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Work Phyllis and Aristotle

Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century

Phyllis assise sur le dos d'Aristote qui marche à quatre pattes

Prints and Drawings
16th century

Grollemund Hélène

Dated 1503, this is one of the earliest extant drawings clearly attributable to Baldung. It was probably executed at the beginning of the artist's Nuremberg period, when he joined the studio of Albrecht Dürer. The story of the philosopher enslaved by a woman was a popular fable in the Middle Ages, often represented in miniatures and ivories. The drawing is particularly interesting for the zealous realism of its notation and the broad, freely-executed landscape.

The triumph of seduction over intellect

This satirical scene, presented in a pseudo-realistic landscape, shows the beautiful courtesan Phyllis in contemporary dress, riding side-saddle on the back of the great philosopher. Grovelling abjectly on all fours, Aristotle is kept on a tight rein and threatened with a riding crop. To the left rise the crenellated walls and towers of a German town. The story has its origins in the writings of the thirteenth-century scholar Jacques de Vitry. Popular throughout the Rhineland, the fable was the subject of the fifteenth-century comedy Ain Spil van Maister Aristotiles, whose origins can be traced to the region extending from the Upper Rhine to Bavaria. In the sixteenth century it was popular as an illustration of the triumph of female seduction over masculine intellect. Baldung's version is in the latter tradition and clearly reflects the artist's taste for burlesque mockery.

A confident young draftsman

The picture's boldly conceived composition fixes the viewer's attention on the figures, drawn with evident delectation on the part of the artist. The confident, measured line relates to Dürer's graphic style of the period 1494-1500, although Baldung's characteristically curvilinear, undulating notation is already evident. Baldung outlines the contours, organizes the circular arrangement of folds of Phyllis's skirt, and uses zones of cross-hatching to emphasize volume. Another of his early drawings, Landscape with Saint Catherine, circa 1504-6 (Basel, Kupferstichkabinett), is based on a similar compositional structure: a central figure or group, a view opening onto a fortress to the left, and to the right, behind a group of trees, a quickly-sketched horizon in the calligraphic style typical of Baldung's drawings and engravings of the period.

Nuremberg and Dürer

The present picture is important in the context of Baldung's drawings as a whole. Though unsigned, it is accepted as one of his earliest surviving sketches, along with two others: Death and the Landsknecht in Modena (Galleria Estense) and the Virgin and Child on a crescent moon in the Schilling Collection, in London. Dated 1503, the drawing may have been executed before Baldung began working in Dürer's studio (in the same year), although the style suggests that the young artist was already familiar with Dürer's work. Baldung's individual style is apparent in the play of cross-hatching and the sensual, opulent pose and treatment of the female figure. He returned to the same subject in a woodcut executed ten years later: free from the influence of Dürer, Baldung depicts himself as a witness to the spectacle, emphasizing his highly personal, ironic vision.


Sérullaz, Arlette (Calvet), in Le XVIe Siècle européen, dessins du Louvre, cat. exp. Paris, musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1965, n 53.
Söding Ulrich, "Hans Baldung Grien in Freiburg : Themenwahl
und Stilentwicklung", in cat. exp. Hans Baldung Grien in Freiburg,
Fribourg-en-Brisgau, Augustinermuseum, 2000-2001, pp. 67-68.
Starcky Emmanuel, in Dessins de Dürer et de la Renaissance germanique dans les collections publiques parisiennes, LXXXXVIIIe exposition du Cabinet des dessins, cat. exp. Paris, musée du Louvre,
Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1991-1992, notice 126.
Viatte Françoise, in Il Paesaggio nel Disegno del Cinquecento Europeo, cat. exp. Rome, Villa Médicis, Académie de France à Rome, 1972-1973, n 21.

Technical description

  • Hans BALDUNG, known as BALDUNG GRIEN(Schwäbisch Gmünd? 1484-85-Strasbourg, 1545)

    Phyllis and Aristotle


  • Pen, black ink

    H. 28.1 cm; W. 20.2 cm

  • Formerly Royal Collection

    INV 18865

  • Prints and Drawings

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

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Additional information about the work

Dated in pen and black ink on a tree-trunk, bottom center: 1503