From the moment it was conceived, it is clear that Dürer intended Adam and Eve to be a work of great ambition and importance, and he took an unusual amount of care in its creation. More preparatory drawings survive for it than for any other print by Dürer, including a beautiful study of the two figures on a blackened background (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York; W. 333). It is also the only one of his prints to be signed with his full name and birthplace.
In 1505 Dürer embarked on his second journey to Venice, and it is likely that he intended the print to be a show-piece for the Italian market, to enhance his reputation as a master printmaker and to attract commissions. It was perfectly suited to this role as it united the painstaking realism and attention to detail for which the northern masters were renowned, with classical nudity and the ideal of disegno, so highly regarded in Renaissance Italy.
For very different reasons, Melencolia I (lot 37) and Adam and Eve are the best-known of all of Dürer's prints. While Melencolia has always been admired for its complexity, the present work is loved for its sheer charm and beauty. This can mean, however, that its abundant symbolism and allusion is overlooked. The entire composition is an image of duality and division. The Tree of Knowledge separates Adam from Eve, and the image into two halves. Whilst Eve is associated with this tree, Adam grasps a branch of mountain ash, identified as the Tree of Life. The parrot and the serpent respectively symbolise wisdom and betrayal. The cat and mouse in the foreground form another pair of potential opposites, but, as the Fall has yet to occur, they sit peacefully together.
The other animals depicted are also something more than examples of God's creation in the Garden of Eden. The moose, the cow, the rabbit and the cat were each associated respectively with the melancholic, the phlegmatic, the sanguine and the choleric temperament, the four humours which after the Fall came to rule over the human spirit, and made it subject to desire and sin. The mountain goat far in the background behind Eve is a traditional symbol of lust and damnation (see lot 36). It stands on the edge of the abyss, presaging the Fall to come.