Despite several important monographic exhibitions, notably Alan Shestack’s five-hundredth anniversary exhibition of the artist’s death (Philadelphia, 1967) and Holm Bevers’s one-man show (Munich, 1986), the anonymous pioneer engraver Master E.S. has not received a true life-and-works monograph of his entire oeuvre since the initial gathering of his output a century ago by Max Geisberg and Max Lehrs (thirty entries by Lehrs in the bibliography, led by his landmark nine-volume critical catalogue of early German engravings, occupy more than two full pages). Of course, as his Notname indicates, we know this very distinctive and prolific (318 prints according to this catalogue) graphic artist only by his initials, which chiefly appear in works judged to be late in his career, only eighteen in number and many of them dated to 1466-67. All of the rest of his attributions remain just that, some of them surviving in unique impressions; however, they are solid for the most part, and his foundational place in the early history of prints (e.g. in Landau and Parshall’s Renaissance Print, 1470-1550; 1994) remains secure.
Höfler brings rigor and order to the accumulation of attributions and surmises about biography. A consistency emerges, if not a firm relative chronology, which still must depend heavily on technical mastery. Höfler discerns at least two decades of activity with several distinct phases (Chapter III, Appendix I), and he considers the first prints to orginate perhaps as early as circa 1440. While sometimes his earnest efforts at relative chronology involve micro-comparisons of motifs and can be argued, he does confidently and convincingly localize Master E.S. to the Upper Rhine, i.e. between Basel and Strasbourg.
Even the crucial letters E and S, which do not always appear together in the master’s work, might stand for something other than the name of the artist, in spite of our habits of reading them as initials of a name from the MS of Martin Schongauer. For example, his well-known trio of engravings for a five-hundredth anniversary celebration at the Swiss monastery of Einsiedeln in 1466 might just as easily explain his use of an E. That site also proves important because it is the first known instance of a graphic artist making prints on commission, a potentially lucrative undertaking that links engravings to pilgrim souvenirs, a major late medieval commercial industry.
The example of Schongauer suggests to Höfler that our usual hypothesis, often taken as confirmed, that early engravers were trained as goldsmiths, might need rethinking. Unfortunately, unlike Schongauer, he still cannot make connections to any specific painted associated with Master E.S. He does note (p. 137, figs. 39-40) a painted Passion cycle from Haldern (now in Münster), ascribed to the Master of Sch’ppingen from Westphalia, which manifestly derives from E.S. print models, though since it is undated (currently considered ca. 1460), it does not help much with chronology or more precise localization. H’fler also discerns in the prints some Netherlandish painting influence, certainly evident later in Schongauer along the Rhine artery, even though most earlier German scholars resisted this link, because they had a nationalist bias against losing their man to a different national origin.
Höfler also denies that the artist ever copied from prior models, or at least no more than other artists of his time, though this tone smacks a bit of the special pleading for originality that seems inherent to any monographic study of a single artist, especially one as influential as Master E.S. He devotes a final chapter to Rezeption, but there copies and influence are more often confined to painters than to printmakers, especially that thieving magpie, Israhel van Meckenem, who actually reused some E.S. plates in addition to making copies after his works (a list of lost engravings appears as Appendix II).
Discussion of the oeuvre occupies the center of the book, chiefly in Chapter IV (Das Werk), subdivided according to themes after an initial discussion of artistic origins. Chapter V discusses further how the master had a particular inclination towards the modeling of figures, often with echoes of the contemporary sculptural vocabulary of Upper Rhenish carvers, derived ultimately from Netherlandish painting. This compelling analysis, with the kind of media crossover that Jeffrey Chipps Smith discusses around German sculpture of the following century, is one of the highlights of Höfler’s study, though he is at pains to deny any influence from the greatest of the contemporary sculptors in the same region, Nicolaus Gerhaert of Leyden (pp. 121-31), even while convincingly connecting (pp. 129-32) the early carved works of Michael Pacher to Master E.S.
That naturalism of rounded figures and drapery remains the strongest legacy of Master E.S. to printmaking, and his ambitious, if sometimes stylized or flawed efforts to convey convincing interior or landscape spaces. But his links to art of the Netherlands is another important and lasting quality of the master’s output. With a full — and fully illustrated, with comparisons — catalogue of the entire oeuvre, Janez Höfler reasserts those foundational contributions to the history of engraving by this prized and accomplished, if anonymous Master, still known as E.S.
University of Pennsylvania