The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

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Melencolia I (Melancholy) Albrecht Dürer

  • Curator’s description:

    Description

    In good condition, trimmed to just outside the border. The paper has yellowed slightly towards the edges, and there are traces of yellow staining visible at the edges. The print is inlaid into a mount of cream laid paper with a broad black border close to the print and a narrower black outer border; this is like that found on many of Ruskin's other Dürers: WA.RS.ED.075.a-c, RUD.064-5, RUD.067.a-c, and STD.009. The mount has been trimmed very irregularly, so that the outer border has been removed on the left side, and in places on the right, and the mount now tapers at all save the top left corner. The ink used to write the number at the top of the mount appears to have spread slightly. There are areas of paste, presumably used to hold the mount into its window, on all four corners and at the centre top and bottom, and the remains of two areas of red sealing wax which served the same purpose in the centre top and bottom; the paper has been abraded as the wax was removed at the top. The ink used to draw the outer border has been smudged in the bottom left.

    The fact that the first letter on the second line of the square of numbers in the top right has been changed from '6' to '5', whilst the first letter on the third line, '9', is still reversed, identifies this as the first state of the print.

    Melancholy, in the form of a winged woman, sits on a shallow step. She holds a book and a pair of dividers, whilst a bunch of keys and a large and ornate purse hang from a strap attached to her belt. In her hair is a wreath. She is surrounded by a plethora of objects. At her feet lie various carpenter's tools, from left to right: a set-square, a plane, a pair of pincers, a pad-saw, a ruler, and nails. An enema syringe sits beneath her skirts, below Dürer's monogram. On the left is a sphere, a portable inkwell, a large hound, a hammer, a large polyhedron, and a crucible. Behind Melancholy and the hound, a putto holding a slate or wax tablet and a stylus sits on a cloth draped over a millstone. A ladder leans against the building behind the putto and melancholy; on the building's walls hang a set of scales, an hourglass, and a bell, whilst a 'magic square' of numbers has been carved into the wall. A rainbow hangs in the sky, and a comet can be seen beneath it. A stylised bat hovers nearby, the print's title inscribed upon its spread wings. One of Dürer's most famous prints, the many objects depicted within it have provoked varying and detailed interpretations. They are all intended, in various ways, as symbols of melancholy, embodied in the figure of the brooding woman.

    In the "Catalogue of Examples" Ruskin advised his students to look at this print whilst reading the chapter on Dürer and Salvator Rosa in "Modern Painters". It exemplified the way in which all the best work was created in sorrow, as it must necessarily be based upon whatever its creator has felt most strongly - particularly in Ruskin's own time. However, he also warned his students not to over-rate the strength of this tendency in sixteenth-century artists, whom he considered to be much too good craftsmen to be so seriously affected - Dürer in particular. Likewise, in volume V of "Modern Painters" (pt ix, ch. 4, §§ 16-19 = VII.310-14), he described it as a work created in praise of labour in a spirit of northern European 'morbid sadness': the labour in question was the 'sorrowful toil of the earth', daily work 'in its four chief functions: thoughtful, faithful, calculating, and executing'. Its 'pensiveness' was a result of a typically northern 'strange fear and melancholy' which 'took ... a feverish and frantic tendency towards the contemplation of death' and 'brought a bitter mockery and low grotesque into ... art', embodied by Dürer ("Abbeville" Catalogue, § 24 = XIX.260).

    Elsewhere, "Melencolia" exemplified more technical issues: it embodied the 'chiaroscurist' depiction of light and shade, in which highlights are uniformly depicted as white, taking no account of local colour (and so, unlike 'colourist' light and shade, untruthful: "Modern Painters", vol. IV. pt v, ch. 3, § 19 = VI.63-4); and it stood as a perfect example of precision of line in "The Elements of Drawing" (§ 90 = XV.78-9). Ruskin also included an impression of the print in the Museum of the Guild of Saint George (R.79.a; see Cook and Wedderburn, XXX.163).

  • Details

    Artist/maker
    Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528) (engraver)
    Object type
    print
    Material and technique
    engraving on laid paper
    Dimensions
    241 x 188 mm (sheet); 331 x 208 mm (original mount)
    Inscription
    Recto, engraved, within the print:
    on the wings of the bat, upper left: MELENCOLIA·I
    on the riser of the step on which Melancholy sits, bottom right: 1514 | AD [the 'AD' in Dürer's characteristic monogram]

    On the mount:
    centre top, in ink: 76. [the '7' conjectural; it may be intended for '8']
    top, just left of centre, in graphite (recent), within an oval: B74=
    bottom left, in graphite (recent): Ex Ruskin School | B.74 Dupl.
    bottom left, in graphite (recent, in another hand): watermark similar to Meder 171 | Holl 75

    Verso, on the print:
    bottom centre: the Ruskin School's stamp

    On the mount, top left, in blue ink, underlined: Stan. 4
    Provenance

    Presented by John Ruskin to the Ruskin Drawing School (University of Oxford), 1875; transferred from the Ruskin Drawing School to the Ashmolean Museum, c.1949.

