M.C. Escher — Life and Work

  • Overview

    The Dutch artist Maurits C. Escher (1898-1972) was a draftsman, book illustrator, tapestry designer, and muralist, but his primary work was as a printmaker. Born in Leeuwarden, Holland, the son of a civil engineer, Escher spent most of his childhood in Arnhem. Aspiring to be an architect, Escher enrolled in the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. While studying there from 1919 to 1922, his emphasis shifted from architecture to drawing and printmaking upon the encouragement of his teacher Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita. In 1924 Escher married Jetta Umiker, and the couple settled in Rome to raise a family. They resided in Italy until 1935, when growing political turmoil forced them to move first to Switzerland, then to Belgium. In 1941, with World War II under way and German troops occupying Brussels, Escher returned to Holland and settled in Baarn, where he lived and worked until shortly before his death.

    The main subjects of Escher's early art are Rome and the Italian countryside. While living in Italy from 1922 to 1935, he spent the spring and summer months traveling throughout the country to make drawings. Later, in his studio in Rome, Escher developed these into prints. Whether depicting the winding roads of the Italian countryside, the dense architecture of small hillside towns, or details of massive buildings in Rome, Escher often created enigmatic spatial effects by combining various—often conflicting—vantage points, for instance, looking up and down at the same time. He frequently made such effects more dramatic through his treatment of light, using vivid contrasts of black and white.

    After Escher left Italy in 1935, his interest shifted from landscape to something he described as "mental imagery," often based on theoretical premises. This was prompted in part by a second visit in 1936 to the fourteenth-century palace of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The lavish tile work adorning the Moorish architecture suggested new directions in the use of color and the flattened patterning of interlocking forms. Replacing the abstract patterns of Moorish tiles with recognizable figures, in the late 1930s Escher developed "the regular division of the plane." The artist also used this concept in creating his Metamorphosis prints. Starting in the 1920s, the idea of "metamorphosis"—one shape or object turning into something completely different—became one of Escher's favorite themes. After 1935, Escher also increasingly explored complex architectural mazes involving perspectival games and the representation of impossible spaces.

    Since 1964 the National Gallery of Art has formed the preeminent collection of Escher's art outside Holland through the generosity of many donors, including Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt and Lessing J. Rosenwald, both of whom knew Escher. The Gallery's collection includes more than 400 works by Escher: drawings, illustrated books, technical materials, and impressions of 330 of the artist's 450 prints.

    Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935, lithograph, Rosenwald Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1964.8.743

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  • Escher's first prints were made from linoleum blocks. This portrait of Escher's father, George A. Escher (1843-1939), is the earliest print by the artist. His father, who was a civil engineer, instilled in him a lifelong interest in mathematics and science.

    Escher's Father, G.A. Escher, 1916, linoleum cut in purple on wove paper, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection, All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1983.109.1

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  • Escher's early interest in the sharp contrast between black and white is apparent in this woodcut. It also presents ideas that he fully developed later in his career, such as the interlocking and patternlike forms seen in the audience that is depicted here.

    The woodcut is a relief process. First a drawing is made on a block of wood that has been cut along the grain. A knife and chisel are then used to remove the wood on either side of the drawn lines, leaving the print surface raised above the areas to remain blank. In his early period Escher also frequently used linoleum cuts as a print medium, in which the same technique is employed as in a woodcut.

    Wild West, 1920, woodcut, Seymour and Iris Schwartz Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1978.90.25

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  • Created while Escher was still a student at the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, this is the first print to demonstrate his theory of the regular division of a plane. Escher cut eight heads -- four male and four female -- in the original wood block. The final image was achieved by printing the block four times.

    Eight Heads, 1922, woodcut, block printed four times, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1973.65.2

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  • From December 1925 to March 1926 Escher worked on a series of six woodcuts on the theme of the Creation. This one depicts the division of sky and water. A Dutch educational association bought 300 impressions of this woodcut to hang in public schools.

