Albrecht Dürer, ‘The Bathhouse (B. 128; M., Holl. 266; S.M.S. 107)’, ca. 1496-1497, Christie's Old Masters

Woodcut, circa 1496-97, watermark Imperial Orb (M. 53), a very fine, rare lifetime impression, Meder b, with small margins, a short repaired paper split at centre right into the neck of the drinking man, with some associated pale staining, generally in very good condition.

The Bathhouse is one of the earliest 'whole sheet' woodcuts executed by Dürer upon his return to Nuremburg from Venice. Unlike the majority of his early independent woodcuts (i.e. excluding book illustrations and broadsheets), which depict Christian subjects, the content of this print is secular and reveals a growing public interest in non-religious art. The print had always been considered a simple genre scene until Edgar Wind sought to interpret the four bathers as representatives of the four humours, each of whom is undergoing a purgative treatment which is in keeping with his particular temperament: the melancholic, leaning on the post at the left listens to music; the phlegmatic at the right drinks wine; the choleric (left foreground) prepares to rub and scratch himself with a scraping knife; and the sanguine bather (right foreground) inhales the fragrance of a flower. The youthful onlooker in the background is a reference to the dilettantes, described in book V of Plato's Republic, who look in on the Dionysian rites but refuse to take part in them. Wind's view has yet to gain universal acceptance. Panofsky, while admitting the possibility that the print contains references to the doctrines of the four humours, feels that it does not admit of detailed allegorical interpretation. Other commentators have regarded the individual bathers as portraits: the 'melancholic' at the pump has long been considered a self-portrait of the artist; the two foreground figures have been identified with the brothers Stephan and Lucas Paumgärtner, members of a prominent Nuremberg family; while the 'phlegmatic' drinker maybe a caricature of Willibald Pirckheimer.

In any case, it seems clear that each of the five bathers is associated with one of the Five Senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch - and that Dürer allowed himself a rather saucy visual pun with the water faucet. Perhaps it was due to the personal and overtly erotic nature of this woodcut that is was printed in small numbers only. Lifetime impressions such as the present one are hence very rare.

Kunsthalle Bremen, with their duplicate stamp (L. 292 & 293).

Albert W. Blum (1882-1952), Switzerland and Short Hills, New Jersey (L. 79 b); his posthumous sale, Sotheby's, New York, 27 February 1988, lot 1106 (US$ 70,400).

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