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In reality, German painting will never extricate itself from the original crafts which the artisans of the Middle Ages practiced side by side in the same workshops. The work in copper and bronze and the wood carvings are to be found again in the loftiest creations of Dürer and even of Holbein. There never was a better engraver on copper than Dürer, or a better engraver on wood than Holbein, and Holbein, though he is the only one of the German artists who did not remain a workman, never abandoned his wood block. In Germany, probably at the same time as in the Low Countries—at the beginning of the fifteenth century—engraving on wood appeared. The Florentine Finiguerra did no more than systematize, somewhat later, the German invention of engraving on metal. Leblond who, in the eighteenth century will discover engraving in colors, was of German descent, and Senefelder, the inventor of lithography, was a Bavarian. Printing, watch making, mechanics, and plastics all come out of the same black crucible into which the indefatigable mind of Germany was casting pellmell and indiscriminately the raw material of the industries it found immediately necessary. With the German, the tool tyrannizes over the artist, who follows it. With the Frenchmen or the Italian, the intelligence moves too quickly to give time for the tool to loiter over detail. If, in France and in Italy, the scientists are united with the artists in the same tendencies toward generalization and abstraction, it is in the processes of the craft and in application to their tasks that they join each other here.
The work is like that of a swarm of ants; it is the same with all the crafts and in all the cities, and this universal and diffuse character of German painting renders its development difficult to follow and obscures its origin. Unlike that of other countries, it does not follow a logically and regularly ascending line to reach a summit and then descend little by little; it advances by hesitating steps, in broken lines that cross one another, losing itself in inextricable meanderings, and sometimes moving backward; and when it seems ready to become conscious of itself, it suddenly stops forever. Its confused character corresponds with the confusion of mind, with the confusion of history and the confused and chaotic partitioning of the German soil. Intellectual centers light up everywhere, only to be extinguished by the breath of a war or a revolt or even without any reason, in many cases. There are none of those broad movements which do not halt until their powerful avidity has exhausted the life that they contained. Prague, in the fourteenth century, has its school, which will be completely ruined by the atrocious war of the Hussites. Ulm, the prettiest city in Germany, with its painted houses, its colored shutters, its appetizing freshness, and its Rathaus, brilliant with paintings, has its school with Syrlin, with Multscher, and with Zeitbloom, until its activity is absorbed by the growth of Nuremberg, Holbein the Elder will found, at Augsburg, the school which his son will transport to Basel and which his pupil, Burgkmair, will carry on painfully until his death. Riemenschneider, the sculptor, will work at Würzburg, while Cranach, the painter, will be the Saxon school all by himself. Hamburg had its local artists, which the decrepitude of the Hansa was very soon to discourage. Conrad Witz, a delicate landscapist, works at Constance. Colmar is contained entire in Martin Schoengauer. If Cologne continues longer, if indeed it has the fortune to bring to Flanders—to Bruges in particular—a very large part of its initiation into plastics, a singular destiny wills that the city shall not escape from the narrowest primitivism save when it receives from Bruges itself such counsels as will cause the ruin and death of its precocious debility.
At no other place, not in Egypt nor in the France or the Italy of the Middle Ages, did the theologians and the doctors have a greater influence on the painters. Everywhere else the same profound power, arising out of the highest needs of human nature, impelled the philosopher and the artist with the same movement and in the same direction. Here, on the contrary, in the land of the scholiasts, in the heart of the devout and stupidly pedantic city which tried to plant Catholicism in the North, the artist is only a timid, obedient, and ignorant auxiliary of the abstractor of quintessences who holds him by the skin of the neck. From Wilhelm von Erie to Stephan Lochner, the anonymous artists of the fourteenth century are more like bigoted women than like pious men. Never does one discover in them even a tendency to express those passionate aspirations toward an increasingly ardent communion with the universal spirit which gives to the masters of Siena, for example, a strength so mysterious, so feverish, and with so marked an accent. Instead we see poor men riveted to the letter of the law, dull brains fed on complicated stories. When Lochner appears, about the time when van Eyckand van der Weyden in Flanders, della Quercia, Masaccio, Donatello, Angelico, and Bellini in Italy, and the painters of Avignon in France were affirming with so much energy the right of the individual to maintain his own activity, a little of the theological night seems to be dissipated for a time. In spite of the waxy quality of his paint, Stephan Lochner knows how to detach from his golden heaven the pretty figures of the virgins with the long hands and the clear skin, a pious and gentle company which is bored by the complicated speculations and which decides delicately to enjoy the bourgeois comfort that the long-continued activity of the city begins to assure to it. His hell is only comic and his paradise a promise. When the pupils of the great Roger van der Weyden come, toward the end of the fifteenth century, bringing with them the bursting power and the full, heavy order of the painters of Bruges. Cologne will be too satiated and woebegone to resist them. The candid soul of the Master of St. Severin and the delicate timidity and the attenuated color of the Master of the Life of Mary will disappear from the pictures of the last painters of the city as their ashen landscapes are effaced from the memory. Bartholomäus Bruyn, after Joos von Cleve, will indeed try, in the full tide of the sixteenth century, with cold attention, with irreproachable care, and with closely applied science to imagine a compromise, tinged with Italianism, between the primitive expression of Flanders and of the Rhine. Exposed for so long a time on that great river to the influences of France and of the Low Countries, influences that had been too continuous and not sufficiently balanced, the strength of Germany withdraws more to the east and to the south, toward the interior of the continent where it will touch the old Germanic soil and so acquire once more the consciousness of its true significance.
Nuremberg was well situated for gathering up the currents necessary to the awakening of new desires. It served as a point of contact between the Hanseatic cities, Venice, the Rhine, and the Low Countries. All of Germany, with Burgundy, Hungary, and, by way of the Adriatic and the Danube, the Orient, gravitated toward her. A seething life animated her markets, her counters, and her banks, rolled through her narrow streets, rose from her black stalls with the strong voices of Hans Sachs and his friends, and gave to the guilds of her craftsmen that sweeping power which, two centuries before, had made a chorus of poets of the French masons. Through the ardor that united into a single block all who worked at the same bench, and through the feverish curiosity that tormented everyone of them, the spirit of the Middle Ages and the spirit of the Renaissance burned together in a confused ensemble. All the workers in art of southern Germany left their wooden villages, where the torrents leap between the houses with the flowery fronts, to come to Nuremberg and, amid the sound of the hammers and the humming of the forges, they cast the images of bronze, cast the type of the printers, chased copper and silver, worked in wood, twisted and painted the iron, and toothed and polished the steel of the watches. There we find the meeting-place of men like Adam Krafft, the stone cutter who showed the very character of the German workman when he made his rude and good effigy kneel so that it might bear upon its shoulders a carved pyramid sixty feet in height, and Veit Stoss, the wood carver who, with his sentimental complications and his meticulous insistence, expressed the character of the German soul with its heavy good-naturedness. They found themselves in the company of the painters of the altar screens who had emigrated from the Rhine cities, and together they stood before the churches decorated by statue makers who owed their education to the artists of the old French images.