Albrecht Dürer, ‘Hercules at the Crossroads (B. 73; M., Holl. 63; S.M.S. 22)’, ca. 1498, Christie's Old Masters

Engraving, circa 1498, watermark High Crown (M. 29), a fine Meder II a impression (the first, unfinished state survives in two impressions only, in Berlin and Vienna), before the scratch through Hercules's calf, very rich and dark in the shadows, yet remarkably clear and sharp, trimmed on or just inside the platemark but retaining a fillet of blank paper outside the borderline on three sides, with thread margins above, with touches of pen and ink along the upper platemark, the upper sheet corners made-up, the sheet slightly toned, some minor stains and very pale, unobtrusive pinpoint foxing, otherwise in good condition.

After much debate, and having borne various titles such as The Effects of Jealousy and The Great Satyr, Erwin Panofsky has most convincingly identified the subject of this engraving as Hercules at the Crossroads. As related by Prodikos and Xenophon, the young Hercules has to choose between a life of Virtue or one of Vice. In Dürer's depiction Hercules' attitude is difficult to decipher, and it is unclear whether he fights on the side of Virtue, here personified by the standing woman wielding a club, or is defending the sinful couple of the woman and the satyr. It is also unclear what the meaning of the putto with a songbird fleeing to the right is, or of the hero's somewhat buffoonish headdress made with horns and a cockerel. Dürer's main interest seems to have been a formal and technical one, and he utilized various figure compositions from Italian sources.

The figures of the woman with the club and the putto are derived from an earlier drawing of the Death of Orpheus (W. 58), inscribed by Dürer Orfeus, der erst puseran ('Orpheus, the first pederast'). It is possible that the present engraving was done in a similar, satirical spirit, mocking the moral superiority of the heroes of antiquity.

Conte Giuseppe Archinto (1783-1861), Milan (L. 52); possibly his posthumous sale, Clément, Paris, 17-19 March 1862.

Rolf Leopold von Retberg (1812-1885), Munich (L. 2822); probably his posthumous sale, Amsler & Ruthardt, Berlin, 4 March 1886.

Henri Vever (1854-1943), Paris (L. 2491bis).

About Albrecht Dürer

Considered one of the foremost artists of the Renaissance period, Albrecht Dürer’s extensive work in printmaking transformed the categorization of the medium from craft to fine art. Often depicting religious subjects, Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings demonstrated unprecedented technical skill, tonal variation, and compositional sophistication. Dürer theorized extensively on linear perspective and anatomical proportion, concerns that were articulated in a vast body of written work as well as in his paintings and prints. Dürer’s skill earned him the role of court artist for Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V, under whom he created a number of paintings and altarpieces. Dürer’s series of self-portraits, created throughout his career, represent some of his most iconic works.

German, 1471-1528, Nuremberg, Germany, based in Nuremberg, Germany