What you see: The Rhinoceros, a 1515 woodcut by German artist Albrecht Dürer. Freeman’s estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.
The expert: David Weiss, senior vice president at Freeman’s.
So, for those who might never have encountered Albrecht Dürer before, could you talk about who he was, and why he remains influential today? He’s considered the preeminent German Renaissance artist and he’s credited with bringing Renaissance art to northern Germany. He was only 56 when he died, but he was established by his twenties as a painter and printmaker, and his genius lives on.
How did the woodcut print of The Rhinoceros come about? What we know is… first of all, rhinoceroses were not at all common in western Europe at the time. Dürer didn’t see a rhino, but he saw a sketch that was sent from Moravia. Dürer’s image was based upon an actual Indian rhino that arrived in Lisbon in 1515. It was the first living example of a rhinoceros in Europe since Roman times. The woodcut was very popular in Europe and remained so until the 18th century. It was presumably Dürer’s idea to make it.
Wait wait wait. Dürer did the woodcut without actually seeing a live rhino? He relied on someone else’s sketch? He did it based upon the sketch [which was later lost] and on news of the rhino’s arrival in Lisbon, which was published in Nuremberg. He was really thought of in Renaissance circles as one of the true artists of the period, a genius. That a rhinoceros would be intriguing to him is not surprising.
Where is Dürer in his career in 1515, when he makes The Rhinoceros? He’s well-established, and nearing the end of his life. He passes in 1528.
Is there any proof that Dürer created The Rhinoceros because he thought it would sell well–that it would be a hit with the public? It’s an interesting question whether or not his approach to this was if it was commercially viable. Arguably the subject did go through his mind. The arrival of the rhino sparked a great deal of interest. He thought it would be a good subject for a woodcut, and it was very popular.
Do we have any notion of why Dürer issued The Rhinoceros as a woodcut rather than, say, an engraving? Woodcuts are something that can be produced in greater quantity than engravings, which are more labor-intensive.
Dürer’s The Rhinoceros… doesn’t look exactly like a rhinoceros. We recognize this now. But is it possible to know if Dürer knowingly and deliberately departed from what he saw in the sketch and what he read in the contemporary accounts to give the beast what looks to be armor plates? There is some artistic license in the way he created his own version of the rhinoceros, with armor and rivets and what looks like breast plates. It would be wonderful to compare the [since lost] sketch to the original image. It would be fascinating to see, but we can’t do that. As for the translations [into German of the stories of the arrival of the rhinoceros], written descriptions of the original German documents don’t survive.
Dürer made this woodcut with only a sketch and a few written accounts to go on. I would be scared stiff to depict a rarely seen animal based on such meager source material, and yet, Dürer got reasonably close to reality. Why do you think Dürer’s The Rhinoceros remained an influential image after it was clear that it wasn’t strictly accurate? At the time, the rhinoceros was, essentially, a mythical beast. In some circles, the beast was conflated with a unicorn. I think he probably reveled in making a mythical, mystical image.
How was Dürer’s The Rhinoceros received in its day? It was highly popular and very well-received. What I don’t know is precisely how many were produced, and how it was received in commercial terms. It was viewed for a long time as a realistic or accepted depiction of a rhinoceros.
In its time, Dürer’s The Rhinoceros was considered an accurate depiction of a rare, exotic beast. We now know that he got some things wrong, but his rhino still commands attention anyway. Why do you think we 21st-century people enjoy the rhino despite its not being strictly accurate? The print resonated with the European art world and the European public at the time and it stayed popular for decades. I’m not sure I can answer your question about why it sustained its popularity. Part of it, certainly, is it’s a good-looking image, and part of it is how much of a departure from reality it is. It’s visually compelling.
Might The Rhinoceros‘s continued success be tangled up in the fact that it’s not strictly accurate, but it still looks very much like a rhino–that cognitive dissonance that comes from seeing something that looks real, but can’t be real? I think that’s a fair statement. It appears as a rhino, but not realistically so. It’s certainly not surreal. It’s not created from the subconscious. It’s a recognizable image.
The image of the beast goes right up to the edges of the paper. Do we know why Dürer did that? It’s worth noting that most prints extant of this image either have no margins or very thin, slight margins, measured in milimeters. It’s simply how the print was issued.
Might Dürer have done that to give the impression that the rhinoceros was so large that the paper could barely contain it? I don’t know if he was trying to make the animal seem bigger in the viewer’s mind. You could make the case that hardly a milimeter is wasted in that rhino. It seems to take over the space on which he depicts it. 21st century eyes can look at it as an imposing beast about to burst out of the four walls in which it is contained.
We don’t know how many copies of The Rhinoceros were printed in 1515. But do we know how many of them survive? I don’t know the number that’s around if we take into account private and public collections. I do know the number that have been offered [at auction] in the modern era, and what they’ve sold for. Since 1990, 26 woodcuts of The Rhinoceros have been at auction. [This doesn’t mean 26 copies from one of the first through eighth states of the 1515 woodcut have been offered; some of the 26 might be the same example coming back up for sale.]
The example of The Rhinoceros at Freeman’s is from the sixth state of eight produced in 1515. Does that matter? Do collectors prefer the earliest possible state, or are woodcuts of The Rhinoceros so rare that anything from 1515 is fine by them? Earlier states, particularly the first, are going to be rarer and more sought-after and command higher prices at auction. With each descending state, there’s less rarity and slightly less interest.
What is The Rhinoceros like in person? Are there any aspects of the Dürer woodcut that the camera doesn’t pick up? It’s a wonderful thing, it really is. What really comes across is the strength of the printed line of the woodcut itself and the fragility of the 16th century paper. You can hold it up to the light and see through it. On one hand, it’s a strong, imposing image of a beast, but on the other hand, it’s created on very thin paper that’s survived for centuries. It’s a striking image in person.
What’s your favorite detail of Dürer’s rhinoceros? I like the all-over plating itself, and the designs within it–the intricacies.
What’s the world auction record for Dürer’s The Rhinoceros? It sold at Christie’s New York in 2013 for $866,500. It’s worth noting that the estimate for the print was $100,000 to $150,000. It was a first state in perfect condition, and it had the text on top. Our print doesn’t have the upper panel above the rhino with text. I can’t tell you precisely why it was cut, but it’s not uncommon. The one that sold for so much had the text above the image. It’s also the third-highest price realized at auction for any work by Dürer.
What’s the condition of this print of Dürer’s The Rhinoceros? It’s in generally good condition, but not in mint condition. Generally good, with some minor restoration.
Why will this woodcut of Dürer’s The Rhinoceros stick in your memory? It’s the first time in my career that I’ve appraised and handled this print by Albrecht Dürer. It’s an iconic image that I’ve never handled as a specialist in charge of an auction.
Images are courtesy of Freeman’s.
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