Grey Matters

Hans Burgkmair the Elder (Augsburg 1473-1531)
Lovers Surprised by Death, 1510
chiaroscuro woodcut printed from three blocks
8 3/8 x 6 inches
212 x 151 mm
Fig. 1 Lucas Cranach the Elder, Saint Christopher, ca. 1509, Chiaroscuro woodcut printed in reddish brown © Minneapolis Institute of Art P.68.137
Fig. 2 Lucas Cranach the Elder, St George on horseback, ca. 1507-08, first state, with a second outline block, printed in gold, on paper prepared with indigo wash, partly scraped off. Colour woodcut printed from two blocks © The Trustees of the British Museum, London 1895,0122.264

A leading Augsburg printmaker

Hans Burgkmair was arguably the most important artist of his time in the Imperial city of Augsburg. He was a highly prolific designer of woodcuts and played a crucial role in the development of printing in color between 1508 and 1512. The technique of the chiaroscuro woodcut was created in a paragone between Burgkmair in Augsburg and the Electoral court in Wittenberg, where Lucas Cranach tried to claim precedence by pre-dating his woodcuts of St. Christopher (fig. 1) and of Venus and Cupid to 1506. Both, however, could not have been made before 1508 and date most likely from 1509. Cranach’s earlier experiment, the St. George on Horseback (fig. 2) from 1507, was printed on prepared paper with an added line-block printed in gold. Burgkmair responded in 1508 with his two equestrian portraits of Emperor Maximilian and St. George, both also printed on prepared paper, which he later developed into chiaroscuro prints by adding a second tone-block.

Fig. 3 Hans Baldung Grien, Witches Sabbath, 1510 © Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha

A technical breakthrough

In all of these prints, as well as in Hans Baldung’s equally pioneering chiaroscuro woodcuts depicting a Witches Sabbath (fig. 3) and the Crucifixion of 1510 and 1511, the line-block always defines the entire composition with the tone-block merely adding light, shade, and tonal values. What gives Burgkmair’s Lovers Surprised by Death its seminal position in the history of Western printmaking is less the fact that it is the first woodcut printed from three (instead of two) blocks, but its use of interdependent blocks to create the very first “true” chiaroscuro print. Here, the composition is no longer outlined by a dominant key block; instead, visual coherence is created through the combination of all three blocks together. As a result, the use of color gives up its subordinate role as tonal background and becomes crucial in constituting the image as a whole.

Burgkmair’s pioneering feat, however, would not deter Ugo da Carpi from claiming it to be his own invention and petitioning the Venetian Senate in 1516 to protect this “new technique to print in chiaro et scuro, a new invention never before made …”


The composition shows the winged figure of Death attacking a young Roman knight. He has already wrestled his victim to the ground, at the same time using his teeth to grasp the dress of the young woman who is trying to escape in despair. The scene is embedded in an architectural setting that is clearly indebted to the formal language of the Italian Renaissance – Burgkmair’s hometown of Augsburg, after all, had close trading relationships with Italian cities, and foremost among them with Venice. One could argue that the bow of a boat moored on a canal in the background to the right could quite possibly allude to the Serenissima. This allows for yet further speculations given the scene’s doomed atmosphere that is also reflected in such decorative elements as the skull and the crossed bones on the pillar to the left. When Burgkmair created the print in 1510, Venice was struck by a severe outbreak of the plague, and perhaps its most prominent victim was the painter Giorgione who had only been in his early thirties when he died in the fall of that year. Could this haunting allegory with its decidedly Italianate setting perhaps even allude to the death of this celebrated and equally mysterious Venetian master?

Surviving impressions

The print exists in three different states, the last two both bearing the name of the printer Jost de Negker either within the image (second state) or in a tablet below (third state). It is of great rarity (see the census below). This impression is one of four still privately owned and one of two of the final state still in private hands.

Census of surviving impressions

first state (with the date “MDX”):

Chicago (ex Liechtenstein, Zinser, Stogdon); Frankfurt; London; Karlsruhe; Paris (Louvre); private collection, USA


second state (with “Jost de Negker” printed vertically):

Berlin; Boston; Coburg; Vienna (2); Washington (ex Lanna); private collection, USA (ex Zinser, Stogdon)


third state (without date; Jost de Negker now printed below [often trimmed-off])

Berlin; Basel, Bautzen; Braunschweig; Cleveland; Coburg; Dresden; Hamburg; London (2); Munich; New York (2: ex Davidsohn and ex Pembroke coll., Wilton House); Nuremberg (ex Lanna), Oxford (2); St. Louis, Vienna (2); private collection, USA (ex Zinser, Stogdon)

plus this impression (Amsler & Ruthardt, 1893) ❖

Bartsch 40; Dodgson 46; Geisberg 475; Hollstein 724 third–fourth (final) state (contrary to the cataloguing of both Dodgson and Hollstein, there are only three clearly distinguishable states)

Rudolph Dietze, Hamburg

His Sale, Berlin, Amsler & Ruthardt, 30 January 1893, lot 277

Private Collection, Vienna

Private Collection, United States

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