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Elizabeth Wyckoff
Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, Saint Louis Art Museum

Daniel Hopfer's etching The Peasant Feast has an unexpectedly complex genealogy, which provides a bird’s-eye view of sixteenth-century German visual culture. Hopfer was an almost exact contemporary of the well-known painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer, whose enduring legacy was already deeply felt in his lifetime. Hopfer has been widely credited with introducing etching around 1500 as one of the options available to artists making prints. In contrast to Dürer, however, who is celebrated as much for the virtuosity of his technique as for the ingenuity of his inventions, Hopfer utilized his newfound technique as a tool for popularizing many different types of prints designed not only by himself but also by others. This resulted in a long life for his plates, which were reprinted into the nineteenth century, but a less illustrious reputation.

Although Hopfer’s etchings were written off or ignored by earlier generations of art historians and considered derivative or worse, recent scholarship has begun reassessing his contributions.1 More generally, the role of copies, replicas, and reinterpreted motifs in early modern visual culture is also being reconsidered.2 This is thus an appropriate moment to consider The Peasant Feast in light of this and, more specifically, to resituate Hopfer’s role in the print market and to frame his project as an innovative new business model.

Etchings—in which a design is etched into metal by the corrosive action of acid—were made by increasing numbers of artists all over Europe by the 1530s.3 The earliest etchings were printed from iron or steel plates, and it is clear that the same technique had already been in use for decorating armor and other iron objects.4 Hopfer, who in 1493 registered as a citizen of Augsburg, an important armor-making center, is considered to be the first artist to adapt etching from the iron trades to printmaking, probably around 1500. He was in any case the first artist truly to specialize in the technique. Although Dürer and a handful of other contemporaries tried their hand at etching on iron, only Hopfer and his sons produced significant bodies of work in the medium.5

Hopfer is credited with single-handedly establishing the salability of etchings, but a less widely acknowledged point is his successful deployment of an innovative business model based on his exploitation of this new printmaking technique and, significantly, his production of a large stock of varied subjects and types of prints. In doing this, he was among the earliest of the entrepreneurs we would now call print publishers.

The subject and even the scale of The Peasant Feast were also new at the time: madcap, frolicking groups of peasants such as these are associated with the kermis, an annual Catholic Church festival. Prints representing the kermis and displaying excess consumption and violence by peasants in the countryside first appeared in Nuremberg in the late 1520s, as the Lutheran Reformation was taking hold there. The compositions are filled with figures who drink, dance, and fight to the point of collapse. Hopfer’s etching was undoubtedly inspired by the peasant kermis woodcuts from post-Reformation Nuremberg, in particular by those of Sebald Beham, who is credited with inventing the genre.6 Hopfer’s use of two plates to create the continuous horizontal composition of this print also echoes Beham’s use of multiple blocks to produce large-scale woodcuts.7

Like other examples in the peasant genre, Hopfer’s print is an elaborately composed work, full of engaging and telling details. The composition is roughly bifurcated by a slim central tree trunk, which handily disguises the seam between the two plates from which it was printed. The stage is set in an alpine landscape with a tavern operating at capacity and a broom above its door. The animated revelers drink, converse, dance, flirt, make out, fight, vomit, and defecate. The effects of drink are thus present at every stage, from celebration to violence to drunkenness.

Much has been written about sixteenth-century peasant prints, framing them to varying degrees as moralizing, comic, and affirming of a national identity.8 Be they tragic or comic, there is no simple explanation for these images. They should be seen, on the one hand, in the context of Martin Luther’s criticisms of the kermis as a sign of the excesses of the Catholic Church and, on the other, as a celebration of an indigenous tradition harking back to the roots of the German people as rough peasant stock during the Roman Empire.9

Hopfer borrowed liberally from his peers, and his relationship to his model in this particular case demonstrates how such borrowing informed his business.10 Although Hopfer’s source was clearly the earlier Nuremberg kermis prints, his etching is not a slavish copy but rather an adaptation of the theme to the Augsburg context. This localization is evident in the broom hanging from the tavern roof, designating this locale as a Besenwirtscha (literally “broom tavern”), which was distinctive to Augsburg, where the broom was the sign of a seasonal home-grown wine tavern.

Echoes of Beham’s figure types are present in Hopfer’s print, as are compositional devices such as the table in the foreground and the central tree trunk, but the etching is truly a new variation on the theme. The Peasant Feast is furthermore signed in both plates with the initials DH flanking a decorative pinecone borrowed from Augsburg’s coat of arms: Hopfer was clearly not trying to pretend that his etching was by Beham.11 It is thus possible to see Hopfer the entrepreneur still active at the end of his four-decade career, adapting and modifying this new category of peasant prints for his own stock and thereby avoiding accusations of verbatim reproduction.12

Taking into consideration notions of the copy before the age of copyright, Hopfer can thus be seen as a skilled artist and forward-looking businessman who created a niche business based on his exploitation of a new printmaking medium rather than as a plagiarizer.13 He built up a varied stock of plates for sale consisting of his own designs, copies, and adaptations. The wide variety of seemingly disparate subjects may make his production appear chaotic today, but it is in fact stylistically distinctive and, with his monogram, also self-promoting, as was Dürer’s.

