ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528)
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ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528)

Hercules at the Crossroads

ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528)
Hercules at the Crossroads
engraving, circa 1498, on laid paper, watermark High Crown (Meder 20), a very fine, warm and tonal Meder IIa impression, printing with great clarity and contrasts, trimmed to or just inside the platemark, retaining a fillet of blank paper outside the borderline on the sides and below, in very good condition
Plate & Sheet 323 x 227 mm.
Dr Wilhelm August Ackermann (1793-1865), Lübeck and Dresden (Lugt 791); his sale, Weigel, Leipzig, 25 June 1844, lot 48 (Mk 12-4; 'Vorzüglicher Druck des schönen Blatts, mit Rand').
With Pace Editions, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Bartsch 73; Meder, Hollstein 63; Schoch, Mende, Scherbaum 22
Marcus A. Hurttig, Antiquity Unleashed – Aby Warburg, Dürer and Mantegna, The Courtauld Gallery (exh. cat.), London, 2013-14.
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This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Lot Essay

In his Netherlandish diary of 1520-21, Dürer himself referred to this print simply as 'Hercules', yet the meaning of the scene remained the subject of debate. Having borne various titles such as 'The Effects of Jealousy' and 'The Great Satyr', Erwin Panofsky most convincingly identified the subject of this engraving as 'Hercules at the Crossroads'. As related by Prodikos and Xenophon, the young Hercules had to choose between a life of Virtue or one of Vice. In Dürer's depiction, the hero's position however is ambiguous: it is uncertain whether he fights on the side of Virtue, personified by the standing woman wielding a club, or is defending the sinful couple of the woman and the satyr. The significance of the putto with a songbird fleeing to the right or Hercules’s buffoonish headdress of horns and a cockerel are equally unclear.
The print is closely related to a drawing Dürer made a few years before, probably as early as 1494, during his first sojourn in Italy. The pen and ink drawing, which is today in Hamburg (Kunsthalle Kupferstichkabinett, inv. no. 23006), depicts the ‘Death of Orpheus: the ancient Greek musician Orpheus, having lost his beloved Eurydice, renounces all love for women and advocates instead the love of boys, placing his musical skills in the exclusive service of Apollo. In revenge, Dionysus sent the Maenads to tear him apart. In Dürer’s drawing, Orpheus is kneeling on the ground, as two women are about to beat him with wooden clubs. In the foreground, we see his lyre cast aside. To the left, a putto is seen fleeing the violent scene, which is shown against the backdrop of a group of trees, very similar to the ones depicted in the engraving of ‘Hercules’. He inscribed the drawing on a banderole in the tree: Orfeus, der erst puseran ('Orpheus, the first pederast').
An earlier, anonymous engraving of the same scene and in the same direction, including the putto but with a lute instead of the lyre in the foreground and an altogether different landscape in the background, is also in the Kupferstichkabinett in Hamburg (inv. no. 22). The engraving was probably printed in Ferrara during the last third of the 15th century, and both the engraving and Dürer’s drawing are believed to be based on a lost design by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506).
The young Dürer was clearly inspired by the graphic works of the Italian masters of the generation before him, in particular Mantegna and Antonio del Pollaiuolo (circa 1429-1498), and his interest may well have mainly been a formal and technical one. In this instance however, it appears that Dürer was particularly taken by this scene and myth, since he repeated crucial elements of it years later in the engraving, but perhaps felt the subject was to scandalous for publication, and adapted it to depict an obscure anecdote of the Hercules myth.
In 1905, the art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), founder of the eponymous Institute and Library in Hamburg, put the drawing of the ‘Death of Orpheus’ at the heart of his lecture on his concept of the ‘Pathosformel’ (‘pathos formula’), referring to the adoption of dramatic gestures found in the works of classical antiquity for the depiction of human passions by the artists of the Renaissance.
In his research, Aby Warburg demonstrated that the 'Apollinian' principle of classical art - the ideal of “noble simplicity and calm grandeur”, as postulated by the 18th century German archaeologist and art historian J. J. Winckelmann - had been dominating our understanding of the Renaissance. Warburg argued that the 'Dionysiac' elements in Greco-Roman culture, with its ecstatic, violent and irrational impulses, was of equal interest and importance for the artists of the 15th and early 16th centuries.

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