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Master of the Housebook

German, active c. 1470 - 1500

Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet; Housebook Master

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Despite the abundant literature concerning the Master of the Housebook, nothing definite has yet been discovered about his identity or place or origin. It is not even sure if he was German or Netherlandish. Some scholars have felt that his style is rooted in Flemish book illumination. Others see him developing in the circle of the stained glass painter, Peter Hemmel von Andlau, or in the workshop of Hans Hirtz (The Master of the Karlsruhe Passion), the leading painter of Strassburg in the 1450's. In recent years, new evidence has been forwarded for the identification of the Housebook Master as Erhard Reuwich, a painter from Utrecht who worked in Mainz and who designed the woodcuts for Bernhard von Breydenbach's "Peregrinationes in terram sanctam," published in Mainz in 1486. This theory has found as many opponents as it has adherents.

Regardless of the artist's origins it seems clear that the Housebook Master worked primarily in the Middle Rhine region around Mainz and that he was acquainted with the work of an Upper Rhenish predecessor, the Master E.S. There is evidence that he worked in Heidelberg in 1480. He appears to have been an exact contemporary of Martin Schongauer, and like Schongauer he was active as both a painter and printmaker. Like Schongauer, the Housebook Master inspired the young Albrecht Dürer's and echoes of his style are found in Dürer's early prints and drawings. Here, however, the similarity ends. Whereas Schongauer's formal engraving style strives toward terse compositional formulations and an insistent neatness of technique, the Housebook Master's style is lively and improvised and his burin manner is soft, loose, and colorful. Schongauer's prints appear cool and impersonal next to the charming, vivacious engravings of the Master of the Housebook. The latter master emphasizes the human qualities of his figures, taking delight in human foibles, and often even invests his religious subjects--which constitutes only about half his oeuvre--with a freshness and intimacy.

The name "Housebook Master" is derived from the famous manuscript of about 1480 known as the "Housebook," now in the collection of Count Waldburg-Wolfegg in southwest Germany. The book is a conglomeration of about 60 pages of manuscript texts and original drawings, including allegories of the seven planets, genre representations, designs of military equipment, battle scenes, and coats of arms. The hand of our engraver has been recognized in a number of the drawings, though several different draftsmen appear to be responsible for the opus.

Of the 91 surviving engravings by the Housebook Master, 78 are listed by Lehrs as unique. The print room of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam owns 82 of the 91 prints. Hence, in the older literature our artist is often referred to as the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet. The reason so few of his prints have survived may be tied up in part with the artist's technique and his use of tin rather than copper plates. Using a soft metal like tin, the burin can be more easily and sketchily pushed through the plate's surface. As the burin digs a furrow in the plate, it turns up curls of metal on either side of the engraved furrow. The curls, known as the burr, hold a quantity of ink (in addition to the ink in the lines) and create a rich velvety or blurred effect when printed. Such an effect is seen in the blades of grass at the right of NGA 1943.3.9077. The Housebook Master took advantage of the burr to obtain a variety of tome and texture in his plates. Since the burr is worn away after but a few impressions have been pulled, the Housebook Master may have decided not to print additional sheets which would lack the rich freshness of his original composition. Hence, only a small edition was printed from each plate. Of course, we must also assume the existence of a number of plates from which no impressions at all have survived. There are some 32 engravings by Master b g and Israhel van Meckenem which appear to be copies after lost originals of the Housebook Master.

Curt Glaser placed the Housebook Master's engravings in chronological sequence in 1912; both Lehrs and Stange have accepted Glaser's dating. (Shestack 1967, no. 139)

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