordingly directs his every need, / Eternal honor shall be his meed."
Foolish teachers and foolish students (SMS 266.12, Hutt 1349, Borer 119). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 114x82mm. Price: $2000.

According to the 1511 edition, "Who never learns the proper things / Upon his cap the dunce bell rings, / He's led by idiot's leading strings."
The Fool who judges others (SMS 266.13, Hutt 1350, Borer 120). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 114x82mm. Price: $2500.

According to the 1511 edition,
"Who trusts his piety alone
And others' sins will ne'er condon,
Will come to fall o'er many a stone."

A woman—probably the dying man's wife or daughter—prays for the soul of the dying man. Meanwhile, a fool (at right) mocks either the prayers or the dying man, not realizing that the mouth of hell gapes widely for him and into that mouth he seems to be falling.

This is a commonplace in the literature of the time. As Prince Hal says to Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2, V.v.47-54):
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awake, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace.
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.

Indeed, Falstaff's fate might well be the same as that of Durer's fool's unless he repents, as Falstaff tries to do in Henry V as he lies dying and tries to say the Lord's prayer, even though the Hostess cannot recognize it ("a babbled of green fields").
The Goose Fool (SMS 266.16, Strauss 13b, Hutt 1353, Borer 113). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 117x84mm. Price: $2250.

According to the 1511 edition, "Some think their wit is very fine, / Yet they are geese right down the line, / All reason, breeding they decline."
The Foolish Husband and the Shrewish Wife (SMS 266.17, Hutt 1354, Borer 124). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 115x82mm. Price: $1850.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Some men would ride morn, noon, and late, / If only they could dodge their mate, / But women's grip is obdurate."
A Fool Preaching (SMS 266.18, Strauss 13w, Hutt 1406, Borer 176). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1497 edition showing almost no wear to the block on laid paper with no staining. Image size: 117x85mm. Price: $2500.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Sweet talk and flattery, beware, / Will not change truth [they are a snare], / And will lead to the Devil's lair."
The Bird-Catcher Fool (SMS 266.21, Strauss 13g, Hutt 1358, Borer 128). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 117x85mm. Price: $2250.

The 1511 edition tells us that "Who gives his plans publicity, / And spans his net for all to see, / Avoid him: dangerous is he." The verse suggests the value of secrecy.

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