Hopfer’s printing plates survived long beyond his death, as did those of Dürer and others. The longevity of Hopfer’s etchings is revealed in a second impression of the left-hand plate of The Peasant Feast in the Kemper Art Museum’s collection. The numeral 200 in the lower left corner of this plate was added in the late seventeenth century by David Funck of Nuremberg, who published 230 plates by Hopfer and sons in 1684.14 This was a common practice among printer-publishers, who, by the mid-sixteenth century, were both producing and commissioning new printing plates and also acquiring used ones and incorporating them into their own stock.

The distinct business that we now call print publishing was only just beginning to emerge in Hopfer’s time. A comparison of Dürer and Hopfer once again proves useful, since they each presented a distinct model for this new category of entrepreneurs. Dürer, on the one hand, transformed the very nature of what a woodcut or an engraving could be, and he kept firm control over his prints and their distribution, resulting in a distinctive (and elite) “house style” that was thoroughly his own. Hopfer, on the other, created an equally distinctive style based on the recognizability of his etchings, but his output was also distinguished by the variety of his subjects and sources. As print publishing developed throughout Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century, there continued to be artist-dominated houses, but more and more publishers were printers rather than artists, who built up varied stocks of prints, commissioning and acquiring plates from disparate sources. It is the latter model of the print publisher, I would argue, that Hopfer’s example of eclectic and wide-ranging sources anticipated.

  • 1 Albrecht Haupt characterized Hopfer as “the most thieving artistic riffraff” in the history of etching (“das diebischste Kunstgesindel, was geistiges Eigentum anlangt, das wohl jemals in . . . Eisen . . . gestochen hat”). Haupt, “Peter Flettners Herkommen und Jugendarbeit,” in Jahrbuch der preussischen Kunstsammlungen, vol. 26 (Berlin: G. Grote’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1905), 148. For the first monograph on Hopfer, see Ed Eyssen, “Daniel Hopfer von Kaufbeuren: Meister zu Augsburg 1593 bis 1536” (PhD diss., Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, 1904). Recent studies include Freyda Spira, “Originality as Repetition / Repetition as Originality: Daniel Hopfer (c. 1470–1536) and the Reinvention of the Medium of Etching” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2006), and Christof Metzger et al., Daniel Hopfer: Ein Augsburger Meister der Renaissance (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2009).
  • 2 See Lisa Pon, Raphael, Dürer, and Marcantonio Raimondi: Copying and the Italian Renaissance Print (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), and Rebecca Zorach and Elizabeth Rodini, Paper Museums: The Reproductive Print in Europe, 1500–1800 (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2005).
  • 3 See David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 323–47. For a history of etching in Italy, see Sue Welsh Reed and Richard Wallace, Italian Etchings of the Renaissance and Baroque (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1989).
  • 4 Although quickly supplanted by copper, iron and steel were both used by early sixteenth-century etchers. See A. R. Williams, “The Metallographic Examination of a Burgkmair Etching Plate in the British Museum,” Historical Metallurgy 8, no. 2 (1974): 92–94.
  • 5 Approximately 150 iron etchings by Hopfer survive; most of his plates also survive. Metzger’s Daniel Hopfer catalogues 154 etchings in addition to woodcuts and decorated metal objects.
  • 6 See Alison G. Stewart, Before Bruegel: Sebald Beham and the Origins of Peasant Festival Imagery (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008), and Jürgen Müller and Thomas Schauerte, eds., Die Gottlosen Maler von Nürnberg: Konvention und Subversion in der Druckgrafik der Beham-Brüder (Nuremberg: Albrecht-Dürer-Haus, 2011).
  • 7 See Larry Silver and Elizabeth Wyckoff, eds., Grand Scale: Monumental Prints in the Age of Dürer and Titian (Wellesley, MA: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
  • 8 For a review of the extensive and wide-ranging literature on this topic, see Stewart, Before Bruegel.
  • 9 See ibid., 68–70, and Margaret D. Carroll, “Peasant Festivity and Political Identity in the Sixteenth Century,” Art History 10, no. 3 (1987): 289–314. Carroll cites, for example, the Roman historian Tacitus’s Germania: “No nation indulges more freely in feasting and entertaining than the German” (290). For views on drunkenness, see B. Ann Tlusty, Bacchus and Civic Order: The Culture of Drink in Early Modern Germany (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001), esp. chap. 3, “The Drunken Body,” 48–68.
  • 10 Spira points out that roughly 29 percent of Hopfer’s etchings imitate or replicate work by other artists. Spira, “Originality as Repetition,” 241.
  • 11 Ibid., 23–24.
  • 12 The Peasant Feast is not dated but was probably made around 1535–36. It cannot be later than 1536, since that was the year of Hopfer’s death; nor does it seem plausible that it could be earlier than Beham’s Large Kermis, with which it shares many general compositional devices and which is dated 1535 in the block. See Max Geisberg, The German Single-Leaf Woodcut, 1500–1550 (1930), ed. Walter L. Strauss (New York: Hacker, 1974), 251–54; see also Stewart, Before Bruegel, 60. The device of the tree trunk down the middle may be borrowed from Beham’s Feast of Herod (c. 1530). See Geisberg, German Single-Leaf Woodcut, 179–80.
  • 13 On the origins of copyright, see Pon, Raphael, Dürer, and Raimondi, 39–66.
  • 14 See Metzger, Daniel Hopfer, 24–34.