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Work Portrait of Erasmus

Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century

Portrait d'Erasme

Prints and Drawings
16th century

Author(s):
Grollemund Hélène

Visiting Holland in 1520, Dürer met Erasmus at least four times and made portraits of him on two occasions. Only this rapid, brilliantly executed drawing in the Louvre remains from these encounters between 16th-century Europe's most illustrious humanist and the period's greatest German artist. With Holbein's portraits painted shortly after, this ranks among the most important of all images of Erasmus.

An unfinished portrait

This drawing dates from Dürer's stay in the Low Countries between 12 July 1520 and July 1521. While in Brussels, he mentions Erasmus in his travel diary between 28 August and 2 September 1520: he had presented him with a copper engraving of the Passion, he says, adding a few lines further on, "Ich hab den Erasmum Roterodam[um] noch einmahl conterfet" ("I have made a new portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam"). The implication is that he has already produced a portrait, and while the first was probably executed in Antwerp between 5-19 August, all indications are that the Brussels portrait was a drawing-perhaps the one now in the Louvre. Erasmus's account, according to which the work was left unfinished because of the arrival of dignitaries attending Charles V's coronation, confirms this hypothesis. Unlike Dürer's many other portraits in black chalk, this one is not set against a dark background in that medium, which suggests that it is indeed unfinished. Alternatively, the drawing may be a preparation for the Dürer etching made at Erasmus's request in 1526-a controversial view, however, since in the latter the humanist is shown in profile and not full-face.

Apelles and Luther

Despite their historic character, the meetings between Dürer and Erasmus did not give rise to the kind of in-depth relationship the thinker was used to. Their mutual friend Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530) never managed to persuade Dürer to undertake the large painted portrait Erasmus so ardently desired: "I too," Erasmus wrote on 8 January 1525, "would like to be painted by Dürer. Indeed, who would not wish a portrait by such a great artist? But how to go about it? He had begun in Brussels, using charcoal, but has probably long since forgotten me." Erasmus called Dürer "Apelles," after the famous Greek painter, and Dürer saw the humanist as a new Luther, yet this mutual esteem did not lead to any deep reciprocal feeling. The portrait's somewhat superficial character, certainly accentuated by its unfinished state, may thus capture the nature of their relationship.

Irony and meditation

Dürer shows us Erasmus almost full face, with the upper body at a slight diagonal to the center of the paper. The traces of an earlier sketch-around the contours of the hat, for example-indicate that Dürer had set the face in the middle of his page before displacing it towards the left. The shape of the eyelids and the corners of the mouth suggest an eloquence often marked by the caustic or the ironic. The lowered eyes-a trait less in evidence in the Holbein portraits-give the figure a vaguely mysterious air, as of deep meditation.

Bibliography

E. Panofsky, Albrecht Dürer, vol. 2, Princeton, 1948, plate 1020
A. Gerlo, Erasme et ses portraitistes, Bruxelles, 1950
Dürer schriftlicher Nachlass, Hans Rupprich, Berlin, 1956
Peter-Klaus Schuster, in Köpfe der Lutherzeit, Exhibition catalogue Hambourg, Kunsthalle, 1983, under plate 67
Arlette Calvet (Sérullaz), in Le XVIe siècle européen: Dessins du Louvre, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1965, plate 23
Emmanuel Starcky, in Dessins de Dürer et de la Renaissance germanique dans les collections publiques parisiennes, Exhibition, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1991-1992. Paris: RMN, 1991, entry 66
M. Mende, in Albrecht Dürer, Exhibition, Vienna, Albertina, 2003, plate 17

Technical description

  • Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

    Portrait of Erasmus

    1520

  • Black chalk

    H. 0.373 m; W. 0.268 m

  • Collection of A. F. Andreossy; sale Paris, 13-16 April 1864, no. 61; collection of J. Gigoux; sale, Paris, 20-23 March 1882, no. 288; collection of Léon Bonnat; donated to the Louvre, 21 February 1912

    404113

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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