More preparatory drawings and trial proofs for Adam and Eve have survived than for any other print by Dürer and it seems he took an unusual amount of care and preparation in its creation. When we consider that it is also the only of his engravings inscribed with his full name, his home town and the date, ALBERT DVRER NORICUS FACIEBAT 1504 ('Albert Dürer of Nuremberg made this in 1504'), it is clear that, from the moment it was conceived, Dürer intended Adam and Eve to be a work of great ambition and eminence.
In 1505 Dürer embarked on his second journey to Venice, and it is likely that he created Adam and Eve as his presentation piece to take along with him. It was perfectly suited to this role, as it united the painstaking realism and attention to detail and texture for which the Northern Masters were renowned, with disegno and nudes of ideal proportions so highly regarded in Renaissance Italy.
The subject of Adam and Eve is well known and Dürer's version is possibly the best-know and most-loved of all his prints. We admire it for its technical perfection, the physical beauty of the figures and the bucolic charm of the forest and its animals, yet it is easy to overlook the complexity of the image. The whole scene, divided along its centre by the Tree of Knowledge, is an image of duality and division. Eve stands next to the Tree of Knowledge, which separates her from Adam, while he is holding on to a branch of a mountain ash, identified as the Tree of Life. The serpent and the parrot form a similar pair of opposites, like Adam and Eve and the two trees. While the serpent, associated with Eve, personifies the betrayal, the parrot, associated with Adam, is a symbol of wisdom. The cat and mouse form another obvious pair. But Paradise is not yet lost, and the cat does not even take notice of the mouse.
There is further symbolism in the animals: the moose, the cow, the rabbit and the cat were associated with the melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric temperament, the four humours which came rule the human soul and lead to desire and sinfulness. The goat, standing far in the background on a steep rock, is a traditional emblem of Lust and Damnation. Dürer's little mountain goat stand on the edge of the abbyss - a telling image of the Fall to come.
An interesting comparison is Rembrandt's treatment of the subject (lot 153 of the Rembrandt 400 sale), depicting figures rather further removed from the ideal.