(about 1450 - 1491, Breisach, Germany)
Although the process of designing and printing graphic images in Europe began to flourish earlier in the fifteenth century, Martin Schongauer is one of the first printmakers whose personal history and production are known and documented.(1) He trained and worked as a painter, however the majority of his paintings have disappeared or been irreparably damaged, and it is largely as a graphic artist that he is known and appreciated today. The influence of Schongauer in the history of printmaking can hardly be overstated, since he was not only significant to his contemporaries (who frequently copied his engravings), but his impressions were also highly respected by subsequent generations. His work was admired across Europe, but most particularly by the German printmaker Albrecht Dürer who revolutionized the making and dissemination of prints as an art form.
Schongauer was the son of a goldsmith, Caspar, who relocated from the southern German city of Augsburg to Colmar in Alsace around 1440. Martin, one of Caspar's five sons, is believed to have been born in Colmar about 1450.
His father's profession was highly influential in Martin's eventual success as an engraver, since the process of engraving and printing images derived directly from the goldsmith's art of engraving elaborate designs on metal surfaces.(2)
Records show that Schongauer matriculated at the University of Leipzig in 1465, however he did not repeat his attendance in subsequent years and it is likely he returned to Colmar where he was apprenticed to the painter, Caspar Isenmann. Between 1466 and 1469 he worked with Isenmann, who was the municipal painter of Colmar and a neighbor of the Schongauer family. Schongauer thus gained exposure to Flemish painting as practiced by earlier artists such as Rogier Van der Weyden and Dierk Bouts, which, in turn, accounts for the restrained elegance and sophistication of his figures.(3) Stylistic evidence further suggests that Schongauer was well-versed in the major styles of the earlier eras in Northern Europe—not only the work of Flemish painters, but also the late flourishing of the Gothic courtly style termed the International Style. This knowledge was most likely acquired through his work in Isenmann's shop, as well as through travel in Northern Europe.
By 1471, Schongauer had established a workshop in Colmar where he worked throughout most of the 1470s and 1480s, producing both paintings as well as a corpus of about 116 engraved works. A painting commission took him to the town of Breisach in 1488, and he died in there 1491. It is believed that he was a victim of a plague that swept the Upper Rhine region in that year.(4)
The earliest graphic images printed in Europe were woodcuts, created as devotional aids and for a variety of secular purposes. The engraving of metal plates for printing followed closely upon the development of woodcutting, and was allied to the practice of engraving decorative designs for armor, weapons and household furnishings for the wealthier classes. Originality of design was not an issue, and images were routinely copied and shared as sources for other engravings, as well as sculpture and altarpieces.(5) The earliest printmakers were classified as craftsmen or artisans, primarily because they were associated with goldsmithing or a similar trade. Traditionally they did not sign their work since the value of authorship was minimized by the free use of source materials. Many are known today by their initials, since, while they did not sign their plates, they sometimes hallmarked them. Other works are classified by grouping an artisan's known works together under one descriptive title.
These anonymous engravers set the precedent for the work of Martin Schongauer, who, as noted above, was not simply an engraver in the goldsmithing tradition, but a trained painter as well. His significant corpus of engraved works are easily identified by his monogram, with which he routinely marked his plates. While earlier engravers (such as Master ES) are believed to have produced their works purposely as models for craftsmen in other media (sculptors, woodcarvers or decorative painters), Schongauer is believed to have also valued the larger commercial potential of engravings and the market for them was seemingly quite significant.(6)
While Schongauer's individual works are not dated, scholarship has defined three general periods of development for the artist based upon stylistic grounds. His earliest prints are compositionally complex, with elaborate background settings, multiple figures, and complex formal relationships among these elements. Later works are more likely to be compositionally simplified (frequently with just one figure silhouetted against a blank background) with burin work that is spare, precise and elegant.(7)
(1)The major biographical sources for the life of Schongauer are: Alan Shestack, ed. The Complete Engravings of Martin Shongauer. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969; Edouard Flechsig. Martin Schongauer. Strassburg, 1951; and Julius Baum. Martin Schongauer. Vienna, 1948.
(2)It is generally accepted that the practice of engraving evolved when goldsmiths rubbed ink into designs decorating the objects they produced (such as jewelry or ecclesiastical furnishings) in order to check the quality or accuracy of the work. They eventually realized that this practice could be used to record specific designs or to provide copies of designs which could, in turn, be used by others. See Shestack, Fifteenth Century Engravings of Northern Europe:
From the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1967, n.p. The extent of Schongauer's experience in his father's workshop is not precisely known, however he engraved ornamental designs and images of elaborate metalwork that suggest he was most familiar with the protocols and products of metalsmithing. See Shestack, The Complete Engravings..... p. vii-viii.
A very limited number of paintings by Schongauer remain intact today, although that was the artist's primary vocation. Most notable is La Vierge au buisson de roses, 1473, located in the church of St. Martin in Colmar. See Musee du Petite Palais. Martin Schongauer: Maitre de la Gravure Rhenane vers 1450-1491. Paris: Musee du Petite Palais, 1991, pp. 73-81.
(3)Shestack, The Complete Engravings..... p. vi and Shestack,Fifteenth Century Engravings of Northern Europe:
From the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1967, p. 34. Schongauer's death was untimely, in that it precluded a meeting with the young Albrecht Dürer, who went to Colmar when he finished his apprenticeship in 1492 hoping to meet the older artist. Despite the fact that he did not meet Schongauer, Dürer secured two drawings by the master, which he dated and preserved.
(4)See Shestack, Fifteenth Century Engravings of Northern Europe:
From the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1967, figs. 1 and 2, n.p. Schongauer's Baptism of Christ is the apparent source for the panel of an altarpiece carved by a follower of the German sculptor Veit Stoss.
(5)Schongauer's prints are readily recognized by his monogram and scholars have identified as many as 116 individual works, which survive to the present day in high numbers. The contemporary survival rate of fine impressions suggests that Schongauer's burin work created deep, sturdy lines in plates that supported large numbers of good impressions, and that these impressions were widely collected and preserved. Giulia Bartrum. German Renaissance Prints, 1490-1550. London: British Museum Press, 1995, p. 20.
(6)Alan Shestack fully describes the three periods in The Complete Engravings..... pp. xi-xiv.