Self-portrait by Hollar.
The text below the copy says "Etched by Barlow",
i.e. Francis Barlow (1626? - 1704)
Hollar's copy of Holbein's self-portrait
enceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) published his 30 copperplates the first time in 1651.
There's some uncertainty about the number of editions.
The literature has several references to a 1647-edition.
One example is Massmann(1),
who refers to Douce as a source.
But if one looks at the relevant page in Douce(2)
there's no mention of neither a 1647 nor a 1651 edition.
doesn't mention any 1647-edition either.
It gets even more confusing when Massmann
»Dann S.2. Hollar's Bild (von Barlow) AEtatis 40. 1647«.
It is true that later editions contain Barlow's copy of
Hollar's self-portrait (image to the left),
but it sounds highly improbable that a book published by Hollar the same year
would contain a copy by the 21 years old Barlow, instead of the original engraving by the master himself.
It gets even worse as Massmann tells us the books ends with a picture of Hollar at the age of 76:
»Schluss Hollar's bild "Wencislaus Hollar Obt Lond. 1677. aetat. 76"«.
Hollar did in fact die (Latin: "obit") in 1677 (being 70 years, not 76).
But how could such an image have been included in an edition from 1647?
The first certified edition then is from 1651, where the title
of the book was the same as the title Hollar put below his version of
Death's Escutcheon, namely "Mortalium Nobilitas"
(picture below to the left).
As shown by the picture to the right, the 30 plates and their frames were originally without signatures.
Around 1680 the plates were signed with Hollar's initials — a conjoined WH — and
HB.i. for "Holbein invenit" at the bottom of the engravings.
Douce writes that at the bottom of the frame with Time and Eternity is written
»Ab a Diepenbecke inu. W: Hollar fecit«,
and the same on the frame with Minerva and Hercules, where the year 1651 has also been added.
The third frame, according to Douce, isn't signed.
Douce calls this edition
»the first and most desirable state of the work, the borders having afterwards fallen into the hands of Petau and Van Morle,
two foreign printsellers, whose impressions are very inferior«.
From this we can deduce first of all that Douce doesn't know the 1651-edition (let alone any 1647-edition),
and secondly that Douce's edition is older than the edition from the Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection.
Here, the very Petau mentioned by Douce, has written himself unto the third frame:
»Ab. a Dvpenbecke inu. A Paris, Chez N. Pitau, rue St. Jacques proche les Mathurins, W. Hollar fecit«.
The 1680-edition -- lots of signatures
In the edition located at the Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection the frame around
has been further "improved" with the text »Auec priuelege Du roy«,
but strangely enough only this one image. The other images with the same frame don't have this addition.
In contrast the exemplar located at the Folger Shakespeare Library,
has »Auec priuelege Du roy«,
every time the frame with Democritus and Heraclitus is used.
After 1680, the changing taste of fashion made the plates obsolete
and they disappeared from the public.
A hundred years later there was a renewed interest in things medieval,
and the world was ready for
another round of Hollar.
Hollar and Holbein
Hollar copied the letters A-F
(see further down in this page)
Illustration from St. Paul's Cathedral in London, 1658
part from the 30 cupper engravings there are four of Hollar's works that are interesting in a dance of death context:
Holbein's self-portrait (top, right corner of this page);
he copied the letters A-F from
Holbein's dance of death alphabet (picture to the left and further below);
he made a copy of the senator;
and he made an engraving of a dance of death procession
for a book about the St. Paul's Catedral in London in 1658 (picture to the right).
Hollar: Death attacks with an arrow instead of a bone; Death has no shield, but grabs the soldier;
the hourglass has been placed on one of the fallen men.
These are all variations that Hollar has copied from Birckmann.
he funny part is that most of Hollar's plates are not copies of Holbein, but rather copies of
Birckmann's woodcuts often depart radically from Holbein's original cuts.
He likes to add buildings in the background,
and he tries the include Death's hourglass in those pictures, where Holbein has "forgotten" it.
One may wonder why Hollar has copied Birckmann's copies, rather than going to the source and copy
Holbein's originals. It has been suggested that maybe Hollar couldn't afford a genuine Holbein print,
and therefore had to make do with Birckmann's inferior cuts.
However, this explanation doesn't hold water,
since Hollar in many other cases ignores Birckmann's changes and employs Holbein:
So Hollar was perfectly aware of Holbein's originals and had access to them. A much more obvious explanation then
— and one that will probably pain many art connoisseurs —
is that Hollar in many cases has consciously preferred Birckmann's changes.
This wouldn't be a unique case: Eberhard Kieser
normally follows Holbein's originals very closely, but he has also had access to the 8 plates in
Aldegrevers dance of death, and in 7 out of 8 times, he has preferred
Aldegrever's copy to Holbein — just like Hollar in 20 out of 30 cases prefers Birckmann's copies
to Holbein's originals.
Hans Ferdinand Massmann , Litteratur der Totentänze, 1840, page 25.
Francis Douce, The dance of death exhibited in elegant engravings on wood with a dissertation on the several representations of that subject but more particularly on those ascribed to Macaber and Hans Holbein, 1833, page 125.