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The innovative printmaker Martin Schongauer played a crucial role in the development of engraving, bringing a new tonal richness to the medium, as well as an unprecedented skill in the rendition of surfaces and textures. Although he was active in the Rhine Valley (on the border between modern-day France and Germany), Schongauer’s influence spread across Europe through the 116 engravings he produced beginning around 1470.
Schongauer’s early training as a goldsmith is evident in the refined engraving technique and the attention to minute surface decoration he displays in works such as The Censer. In The Death of the Virgin and The Road to Calvary, on the other hand, Schongauer’s rendition of complex spaces, solid volumes, and tonal variation reflect his parallel practice in painting. Later, as in his restrained Saint Sebastian, Schongauer moved toward greater simplicity, giving prominence to the calligraphic beauty of black lines set against white paper.
The Art Institute owns a remarkable collection of prints by Schongauer. Among the approximately 100 works are examples of his major achievements, as well as rare works by his early followers and imitators. Indeed, copies of his compositions by other printmakers—such as Israhel van Meckenem, who reproduced 58 of his prints, and the Netherlandish Master F.V.B., who made a reversed copy of an ornamental design by Schongauer—are eloquent indications of Schongauer’s influence and fame. Even during his lifetime Schongauer’s renown extended beyond borders: in 1487 in Florence, Michelangelo saw an impression of the Temptation of Saint Anthony and made a copy of it—this was Michelangelo’s first known painting.