    No. of items
    1
    Accession no.
    WA.RS.STD.004
  • Subject terms allocated by curators:

    Subjects

  • References in which this object is cited include:

    References

    Bartsch, Adam von, The Illustrated Bartsch, founding editor Walter L. Strauss, general editor John T. Spike (New York: Abaris Books, 1978-), no. 1001.74

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of Examples Arranged for Elementary Study in the University Galleries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1870), cat. Standard no. 4

    Ruskin, John, ‘References to the Series of Paintings and Sketches, From Mr. Ruskin's Collection, Shown in Illustration of the Relations of Flamboyant Architecture to Contemporary and Subsequent Art’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 19

    Bartsch, Adam von, Le Peintre Graveur, 21 vols (Vienna: J. von Degen, 1803-1821), cat. vol. VII, pp. 87-9, no. 74

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Works of John Ruskin’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), vol. VII, plate E (opposite p. 312)

    Ruskin, John, ‘Lectures on Landscape: Delivered at Oxford in Lent Term, 1871’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 22

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford: Catalogues, Notes and Instructions’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 21, cat. Standard no. 4

    Hollstein, F. W. H., German Engravings Etchings and Woodcuts, ca. 1400 - 1700 (Amsterdam: Menno Hertzberger, 1954-), cat. vol. VII, p. 71, no. 75

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of the Reference Series Including Temporarily the First Section of the Standard Series (London: Smith, Elder, [1872]), cat. Standard no. 4

    Meder, Josef, Dürer-Katalog, ein handbuch über Albrecht Dürers stiche, radierungen, Holzschnitte, deren zustände, ausgaben und wasserzeichen (Wien: Gilhofer & Ranschburg, 1932), no. 75

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Elements of Drawing: In Three Letters to Beginners’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 15

    Ruskin, John, ‘Modern Painters’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 3-7

    Schoch, Rainer, Mende, Matthias, and Scherbaum, Anna, Albrecht Dürer: das druckgraphische Werk, 3 (Munich/London/New York: Prestel, 2001-2004), no. 71

Location

    • Western Art Print Room

Position in Ruskin’s Collection

Ruskin's Catalogues

  • Ruskin's Catalogue of Examples (1870)

    4. Melencolia. (Engraving by Albert Dürer.)

    In connection with this plate, I wish you to read the chapter on Dürer and Salvator, in the fifth volume of Modern Painters, and to note farther, these few things.

    All first-rate work in modern days, must be done in some degree of sorrow of heart, for it is necessarily founded on whatever the workman has felt most deeply, both respecting his own life, and that of his fellow-creatures; nor has it been possible for any man keen-sighted and gentle-hearted, (and all the greatest artists are so),—to be satisfied in his own prosperity, even if he feels it sufficient for his needs, while so many around him are wretched, or in his creed, even though he feels it sufficient, for his own comfort, since the questioning spirit of the Reformation has broken through the childishly peaceful, and too often childishly selfish and cruel, confidence of the early religious ages. I have therefore given you the Melencolia as the best type of the spirit of labour in which the greater number of strong men at the present day have to work: nevertheless, I must warn you against overrating the depth of the feeling in which the grave or terrible designs of the masters of the sixteenth century were executed. Those masters were much too good craftsmen to be heavily afflicted about anything; their minds were mainly set on doing their work, and they were able to dwell on grievous or frightful subjects all the more forcibly, because they were not themselves liable to be overpowered by any emotions of grief or terror.

    Albert Dürer, especially, has had credit for deeper feeling than ever influenced him; he was essentially a Nürnberg craftsman, with much of the instinct for manufacture of toys on which the commercial prosperity of his native town has been partly founded: he is, in fact, almost himself the whole town of Nürnberg, become one personality, (only without avarice); sometimes, in the exquisitely skilful, yet dreamily passive, way in which he renders all that he saw, great things and small alike, he seems to me himself a kind of automaton, and the most wonderful toy that Nürnberg ever made.

  • Ruskin's Standard & Reference series (1872)

    4. Melencolia. (Engraving by Albert Dürer.)

    In connection with this plate, I wish you to read the chapter on Dürer and Salvator, in the fifth volume of Modern Painters, and to note farther, these few things.

    All first-rate work in modern days, must be done in some degree of sorrow of heart, for it is necessarily founded on whatever the workman has felt most deeply, both respecting his own life, and that of his fellow-creatures; nor has it been possible for any man keen-sighted and gentle-hearted, (and all the greatest artists are so),—to be satisfied in his own prosperity, even if he feels it sufficient for his needs, while so many around him are wretched, or in his creed, even though he feels it sufficient for his own comfort, since the questioning spirit of the Reformation has broken through the childishly peaceful, and too often childishly selfish and cruel, confidence of the early religious ages. I have therefore given you the Melencolia as the best type of the spirit of labour in which the greater number of strong men at the present day have to work: nevertheless, I must warn you against overrating the depth of the feeling in which the grave or terrible designs of the masters of the sixteenth century were executed. Those masters were much too good craftsmen to be heavily afflicted about anything; their minds were mainly set on doing their work, and they were able to dwell on grievous or frightful subjects all the more forcibly, because they were not themselves liable to be overpowered by any emotions of grief or terror.

    Albert Dürer, especially, has had credit for deeper feeling than ever influenced him; he was essentially a Nürnberg craftsman, with much of the instinct for manufacture of toys on which the commercial prosperity of his native town has been partly founded: he is, in fact, almost himself the whole town of Nürnberg, become one personality, (only without avarice); sometimes, in the exquisitely skilful, yet dreamily passive, way in which he renders all that he saw, great things and small alike, he seems to me himself a kind of automaton, and the most wonderful toy that Nürnberg ever made.

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