BEHAM, Hans Sebald
(b. 1500, Nürnberg, d. 1540, Frankfurt)

The Prodigal Son Wasting His Patrimony

Engraving, 51 x 92 mm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Little Masters among printmakers were so called not because the group included masters of lesser artistic stature, but because the majority of their engravings were small, close to the dimensions of miniatures. Within the limits of a tiny format, however, Albrecht Altdorfer, Georg Pencz, and the Beham brothers, the most famous of the Little Masters, made large statements. Their fascinating, excellently engraved prints have been avidly collected from the time of issue to the present.

Hans Sebald Beham and his brother Barthel Beham came from Nuremberg, a major centre for the engraver's and woodcutter's art. The two brothers and their friend Georg Pencz managed to enrage the authorities by their frivolous attitude toward religion at a time when freethinkers were not welcome in Nuremberg, a town steeped in the tenets of the Reformation. In 1525, they were banished from their native city.

The present scene, one of a series dealing with the story of the Prodigal Son, is larger in format than the majority of Beham's prints. It is a work of the artist's maturity, and it reveals those characteristics which made his work popular with the public and unpopular with the authorities. The wastrel and his cronies, surprisingly mature and worldly, are sporting with their female companions in the secluded corner of an outdoor enclosure. Beham, who later succumbed to producing prints on Classical themes, here depicts the people and costumes of his own day. If no title were given, this print might be another of the genre scenes upon which Beham's fame rests, for no moralizing spirit is implicit in this illustration of pleasure seeking and the overture to sin. Only the Latin inscription identifies the subject.