    The Second Day of the Creation, 1925, woodcut, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1973.65.7

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  • Escher first learned to make lithographs in 1929. This is his second endeavor in the medium. Escher made self-portraits throughout his career, experimenting with various printmaking techniques that included linoleum cut, woodcut, lithography, and mezzotint.

    Lithography, in which the image is drawn with an oily medium on a stone slab, is based on the principle that oil and water repel one another. After the prepared stone is washed with water, printing ink is applied, which adheres only to the drawing.

    Self-Portrait, 1929, lithograph on gray paper, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1973.65.19

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  • In May and June 1929 Escher traveled through the mountainous landscape of Abruzzi, Italy, planning to produce an illustrated book on the region. This never materialized, but he did create 28 drawings on which he based prints, including this lithograph depicting the town of Castrovalva.

    Castrovalva, 1930, lithograph, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1973.65.21

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  • Escher often used his drawings as studies for prints, but he occasionally also experimented with various drawing techniques. His most important experiments are the "scratch drawings" for which he evenly coated the paper with lithographic drawing ink. He then drew on the prepared surface with a pointed tool, scoring or scratching into it to produce his image. This technique, which he first employed in 1929, led Escher directly to his work in lithography.

    Italian Town, 1930, black lithographic ink, scratched, Print Purchase Fund (Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection) All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1975.95.2

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  • Escher spent the early part of the summer of 1931 in Ravello and along the coast of Amalfi, Italy. With its dramatic mountains and ancient hill towns this was a particularly favorite region for Escher. Drawings from the trip, including this example, inspired 15 woodcuts, wood engravings, and lithographs.

    Atrani, Coast of Amalfi, 1931, graphite and black crayon on wove paper, Gift of Martin N. Rosen All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1985.73.1

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  • This is one of Escher's earliest prints to explore different levels of reality. The first observed reality is the mirror itself and the objects that surround it. The second is that of the street, which in turn becomes part of the room by its reflection in the mirror. Finally, the objects in front of the mirror, by their reflection, become part of the street scene. At the same time the print presents a physical impossibility: the mirror is tilted toward the ceiling yet reflects the view of the street from the window on the opposite wall.

    Still Life with Mirror, 1934, lithograph, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1973.65.38

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  • Escher and the interior of his studio in Rome are reflected in the mirrored sphere that he holds in his hand. Escher's preoccupation with mirrored reflections and visual illusion belongs to a tradition of northern European art established in the fifteenth century.

    Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935, lithograph, Rosenwald Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1964.8.743

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  • This is one of Escher's earliest prints of an impossible construction. Escher has joined in a single perspective a table covered with books and objects and a view of the street below.

    Still Life and Street, 1937, woodcut, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.5

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  • Here, the artist's first metamorphosis connects a tower on the Amalfi coast with a Chinese doll. Escher's largest print on this theme, Metamorphosis III of three decades later, measures 23 feet in length. It was commissioned by the central post office in The Hague and was used as a model for a mural in the building's main hall. The final metamorphosis print also includes the Amalfi tower.

    Metamorphosis I, 1937, woodcut, printed on two sheets, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.6

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  • This is one of Escher's earliest prints to demonstrate his theory of the "regular division of the plane," which he described as follows: "A plane, which should be considered limitless on all sides, can be filled with or divided into similar geometric figures that border each other on all sides without leaving any empty spaces. This can be carried on to infinity according to a limited number of systems."

    Development I, 1937, woodcut, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.7

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  • This print is one of Escher's first to show the influence of Moorish tile work, with its abstract, positive-negative geometric shapes. With day and night landscapes as mirror images, the white birds merge with a daylight sky at left, while at right the black birds blend to create a night sky.

    Day and Night, 1938, woodcut in black and gray, printed from two blocks, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.8

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  • One of Escher's fascinations was the animation of an abstract concept. Here, the reptiles come to life as they crawl out of the artist's depiction of a drawing, only to return to it. Escher wrote of this print, "evidently one of the reptiles has tired of lying flat and rigid amongst his fellows, so he puts one plastic-looking leg over the edge [and] wrenches himself free...." The name "JOB" on the booklet at lower left does not indicate the biblical character but refers to a brand of Belgian cigarette papers.

