Heinrich Aldegrever has remained a stepchild of German print history. Already dismissed as a secondary follower of Dürer from the next generation and grouped with the ‘Little Masters’ (Kleinmeister) on account of both size and presumed dropoff of quality, he is marginalized even further within their numbers by virtue of coming from another region entirely. Aldegrever worked (by about 1525; citizen in 1530) primarily in Northwest Germany, in the provincial Westphalian city of Soest rather than the Nuremberg of the Behams and Pencz. Virtually no certainty surrounds his life, training, or travel, though clearly his AG monogram deliberately imitates the renowned AD of Dürer. Even his date of death is unknown, located between 1555 and 1561.
Critical attention to Aldegrever has not been lacking, beginning with the principal study by Herbert Zschelletzschky of 1933 and a dissertation on the drawings completed at Münster by O. Plassmann in 1991 (published in 1994). In English the recent exhibition on the Little Masters by Stephen Goddard, The World in Miniature (Spencer Museum, 1988) included Aldegrever and remains fundamental, along with a Münster brochure (1982) prepared by Gisela Luther.
Zschelletzschky argued for a formative period in the Dürer workshop, although no documentation survives beyond the obvious visual affinities, which include the other Little Masters as well and need not have resulted from direct personal contact. Other influences, chiefly from Lucas van Leyden and Marcantonio Raimondi have also been cited previously. One of the merits of this fastidious catalogue by Ursula Mielke is its attentive list of copies after Aldegrever, chiefly associated with Monogrammist AC (sometimes identified as Allaert Claesz.); many of these copies adapt his frequent and popular designs for decoration and ornament. Watermarks are listed and referenced to Briquet and Piccard, but unfortunately not illustrated.
However, some of his unique works also attracted replication, chiefly his portraits of the radical leaders of the Münster Anabaptists: ‘King’ Jan van Leyden (B. 182) and his lieutenant Bernhard Knipperdolling (B. 183). Interpretation of these works, unresolved here, has ranged from the unlikely assumption that the artist sympathized with the persecuted radicals to a recent argument that their commemoration was ordered by the Bishop of Münster in 1536. Rare among his contemporaries, Aldegrever even issued two self-portraits: one unbearded (1530; B. 188), the other bearded (1537; B. 189). A portrait of ‘William V the Rich’, the Duke of Cleve, is dated 1540; the artist also produced silver seals for this duke between 1541 and 1552.
Few print rooms fail to have at least some samples of Aldegrever’s vastoeuvre, but it is truly instructive to see it fully assembled and illustrated in this single volume. Not long after a similar late cycle by Lucas van Leyden, this artist too produced a six-part Adam and Eve, as well as other multiple-plate series of Old Testament narratives: Lot (1555; 4 plates), Joseph (1532; 3), Amnon and Tamar (1540; 7), Susannah and the Elders (1555; 4); and he favoured parables as well – both the Good Samaritan (1554; 4) and Lazarus and the Rich Man (1554; 5). Surprisingly few New Testament images appear in this corpus. The artist’s own religion remains mysterious.
As Goddard has already emphasized, Aldegrever also featured quite a number of classical subjects, notably images of virile heroes from Roman history (Marcus Curtius, Mucius Scaevola, Titus Manlius Torquatus) as well as Hercules (whose twelve labours were memorably depicted in miniature by Sebald Beham in 1542). Seven planets, seven Virtues, seven Vices – all provide systematic cycles of knowledge for organizing knowledge in early collectors’ albums.
Genre was another area where Aldegrever followed the lead of Nuremberg’s other Little Masters. His Small Wedding-Dancers (1538 and 1551, 8 plates each) and Large Wedding-Dancers (1538; adapted from Schäufelein, 12 plates) are complemented by several images of soldiers and standard-bearers. A scandalous sense of the erotic informs two prints (one of them later adapted by Rembrandt) of sex between monk and nun.
But by far the largest number of non-religious prints by Aldegrever consist of a hundred ornamental designs (B. 190-291), ranging from classical acanthus or vegetal ornament to putti and other mythic figures, almost always against a rich, dark ground. Some show a tapering field that suggests a dagger sheath shape; most offer the small rectangular field also favoured by Sebald Beham. Three biblical woodcuts are here accepted as authentic, while a number of portrait woodcuts of Anabaptists are rejected.
Given the thematic range of Aldegrever’s output and its influence, as well as his clear connections to his artistic predecessors, his relatively remote location can only occasion wonder for a historian of early print history. Moreover, his contributions to both classical subjects and ornament prints as well as documentary portraiture (of the Anabaptists as well as the artist himself) established lasting legacies for later emulation. Future scholars will continue to mine this indispensible book for both formal and thematic investigations.
University of Pennsylvania