Title: Peasant Couple Dancing
Artist: Sebald Beham (German, 1500–50)
Medium: Engraving on paper
Dimensions: 3 1/4 in x 2 in
Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, The Norman H. and Marie Louise Pritchard Collection,1985.2.99
In an image that is only the size of a couple of postage stamps, the sixteenth-century artist Sebald Beham creates a compelling vignette. A young woman wearing a flower crown steps forward with a flat-footed gait. She shoots a glance back as she grasps her purse and her long skirt, its layers in a state of motion, and twists to the left to follow her shadowed male partner. He, in turn, gazes up beyond the edge of the print, confidently raises his hand, and pulls his partner to the right. A knife handle suggestively points up from below his waist. Patches of grass—bursting from the ground at points of impact—emphasize the figures’ lumbering movements. The tone is one of celebration.
The clumsy motion of the dancing peasant couple, a subject that was just gaining in popularity at the time of this print, is carefully composed with fine, thin lines. The artist uses cross-hatching to create highly saturated areas of shadow but also lets the paper surface show through to create highlights. The strongest contrasts appear on the woman’s elaborate clothing where the artist renders craggy folds and heavy edges. Her strands of hair and delicate crown of flowers, modest when compared to what would have been worn by elite women, are dainty and weightless.
In a banner that interrupts the atmospheric haze on the left, the artist includes his monogram, “HSP,” and the year, 1522. Sebald Beham was a printmaker who worked in Nuremberg at the time that this print was made. He was trained in the style of famous printmaker Albrecht Dürer, also based in Nuremberg, who designed a slightly larger print of a very similar peasant couple less than a decade before. These types of representations raise questions about what attitude sixteenth-century artists and viewers would have had toward the peasant dancers depicted in this print. For humanist and aristocratic city dwellers, images of peasants may have mocked the lower classes, whose presence often served as a parody of acceptable social behavior in contemporary moralizing texts. Art historian Alison Stewart, on the other hand, suggests that for people outside of this small elite group the prints could have also served as lighthearted entertainment. She argues that audiences for a print like this—broader thanks to the relative affordability of small engravings—likely understood images of peasants in different ways depending on their social background and education.
All agree, however, that Sebald Beham was a keen entrepreneur. The printmaker moved effortlessly between genres that had popular appeal, a few examples of which are also represented in The Block’s collection, including a somber image of the Old Testament figures Moses and Aaron (1526), and a circular composition of mischievous putti with mask-like faces (1518/30). After being exiled from Nuremberg—once for having religious views that were not aligned with Lutheran beliefs, and again after being accused of plagiarizing a manuscript by Dürer—Beham eventually landed in Frankfurt, which offered less censorship and more economic opportunities.
— Contributed by Melanie Garcia Sympson, Block Museum of Art Curatorial Associate
Landau, David and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print: 1470–1550. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Keith Moxey, Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Stewart, Alison G. Before Bruegel: Sebald Beham and the Origins of Peasant Festival Imagery. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.
Stewart, Alison G. “Sebald Beham: Entrepreneur, Printmaker, Painter.” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 4, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 1–25.
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