    Reptiles, 1943, lithograph, Rosenwald Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1964.8.753

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  • Escher wrote that this print "gives the illusion of a town, of house blocks with the sun shining on them. But again it's a fiction, for my paper remains flat. In a spirit of deriding my vain efforts and trying to break up the paper's flatness, I pretend to give it a blow with my fist at the back, but once again it's no good: the paper remains flat, and I have only created the illusion of an illusion. However, the consequence of my blow is that the balcony in the middle is about four times enlarged in comparison with the bordering objects."

    Balcony, 1945, lithograph, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.19

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  • Escher was particularly intrigued by reflections and by the concept of a sphere acting as a mirror. Here, the central sphere that reflects Escher at work is flanked by one, at left, filled with water, and at right, by another opaque sphere. All three spheres are reflected in the polished surface on which they rest. The spheres at right and left are reflected in the center sphere. Finally, the entire composition is seen as the drawing on the paper reflected in the central sphere.

    Three Spheres II, 1946, lithograph, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.23

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  • Escher constructed a five-sided chamber in which all sides are interchangeable. This is his first print to focus primarily on his idea of relativity, how one object is seen in relation to another. The Islamic figurine of a harpy, a mythical creature with a bird's body and a human head, was a gift from Escher's father-in-law and appears in several of his prints.

    The difference between a wood engraving, shown here, and a woodcut is that the wood used in a wood engraving is cut across the grain and not along it. In this way the wood is less likely to splinter and can be worked like a copper plate with a burin. Wood engraving allows for greater detail and more delicate effects.

    Other World (Another World), 1947, wood engraving and woodcut in black, medium brown, and green, printed from three blocks, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.29

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  • This print is a variation on Other World. Instead of wood engraving and woodcut, however, Escher has employed mezzotint. The velvety qualities of this technique result from subtle gradations of tone. First, the entire surface of the plate is roughened with a serrated-edge tool. An image is then created by scraping and burnishing the plate. When printed, smooth areas remain white and rough areas print dark. In this print the artist emphasizes the infinity of space as the perspective of the building diminishes to a single vanishing point.

    Gallery, 1946, mezzotint, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.27

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  • Escher frequently employed a visual game in which he transformed a flat pattern into a three-dimensional object. The artist used his own right hand as the model for both hands depicted in the print.

    Drawing Hands, 1948, lithograph, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.32

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  • Escher described this print as a symbol of order and chaos: order represented by the polyhedron and the translucent sphere; chaos depicted by the surrounding broken and crumpled cast-off objects of daily life. The artist believed the polyhedron (a solid figure with many sides) symbolized beauty, order, and harmony in the universe. Yet, he rendered chaos with equal care, as in the exquisitely drawn sardine can at upper left.

    Contrast (Order and Chaos), 1950, lithograph, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Julius S. Piver All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1984.31.2

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  • This is perhaps Escher's best-known print on the theme of relativity. It also is a fine example of Escher's focus on unusual, and often conflicting, points of view.

    Relativity, 1953, lithograph, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1974.28.51

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  • Escher's print illustrates the "impossible triangle" described by the British mathematician Roger Penrose in a 1958 article on visual illusion: "Here is a perspective drawing, each part of which is accepted as representing a three-dimensional, rectangular structure. The lines of the drawing are, however, connected in such a manner as to reproduce an impossibility. As the eye pursues the lines of the figure, sudden changes in the interpretation of distance of the object from the observer are necessary."

    Waterfall, 1961, lithograph, Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1982.90.12

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  • Escher suffered from poor health when making this woodcut, and it is his last print. He again illustrates the concept of infinity. However, here he introduces a new invention: infinitely small rings grow from the center of the circle, reach a maximum size, and then diminish again as they reach the outer circumference.

    Snakes, 1969, woodcut in orange, green, and black, printed from three blocks Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection All M.C. Escher works © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 1982.90.21

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