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Melencolia I

Albrecht Dürer

European Art

Scholars have long grappled with the meaning of this complex engraving filled with mysterious objects and figures. A brooding, winged figure dominates the composition. There is a closed book in her lap and she holds a caliper, or compass. She is surrounded by other objects that reflect Albrecht Dürer’s profound interest in geometry, proportion, calculation, and measurement, such as a scale, an hourglass, a bell, a numeric chart, and a table with numbers. A putto, or winged infant, writes on a tablet beside her, perched on a millstone.

The main figure is thought to personify melancholy, one of the four humors that governed the spirit or personality according to medieval theory. An excess of melancholy was believed to be responsible for depression, apathy, and even insanity. By the fifteenth century, however, it also began to be associated with creativity. Dürer often wrote about the elusive nature of art and beauty, and this engraving of a laurel-crowned figure sitting gloomily amid unused tools has been interpreted as a spiritual self-portrait, a meditation on the existential condition of the artist and the limits of creativity.

Titus Kaphar: It seems to really be about technique. The loudest voice in the piece is this technical prowess. The reason I say that is because this is about as dense of a composition as you can possibly imagine. There’s very little space for rest in the piece itself. There’s very little space to escape. . . It seems more about the different techniques that are used, whether it’s the stippling effect over here, or it’s the directional shading, or it’s the cross‑hatching, or the burnishing. It seems to be showing all of that. Each one of these materials, as reflected in the piece itself, whether it’s metal, or feathers, or stone, or animal fur, is articulated.. . . Each one of these things seems like it is symbolic and has a whole dissertation waiting to go with it.

MEDIUM Engraving on laid paper
  • Place Made: Germany
  • DATES 1514
    DIMENSIONS image: 9 3/8 × 7 1/4 in. (23.8 × 18.4 cm) sheet: 9 9/16 × 7 9/16 in. (24.3 × 19.2 cm)
    SIGNATURE Signed with monogram in plate
    COLLECTIONS European Art
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    CREDIT LINE Gift of Mrs. Horace O. Havemeyer
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