Albrecht Dürer, ‘Melencolia I’, 1514, Christie's

Without watermark, a fine Meder IIa impression, printing with great clarity and intense contrasts, the figure's face printing darkly, trimmed inside the platemark but retaining a fillet of blank paper outside the subject in most places, trimmed on or just inside the platemark below, a narrow strip on the right of the upper sheet edge and subject made-up with pen and ink, otherwise in very good condition.
Sheet 241 x 187 mm.

From the Catalogue:
This fine and early impression of Dürer's most famous print was once part of the legendary collection of Earl Spencer, until its sale at Christie's in London almost one hundred years ago. The collection was probably founded by The Honorable John Spencer (1708-1746). Many works in the collection came from Sarah Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744), who had been a regular client of the famous Paris print dealer Pierre Mariette (1634–1716). Soon after the Spencer sale at Christie’s in 1919, probably around 1925, the print was acquired by Dr. William Sargent Ladd (1887-1949), Dean of Cornell University Medical College, New York, and grandson of the former Mayor of Oregon and philanthropist William Sargent Ladd (1826-1893).

Melencolia I is the most discussed and debated image in the pantheon of Western art. The rich symbolism that still remains open to interpretation embodies the complexity of humanist thought in the Renaissance period. This work is one of the artist’s three so-called Meisterstiche (‘master engravings’), created between 1513-1514, which are widely considered the pinnacle of the artist’s mastery of the graphic medium. It is thought that the three engravings, Melencolia I, Death, Knight and the Devil and Saint Jerome in his Study each represent one of the three forms of virtuous living, intellectual, moral and theological, as outlined in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (written circa 1265–1274 but published in 1485). In Dürer's time, the nature of a virtuous life, and by extension of the ideal ‘Renaissance man’, was a popular topic of conversation in literary and artistic circles. Dürer himself was surrounded and no doubt inspired by the Nuremberg humanists, above all by his friend Willibald Pirckheimer. Treatises such as Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (1513) and Castiglione’s ‘The Courtier’ (1528) give testimony of this culture and the moral debates of the time.

The melancholic temperament was associated with intellectual creativity and as such this depiction has been understood to be an allegorical self-portrait. Indeed, it has been suggested that the ‘I’ of the title Melencolia I refers to Cornelius Agrippa’s hierarchy of the Melancholic temperament, with ‘imagination’ ranking above ‘mind’ and ‘reason’. The winged figure can thus be taken to be an allegory of artistic melancholy and the tools of measurement in the image refer to the artist’s examination of the natural world.

One of the other competing theories identifies the central figure as Lucifer, the best and brightest of the angels, contemplating his rebellion. Having been expelled from Heaven and condemned to the material world, represented by the instruments pertinent to the material world which surround him, he sits considering his fate. His act of defiance marks the beginning of sadness for mankind. According to this interpretation, the star and the rainbow on the horizon signify hope for mankind.

“[Dürer] executed some copper-plates that astonished the world. He set himself to make an engraving…of a figure of Melancholy, with all the instruments that reduce all who use them…to a melancholy humour; and in this he succeeded so well, that it would not be possible to do more delicate engraving with the burin.”
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, 1550, translated by Gaston de Vere, The Medici Society, London 1912-14, volume VI, p. 95.
—Courtesy of Christie's

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Bartsch 74; Meder, Hollstein 75; Schoch Mende Scherbaum 71

Earl John Spencer (1708-1746), Althorp, Northamptonshire, with his collector's mark recto (Lugt 1531); his sale, Christie’s, London, 25 June 1919, lot 53 (£65-2-0 to Dunthorne).
With Robert Dunthorne & Son, London; acquired at the above sale; probably their 1922 catalogue, no. 42.
With Kennedy & Co., New York, their inventory number a68496 in pencil verso.
Dr. William Sargent Ladd (1887-1949), Portland, Oregon & West Point, New York, probably acquired from the above; then by descent to the present owner.

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