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Last updated: 6/23/2019
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, Rainet, 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 each side; the 1520 edition was printed without the ornaments.
Fools who tell secrets (chapter 51 of Das Narrenschiff). Woodcut, 1494. Ours is an impression on laid paper from the 1520 Strasbourg edition, the last printed from Durer's woodblocks, though this woodcut, showing Dalilah giving Samson a haircut so that he can be rendered weak and captured, does not appear to be by Durer. Image size: 113x81mm. Price: $1350.

"Fool he who tells his secret plan / To wife or any other man, / Thus mighty Samson, less than wise, / Lost strength and locks and both his eyes."
Anonymous, Impatient fools (chapter 26 of Das Narrenschiff). Woodcut, 1494. Ours is an impression on laid paper from the 1520 Strasbourg edition, the last printed from Durer's woodblocks, though this woodcut, showing King Midas wishing that everything he touches be turned to gold, does not appear to be by Durer. Image size: 113x81mm. Price: $1000.

"Who'd wish for things he's never tried / And wait not til the Lord provide / Will suffer grief on every side."
Anonymous, A Heavily-Burdened Fool. Original woodcut, 1494. published in The Ship of Fools). A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 116x84mm. Price: $750.

The 1511 edition tells us: "If many a benefice you'ld share, / Your ace will fall more oft than fare: / An ass can die from heavy fare."
Anonymous, The Scientific Fool (chapter 26 of The Ship of Fools). A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 117x84mm. Price: $750.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Who measures heaven, earth, and sea, / Thus seeking lore or gaiety, / Let him beware a fool to be.`"
Anonymous, An Abusive Fool. Original woodcut, 1494. The woodcut is based upon two of Durer's designs for the 1494 edition of The Ship of Fools (see Hutt 1360 and 1382). A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 116x84mm. Price: $750.

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