News | December 18, 2023

Chazen Museum of Art Explores 15th Century Printmaker’s Work

Albertina Museum

Israhel van Meckenem (German, 1440/1444-1503), Double Portrait of Israhel van Meckenem 
and his Wife Ida. Engraving, ca. 1490. 13.1 x 17.8 cm.


The parallels between the business of 15th century printmaking and today’s branding practices are the focus of Art of Enterprise: Israhel van Meckenem’s 15th-Century Print Workshop opening today at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

Running through March 24, 2024, the exhibition is the first in the United States to present new research about the role Israhel van Meckenem (1440/1445-1503) played in developing printmaking as a fine art and features more than 60 objects that place his important engravings alongside images he copied from his contemporaries, including Master ES, Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer.

“Israhel van Meckenem was the first printmaker to experiment with using his name as a brand or a trademark,” said exhibition curator James Wehn, the Chazen’s Van Vleck curator of works on paper. “Art of Enterprise presents a new opportunity to look at Israhel van Meckenem as not only a printmaker but an entrepreneur during a time when there was no concept of copyright or legal protections for intellectual capital like we have today. The works on view illuminate how longstanding copy culture collided with the new ability to replicate an image through printmaking and, as a result, prompted emerging concepts of authenticity and authorship.”

The exhibition explores the business of printmaking in the late 15th century, focusing on Israhel's operation of a productive workshop during the initial rise of printed text and images in Europe. The engravings in the exhibition highlight Israhel’s primary audiences and the ways they used engravings. The exhibition also explores his strategic use of materials like paper and copper, as well as the development of new products, including intricate ornamental designs, engraved indulgences, scenes of everyday life and the earliest printed self-portrait.

Regarded by some as more of an editor or publisher than an artist, many of Israhel’s prints are direct copies of works that were already in the marketplace. Except for minor changes, such as the repositioning of a limb or adjustments to small details in the background, Israhel produced works nearly identical to images by other artists and signed his name to the work.

Art of Enterprise includes engravings Saint Peter and Saint John that were unknown to print historians until recently and are new to the Chazen’s permanent collection. Joined by Saint Judas Thaddeus from the same series of apostles likely produced around 1470, they appear alongside source material by Master ES on loan from The Albertina Museum in Vienna. Placing the works together encourages close looking as visitors discover slight differences between Israhel’s depictions and Master ES’s work.

In contrast to the 21st century practice of putting prints in frames for display, many of Israhel’s works were distributed throughout Europe and used in manuscripts, often of devotional nature. Album with Twelve Engravings of The Passion, a Woodcut of Christ as the Man of Sorrows, and a Metalcut of St. Jerome in Penitence, on loan to the Chazen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presents an example of Israhel’s Passion series in a bound prayerbook.

“In the late 15th century, when Israhel was copying existing images, the value was in the labor and the materials and not in the image," said Wehn. "Today, we face similar questions about authorship and the value of intellectual capital with AI technology.