Unlike any German artist of previous generations, Albrecht Dürer drew, engraved and painted male and female nudes throughout much of his early career. His approach was manifold: he drew from live models and his own body, copied engravings by Mantegna, Jacopo de' Barbari and others, studied drawings after antique sculpture such as the Apollo Belvedere, and constructed studies of nudes according to Vitruvian principles. From around 1500, he became increasingly pre-occupied with this quest for ideal human proportions, culminating in 1504 in the engraving of Adam and Eve. The two figures, standing frontally in a pronounced contrapposto, their heads turned towards each other in full profile, are the final expression of a long artistic process, ranging from numerous schematic studies to preparatory sketches of individual gestures and body parts to the highly finished drawing of the two figures, executed on two joined sheets and united by a blackened background (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York; W. 333).
Created the year before Dürer's second Italian journey in 1505 and presumably made as a show-piece to take to Venice, Adam and Eve is a work of great aspiration and confidence. It is a programmatic work and the only one to bear the full name and birthplace of the artist: ALBERT DVRER NORICUS FACIEBAT 1504 reads the tablet in sober Latin script; a device borrowed from Pollaiuolo and Mantegna. Inspired mainly by Italian and antique sources, Adam and Eve was intended to demonstrate that--despite their reputation--the Germans and in particular Dürer himself was capable of depicting human figures of classical beauty.
His ambition however did not stop there: for no other print prior to this did he employ a similarly differentiated variety of graphic marks, from densest crosshatching to curving lines, short flicks and finest stipples, to render different textures and surfaces. Erwin Panofsky described the effect most beautifully: The engraving, he wrote, 'has always been famous for the splendor of a technique which does equal justice to the warm glow of human skin, to the chilly slipperiness of a snake, to the metallic undulations of locks and tresses, to the smooth, shaggy, downy or bristly qualities of animal coats, and to the twilight of a primeval forest'. (Panofsky, p. 84) Dürer thus combined the virtues of Northern art, the painstaking realism and attention to detail for which the Italians admired the Flemish masters, with Italy's own artistic ideals of the Renaissance: disegno and the depiction of nudes of classical proportions.
Yet this engraving is more still than a stupendous formal exercise and a dazzling display of technical virtuosity. Often overlooked as such, it is also a work of considerable iconographic complexity. The entire composition is an image of duality and division. The Tree of Knowledge separates Adam from Eve, and divides the image into two halves. Whilst Eve is associated with this tree, Adam grasps a branch of mountain ash, identified as the Tree of Life. The parrot and the serpent respectively symbolise wisdom and betrayal. The cat and mouse in the foreground form another pair of opposites as predator and prey--but death has not yet come into the world and they sit peacefully together. The animals in the forest furthermore allude to the scholastic doctrine of the 'four humours', which rule and corrupt the human existence since the Fall of Man. The moose, the cow, the rabbit and the cat each respectively represent the melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine and the choleric temperaments. The mountain goat however is a traditional symbol of lust and damnation. Far in the background behind Eve, it stands on the edge of the abyss.
Adam and Eve is undoubtedly one of Dürer's most celebrated engravings and one of the most widely reproduced--and hence most familiar--images of the Fall of Man. Yet to see a fine impression in the original is an altogether different and exhilarating experience. The present example is a duplicate from the Albertina in Vienna, famous for its unparalleled holdings of prints and drawings by Dürer. It is arguably the finest impression to be offered at auction for many years.