Until well into the fifteenth century, printmaking in Europe was regarded not as an art form but as a utilitarian method of replicating and circulating imagery. A portable medium that served equally well for devotional images as for playing cards, prints were valued above all as carriers of visual information, to be used (and eventually discarded) rather than admired and preserved. That began to change with Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528). Revered for his technical virtuosity, pictorial imagination, and vast production across print media, Dürer was one of the first European artists whose prints garnered appreciation as art. The bold AD monogram that adorns much of his work asserts his position not only as the maker, but as the author of a pictorial idea, “the likes of which,” in his famous phrase, was “never before seen nor thought of by any other man.”
Dürer’s prints, whose aesthetic and intellectual qualities delighted collectors, also inspired numerous imitators during his lifetime and long afterward. Ranging from strict copies to free interpretations, these “after-Dürer” work reflect an array of motives. While many imitators copied in the spirit of learning from or paying homage to his brilliant art, others sought to deceive or profit by sowing confusion around an image’s true authorship.
Although Sterling and Francine Clark’s original collection included few German prints, in 1968 the institute acquired a renowned set of 243 Dürers amassed by art dealer and collector Tomás Harris (1908–1964) and a second important group from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Before the Harris purchase, however, the Clark already owned a significant number of copies after Dürer, which, though they command less value on the art market, tend to be rarer than originals. Far from being rendered irrelevant by the source prints, these replicas, imitations, and adaptations speak eloquently to Dürer’s legacy. In this exhibition, originals and copies are grouped together to reveal the complex afterlife of some of his most celebrated images.