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Holbein’s The Duchess in Melville’s copy of The Wonders of Engraving

MBB 1.3 surrogate duplessis holbein duchess from SAM.jpg

MBB 1.3. Hans Lützelburger after Hans Holbein the Younger. Woodcut of The Duchess from The Dance of Death in Herman Melville’s copy of Georges Duplessis, The Wonders of Engraving (London: Low and Marston, 1871), p. 147. Houghton Library, Harvard University (Sealts no. 195).

This reproduction of Hans Lützelburger’s woodcut of The Duchess from Holbein’s The Dance of Death is from the copy of The Wonders of Engraving by George Duplessis that Melville gave as a present to his wife Elizabeth in 1875 (Sealts, p. 174). Holbein’s duchess is doubly awakened into death by two skeletal figures, one of which is about to pull her out of the canopied bed by her legs as his companion accompanies this action on the violin. When Rolfe alludes to “Holbein’s Dance of Death / Sly slipped among his prints from Claude” in Clarel, he is invoking Holbein to suggest that the banker “nabob with asthmatic breath” who has recently joined the pilgrimage would be “scarce are bold / To face a skull” (NN C 2.12.32-3). The “print from Claude” that is reproduced in Melville’s copy of Duplessis is a maritime Sunrise etched by Claude himself (see MMB 3.1; Wallace 1995, pp. 20-21, figs 4 & 5).

In addition to reproducing the engraving of Holbein’s Duchess, Melville’s copy of Duplessis conveys considerable information about not only Holbein himself but also his engraver Hans Lützelburger (see fig. 1 below). After noting that Holbein “was fortunate to have a wood-engraver beside him who reproduced almost all his works,” Duplessis ranks Lützelburger’s work on The Dance of Death very highly. “His powerful and facile graver rendered these compositions by Holbein with extreme delicacy. They are small if the size be measured, but large and grand in conception and thought.” Duplessis identifies Lützelburger as the engraver not only of Holbein’s Dance of Death sequence (1538) but also of his Old and New Testament designs (1547). He cites other authorities on the art of engraving who called Lützelburger “the prince of wood engravers” and declared that “Holbein’s drawings, which were not too well finished, needed the completeness given to them by this artist” (this being a particular challenge for an engraver working “in a very limited space” on wood). Duplessis also identifies the compressed initials “H. L.” artfully cut into the bedpost support in the lower left corner of The Duchess as those of Hans Lützelburger himself (146-47). The collaboration of artist and engraver in these Dance of Death woodcuts continues to be highly valued in our own day: “the range of dramatic emotion conveyed in both gesture and facial expression, beautifully rendered by the woodcutter Hans Lützelburger, is exceptional for the medium” (Foister 667).

MBB 1.3 duplessis pp 146 & 147 from Sam.jpg

Fig. 1. Discussion (and evaluation) of engraver Hans Lützelburger on pages 146 & 147 of The Wonders of Engraving.

Melville first recorded his interest in Holbein in Paris in December 1849, when he and George Adler visited the “Bibliotheque Royale” and “looked over plates by Albrecht Durer and Holbein.” Eight years later in Rome Melville noted paintings by Holbein at the Palazzo Barberini (“Christ with the doctors”) and the Corsini Palace (separate portraits of “Martin Luther & wife”; NN J 37, 108-09, 476). For a recent discussion of Holbein’s Sacrifice of Abraham (CAT 23) and his Dance of Death in relation to Claude, Clarel, and Melville’s Biblical prints, see Wallace 2013a (pp. 43-45).

  • Works Cited:
  • Duplessis, George. The Wonders of Engraving. London: Low and Marston, 1871 (Sealts no. 195).
  • Foister, Susan. “Hans Holbein (ii).” Grove 14: 666-73.