DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

Erasmus of Rotterdam

Engraving, 249 x 193 mm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Desiderius Erasmus (1467-1536) was the most celebrated humanist north of the Alps and in certain ways a pioneer of the Reformation. He visited England in 1499 and again in 1505, when he stayed at the house of Sir Thomas More. He met Dürer on at least two occasions in 1520 at Brussels. In November 1521 he settled permanently at Basel as a literary adviser to Froben's press.

On August 31, 1520, Dürer noted in his diary at Brussels: "I have given an Engraved Passion to Erasmus of Rotterdam and sketched his likeness once more." In a letter to Pirckheimer, dated from Basel, January 8, 1525, Erasmus writes: "I have received your portrait. I wish I could also be portrayed by Dürer. Why not by such an artist? But how could it be accomplished? He began my portrait in charcoal at Brussels, but he has probably put it aside long ago. If he could do it from my medal or from memory, let him do what he has done for you, that is, add some fat." (Erasmus was notoriously lean.) Dürer complied with Erasmus' wish. In another letter, dated July 30, 1526, Erasmus writes to Pirckheimer: "I wonder how I can show Dürer my gratitude, which he deserves eternally. It is not surprising that this picture does not correspond exactly with my appearance. I no longer look as I did five years ago."

This engraving is technically superior to the portrait of Melanchthon, but in corresponding measure less true to life. As the Greek inscription states, his writings present a better picture of the man than this portrait. Perhaps this is the only instance in which Dürer was notably unfortunate in attempting a portrait. Much attention has been given to the accessories, but the representation has a lifeless quality. Dürer with all his efforts produced merely an excellent portrait of a cultured, learned and God-fearing humanist. He failed to capture that elusive blend of charm, serenity, ironic wit, complacency and formidable strength that was Erasmus of Rotterdam. Dürer presumably made use of the medal of Erasmus designed by Quentin Massys. Before World War II the plate of this engraving was in the Gotha Print Room at Friedenstein Castle. There are posthumous impressions on satin at Berlin and Vienna. The engraving is based on a preliminary drawing.

Erasmus of Rotterdam was Dürer's last engraving. If the last engraved portraits of his friends and patrons are indeed memorial tablets, it is remarkable that Dürer should not have prepared a self-portrait of this type. Throughout his life he had sketched his likeness to the point of having been accused of vanity by some later commentators. There is, in fact, some reason to believe that a drawing existed at the time of Dürer's death which may have been intended for this very purpose.

In the Web Gallery of Art you can view several portraits of Erasmus by Renaissance painters, such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Dürer and Quentin Massys.