Albrecht Dürer, ‘The Prodigal Son (B., M., Holl. 28; S.M.S. 9)’, ca. 1496, Christie's Old Masters

Engraving, circa 1496, watermark Gothic P with Flower (M. 321), a very good Meder c impression, with even 5 mm. margins on all sides, a tiny repair to the left of the central pig's snout, the sheet slightly toned, some minor stains, generally in good condition.

By placing the prodigal son in a large Franconian farm yard, Dürer has strayed significantly from the text and the iconographic tradition. Traditionally, the prodigal son as a swineherd was shown standing by his animals in a field, but Dürer brought the parable of guilt and unconditional grace 'closer to home'. By allowing himself such leeway he was able to allude to several different aspects of the parable within a single image. The large, dilapidated farm buildings signify loss, and illustrate both the prodigal son's current misery and his former wealth. His posture, with his head raised towards the church in the background, simultaneously expresses despair, humility and hope for salvation.

The present work marks an early high point in Dürer's ability to describe space and depth, and textures and surfaces - from the pigs' bristles to the shingled roofs and crumbling brick walls. With such mastery on display it is difficult to understand why he encountered such problems describing the youth's kneeling pose. Yet, despite this youthful flaw in draughtsmanship, The Prodigal Son was a great success. It was much admired by his contemporaries and widely disseminated and copied. Rainer Schoch has even identified a 16th century Persian miniature based on the composition.

André-Jean Hachette (born 1873), Paris (L. 132); presumably his sale, M. Rousseau, Paris, 11 June 1953.

Franz von Hagens (1817-1899), Dresden (L. 1052a); his posthumous sale, C. G. Boerner, Leipzig, 2-3 May 1927, lot 139 (Mk 2.000, to Gilhofer, Vienna).

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