Old Masters Prints

Introduction

UCL owns an exceptional collection of old master prints bequeathed in the 19th century for the use of students studying fine art at the Slade School.

The earliest printed images in the collection are illustrations to religious texts and date from the end of the 15th century when illustrated printed books were in their infancy. In the 16th and 17th centuries many painters took up printmaking as a means of disseminating their designs to a wider audience, and the exchange of printed images became an important means of sharing artistic ideas between different parts of Europe and beyond.

Dürer's painting

The artists of the collection

The UCL collection contains many examples by these early artist-printmakers including Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), the most famous German printmaker of this period, who produced over 250 original engravings and woodcuts for a specialist market of humanist scholars, collectors, artists and the intellectual elite.

Prints by the Italian artist Andrea Mantegna (c.1431–1506) are also represented in the collection as is the work of the prolific Dutch artist-printmaker Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) whose etchings depicting a wide range of subject matter from landscapes to self portraits helped to revolutionise the practice of printmaking in Europe.

Albrecht Dürer's work

In this composition Dürer explores the supreme ability of the engraved line to capture the natural surface effects of essentially linear details, such as fur and grasses. The effect is one of studied intricacy as Dürer expends as much energy on the depiction of minute details such as a humble pebble as he does upon the subtleties of the virgin’s face.

The marvellously crisp quality of line in this print indicates that it is an impression taken from the plate soon after it was engraved, before it became worn through use. This print would have been purchased by relatively wealthy individuals. Unlike many of the far cheaper popular woodcuts that would have been available at this time, this image would not have been displayed within the home but kept alongside others like it, within the leaves of an album or prayer book.

Rembrandt van Rijn's painting

Rembrandt van Rijn's work

This print is one of 37 etchings by this supremely prolific artist-printmaker held in the UCL Art Collections. Rembrandt’s exceptional talent for representing religious narrative from a thoroughly human perspective within a naturalistic setting is well illustrated in this image. The composition is cleverly constructed, as the open space at the centre of the image allows the viewers to consider themselves as part of Christ’s audience. Children and adults representative of the whole body of mankind are bathed in light emanating from the central figure of Christ and appear to listen to his words either entranced or distracted, recalling Matthew 18:3: 'Except ye be converted & become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven'.