Old Master Prints
Online Auction: 2–9 December 2022 • 2:00 PM GMT • London

Old Master Prints 2–9 December 2022 • 2:00 PM GMT • London

C oinciding with Masters Week, Sotheby’s London’s Old Master Prints sale will be open for bidding from 2–9 December. This auction offers a diverse and intriguing selection of woodcuts, engravings and etchings, covering four centuries of European printmaking, from Albrecht Dürer to Francisco de Goya.

Auction Highlights

Albrecht Dürer's The Rhinoceros

“On 1 May 1513 was brought from India to the great and powerful king Emanuel of Portugal at Lisbon a live animal called a rhinoceros. His form is here represented. It has the colour of a speckled tortoise and it is covered with a thick shell. It is like an elephant in size, but lower on its legs and almost invulnerable. It has a strong sharp horn on its nose, which it sharpens on stones. The stupid animal is the elephant’s deadly enemy. The elephant is very frightened of it, as, when they meet, it runs with its head down between its front legs and gores the stomach of the elephant and throttles it, and the elephant cannot fend it off. Because the animal is well armed, there is nothing that the elephant can do to it. It is also said that the rhinoceros is fast, daring and cunning.”

Albrecht Dürer
The Rhinoceros (B. 136; M., Holl. 241)
Woodcut, 1515
Estimate £150,000 - 200,000

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This inscription accompanies Dürer’s monumental and hugely important woodcut, The Rhinoceros (1515). As is outlined in the text, the beast that inspired the print’s creation was gifted to King Manuel I of Portugal in 1515 (the date suggested in the inscription is erroneous.) It was the first rhinoceros to be seen in Europe since the age of the Roman Empire. Unsurprisingly, its arrival to the continent in modern times was met with great excitement.

Dürer, like the majority of his European contemporaries, did not see the animal in the flesh. This fact is now readily assumed, given that his depiction diverges so markedly from the actual form of the subject, which does not comprise armoured plating or a spiralling horn between the shoulders. Dürer’s fantastical rendering was formalised by the wide circulation of the print—which was enormously popular—and by subsequent illustrations in natural histories and reiterations by other artists. This imagined rhinoceros thus became accepted as a true likeness of the animal until the eighteenth century.

Fortuitously, the imagined and somewhat embellished version of the rhinoceros allowed Dürer to demonstrate his capacities as a printmaker at this mature stage in his career. Eleanor Sayre has described the artist’s ‘innate gifts for elaborate detail and expressive, calligraphic line’ (Sayre, Albrecht Dürer: Master Printmaker, 1971, p. xxii), aptitudes that are clearly exhibited in the immense, emotive, and intricately ornamented creature depicted here.

In this image, Dürer also fully exploits (or perhaps surpasses) the potential of his medium. In his lifetime and to this day, the qualities Dürer was able to achieve in his monochromatic graphic works have consistently astonished viewers. Just prior to Dürer’s death in 1528, the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam captured the artist’s abilities by comparing him to Apelles, the famous painter of antiquity. Significantly, Erasmus did not describe Dürer as a painter but as a printmaker. He explained: ‘Dürer … what does he not express in monochromes, that is, by black lines? Shade, light, radiance, eminences, depressions… These things he places before our eyes by most felicitous lines, black ones that is … And is it not more wonderful to accomplish without the blandishment of colours what Apelles accomplished with their aid?’ (Quoted in Seifert, Dürer's Fame, 2011, p. 9)

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