(b. 1503, Nürnberg, d. 1553, Wien)

A Castle Yard

Etching, 140 x 213 mm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Augustin Hirschvogel was a true man of the Renaissance, a multitalented, restless inquirer in the tradition of Dürer and Leonardo. He produced maps for Ferdinand II, wrote and illustrated books on such disparate subjects as mathematics and travel, and created a pictorial concordance for the Bible. He was an engineer and architect, a surveyor, and a designer of medals, enamels, and coats of arms.

Hirschvogel's reputation rests today on his splendid landscape etchings sensitive, poetic representations of countrysides with gentle hills, mountains, and sky. Human beings rarely appear in his compositions, for he concentrates on landscape and buildings. Here, as in most of his works, a simple device is employed to suggest movement far into space: a tree is seen in the right foreground, buildings fill the middle plane, and far away in the vast landscape are minuscule trees on a distant mountain top.

With rare economy of means, the artist suggests an atmosphere as well as a linear perspective. The lines are darker and more deeply etched in the foreground, and thinner and fainter in the distant regions. In his knowledge of the laws of optics and of the diminution of contrasts (contrasts of tone that gradually fade and become lighter as the objects recede into the distance), Hirschvogel was ahead of his time. Prints such as this one certainly anticipate the delicately worked plates of Rembrandt.

It is possible that the sensitive variations in the etched lines were obtained by using etching needles that varied from coarse to fine. The delicate nature of the biting suggests that this may be so. But such speculation is academic in view of the end result, as seen here.