Many believe that as a total body of work, the greatest art by Albrecht Dürer—and certainly his most influential—are his original prints. Dürer's earliest woodcut dates from 1492 and his first engraving from about 1495, and he quickly showed extraordinary prowess in both media. Saint Jerome Penitent in the Wilderness is datable to either 1496 or 1497, when Dürer was twenty-five or twenty-six years old. Of ambitious scale at almost 12 ½ by 9 inches, this work is the first time the artist engraved such a large copperplate.
The engraving shows Saint Jerome as a hermit doing penance in the desert. Fixing his gaze on a tiny crucifix, he beats his breast with a stone. This work presents an unusual juxtaposition: the minute details of a rocky landscape and the stark figure of the partially nude, elderly saint. Scholar Erwin Panofsky has noted that before Saint Jerome, this combination is unprecedented in northern art. This image may reflect the influence of Dürer’s first trip to Venice, where he may have seen works that joined these two subjects. For example, compare this engraving with a contemporaneous image of the saint by the Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, also in the Gallery's collection. Dürer's sophisticated, realistic details of flinty cliffs, on the other hand, speak solely of his native surroundings. In fact, he based this landscape on his early watercolor studies of quarries around his hometown of Nuremberg.
This superb impression shows Dürer’s techniques and artistic vision at their finest. In his earliest attempts, from about 1495 to 1497, the artist apparently used a richly applied coal-black ink, as seen here, but he printed very few impressions. After 1505, he tended to use a different paper with a thinner and more cleanly wiped application of ink, creating a more crisp and metallic appearance and somewhat flatter space.
By contrast, in one of the very first impressions of Saint Jerome, Dürer's original intent is immanently clear: rich, tonal contrasts that create great depth in the landscape; painterly modeling of figures, trees, and rocks; fierce expressions on the faces of Jerome and the lion; and an overall warmth of color. From this first printing, only eight or nine impressions survive. This is the only example in the United States.
Dürer made 105 copperplate prints, of which four are known only in unique or nearly singular impressions. Prior to acquiring this engaving, the National Gallery of Art owned the other 100 prints. Now, Saint Jerome Penitent in the Wilderness completes this remarkable collection.