The German engraver and painter Martin Schongauer (ca. 1435-1491) was the first identifiable maker of fine prints in Germany and the finest master of this medium before Dürer.
Martin Schongauer was the son of Caspar Schongauer, a goldsmith who moved from Augsburg to Colmar, on the upper Rhine, where he became a citizen in 1445. The earliest paintings of Martin have not been identified with certainty, but he apparently worked near Ulm about 1462. He is documented in 1465 as matriculating for a semester at the University of Leipzig, either to study or else to undertake some artistic commission; between that year and his reappearance in the records of Colmar in 1469, art historians have assumed a trip to the Netherlands.
The records show that Schongauer owned a house in Colmar in 1477. After 1488 he was working on the Last Judgment fresco, traces of which were uncovered in 1932, in the church at Breisach, where he died in 1491.
Schongauer's one certain extant panel painting is the magnificent Madonna in the Rose Garden (1473), a life-sized image commissioned by the church of St. Martin in Colmar. Monumental yet intimate, Mary bends her head in humility as two angels hover above with a golden crown, her attribute as Queen of Heaven. The figure style is based on that of the Dutch painter Dirk Bouts, but the dense and minutely described trellis of rose vines and birds which enclose her betray the hand of an engraver.
Two other paintings, both small, reveal Schongauer's characteristic style and, because of their high quality, are probably by his own hand: a Nativity and a Holy Family. Both seem to reflect the mature style of his engravings from the late 1470s.
Late Gothic Master
It is as engraver that Schongauer's importance in the development of European art justly lies. Since original prints may exist in many "originals" and are highly mobile, the master's fame quickly spread in his own lifetime. The young Albrecht Dürer journeyed to Colmar to meet him—in vain, as it turned out, for the master had recently died.
Schongauer forms a link between the early engravers, as represented by Master E. S., and the Renaissance ideals first forcibly expressed by Dürer. In both subject matter and style his prints manifest the quintessence of the late Gothic spirit in a special way, as do the sculptures of Tilman Riemenschneider and the paintings of Rogier van der Weyden.
All of Schongauer's 115 engravings bear his monogram, but none is dated, so that time sequence is based on stylistic grounds. There is, however, a distinction between early and late in the rendering of the "M" of the monogram: in the earlier the lines of the "M" are vertical, and in the later they are flared. The first period dates from about 1465 to 1475, the second from about 1475 until his death.
Quite a number of Schongauer's religious compositions were derived from paintings by the Flemish masters Jan van Eyck, Hugo van der Goes, Bouts, and especially Van der Weyden. Schongauer never slavishly copied but recreated their world of concrete forms, based on realistic observation, into a wonderfully spiritualized, late Gothic form world that is abstracted in the pure terms of black and white lines.
The Virgin and Child with a Parrot, one of his earliest engravings and dating possibly about 1465, with a half-length Madonna and nude Child in an abstracted architectural setting, is related to a painting by Bouts. Schongauer's progress in the technique of engraving over his predecessor, Master E. S., is evidenced by the use of modeling lines that follow the forms and reveal their shapes and of cast shadows and reflected lights. Whereas the background in this print is merely a filler, Schongauer soon developed this space so that it is filled with exciting and varied passages, as in the early Nativity, the figures of which are inspired by Van der Weyden's Bladelin Triptych. Schongauer's Death of the Virgin presents a dramatic perspective rendering which has a parallel in design and emotion in the painting by Van der Goes, dating about 1480. Finally, a lost painting by Jan van Eyck, the Road to Calvary, was the inspiration for Schongauer's largest and most famous print. The composition teems with caricatured figures in a dramatically pictorial landscape setting.
Strictly Schongauer's own invention is the famous Temptation of St. Anthony print, in which the resolute man of God is shown airborne, being assaulted by wildly imaginative zoomorphic creatures. Also original and unprecedented is the greatly detailed rendering of the Censer, a reminiscence in the artist's later years of his earliest years in his father's goldsmith shop.
Schongauer made series of prints unified in theme and size. In his late style are the 10 exquisite figures of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, silhouetted against the pure whiteness of the paper sheet. In his own day, and down to the present, the most famous series is the Passion of Christ, a set of 12 plates. Innumerable copies of these designs were made throughout Europe, and they achieved almost canonical importance in the art of the time.
Among other prints in Schongauer's mature style is the stunning pair of the Annunciation, with Gabriel and Mary on separate sheets. These decoratively abstracted figures possess a refined metallic brilliance and subtle tone expressive of the particular nature of engraving that can only be called classic. Schongauer's art, especially his prints, marks a milestone in the history of draftsmanship.
Further Reading on Martin Schongauer
There is no book-length study of Schongauer in English. The paintings and engravings are most conveniently reproduced in the German edition by Julius Baum, Martin Schongauer (1948). For the engravings alone, and for a fine text in English, see Alan Shestack, The Complete Engravings of Martin Schongauer (1969).