A.1 : Albrecht Durer, Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples, from The Small Passion. c. 1508. Woodcut. Sheet: 5 1/16 x 3 7/8 in. (12.8 x 9.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, The George Khuner Collection, Gift of Mrs. George Khuner,1975, 1975.653.31. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/388045
A.2: Unknown Tyrolean master, after Albrecht Durer, copy after Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples, from The Small Passion, 16th century. Woodcut. Image size: 12.7 x 9.6. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Achenbach Collection, Gift of Julius Landauer, 1974.13.352. https://art.famsf.org/anonymous/copy-after-d%C3%BCrers-christ-washing-feet-disciples-little-passion-197413352
B.1: Johann Mommard, after Albrecht Durer, The Fall of Man, from The Small Passion, n.d. Woodcut on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Henry Walters, 1917, 17.37.275. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/396635
B.2: Albrecht Durer, The Fall of Man, from The Small Passion, c. 1510. Woodcut on paper, 12.5 x 9.8 cm. British Museum, Prints and Drawings, 1895,0122.506. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1895-0122-506
Distinguishing between the copy and the original in Set A is either easier — or harder — due to the difference in photographic quality. I couldn’t find a high-resolution photograph for A.2. I should add that it is difficult to make attributions solely from looking at photographs, and if I were really setting an exercise for a class, I would need to use reproductions of uniform quality. But in this case, the difference in quality between the first print and the second is obvious, even with the bad reproduction.
At first glance, the second image, attributed to an “unknown Tyrolean master,” is a credible double of Durer’s print. But the details give away it away. If you look closely at the hatchwork and contour lines in the copy by the anonymous master, you will see that the lines in the copy look unmotivated. In the original, each line exists for a purpose — to define the swell of muscle in Christ’s upper arm, for example, or describe the weight of the draperies around his waist. In the copy, the lines on Christ’s arm are awkwardly placed, the lines on his sleeve and shirt are unmotivated — if you look at where the fabric gathers, under the armpit, the lines in the copy look like a set of rays emanating from a node, while the lines in the original describe the thickness and volume of fabric caught between Christ’s arm and body.
Interestingly, the size of the image in A.1 is identical to the size of the image in A.2 (12.5 x 9.8 cm). Perhaps the copyist made a direct copy by tracing Durer’s print?
Now that you have a sense of how to look closely at these prints, here are some details from B.1 and B.2 that help distinguish between original and copy.
You might say that this was a difficult first exercise. Prints are, by nature, a kind of copy or reproduction. In their creation, they often pass through many hands—one artist drafts the design, another transfers the image onto a plate or block, and perhaps yet another artist prints the image onto a sheet of paper (or other substrate).
A famous example of this division of labor can be found in the print collaborations between Raphael and Marcantonio Raimondi.
Also, as in the case of Hieronymous Cock and his publishing house, Au Quatre Vents, a print could be designed by one artist (e.g., Hieronymous Bosch, Maarten van Heemskerk), engraved by another (e.g. the Bosch print is associated with two printmakers, Johannes van Doetecum I and Lucas van Doetecum, and the Heemskerk was engraved by Dirk Volkertsz Coornhert), and published by a third (Cock, the owner of the publishing house). This Heemskerk /Coornhert print published by Cock is inscribed “Heemskerck / Inuentor. / DVCuerenhert fecit / 1555” on the left “Cock. cum / privilegio” on the right.
To add a further wrinkle to this game of copies and originals, we do not know if Durer actually made all of his own prints—that is, if Durer actually created the blocks or plates himself, or if he created a design and then handed the drawing off to a member of his workshop. No records survive to tell us about Durer’s workshop practices. So, perhaps we can say more accurately that the “originals” in both Set A and Set B are prints made during Durer’s lifetime (and with Durer’s supervision), using the original plates or blocks created by Durer and/or his workshop assistants, and they appear as Durer intended. So Durer was present in some form, whether as a hand or author, or as a supervisor, for all stages of the print’s production. This point—that the artist was present—is important because the plates and blocks (produced either by Durer or in Durer’s workshop under his supervision) were so well crafted and durable that they remained in use long after Durer’s death.
So in a certain sense, maybe these are all copies after all?
My first exercises in distinguishing between copies and originals involved Old Master drawings, another difficult arena for connoisseurship, but simpler, in many ways, than working with prints. With drawings, there are no printmakers, no publishers, no intermediaries. But drawings present other problems — they are often fragmentary, most are unsigned, signatures are not reliable, a sheet can carry marks made by many hands, over a long period of time, etc. But these are topics for another post.