(1484/5 - 1545)
Hans Baldung was born in Schwäbisch-Gmünd, the son of a lawyer, who in 1492 moved to Strasbourg. Baldung was the only male member of his family not to attend university. Instead he probably trained in Strasbourg before moving to Nuremberg in about 1503 to join Dürer’s workshop. He worked there until about 1507, the date on what is probably his earliest signed painting, and despite their very different styles and outlooks he was well regarded by Dürer.
Baldung’s individual style can be detected in some paintings, stained-glass designs and woodcuts for books produced by the Dürer workshop in these years. There is evidence that Dürer left Baldung in charge of his workshop for eighteen months when he made his second journey to Italy in 1505-7.
On his trip to the Netherlands in 1520-21 Dürer records selling some woodcuts by Baldung, and when he died in 1528 Baldung was sent a lock of his hair.
It was probably in Dürer’s workshop, which contained at one period three artists called Hans, that Baldung acquired the nickname Grien, which he was happy to incorporate in the initials of his monogram. It derived either from his taste for green clothes, or because of the fascination with witches – “Grienhans” in German – which shows in his later work.
In 1508 he married a woman from a well-off Strasbourg family. He was probably living in Strasbourg by then, and is documented as a citizen there in 1509. From 1512-17 he worked on the huge altarpiece and the stained glass still in the Minster Church at Freiburg-im-Breisgau, forty miles south up the Rhine, where his brother was a professor.
At the same time Grünewald was working on his famous Isenheim altarpiece nearby, which Baldung must have seen and been influenced by. Thereafter he lived prosperously in Strasbourg until his death in 1545, shortly after he became a member of the City Council.
Nearly a hundred of his paintings have survived, plus others known from copies. These were mostly religious subjects, until the Reformation affected the region in the 1520s, portraits for the court of Baden, or small erotic and allegorical works.
Nearly all his c550 prints were woodcuts (he produced a few engravings between 1507 and 1512) and he seems to have had little involvement with the printing process once he had produced his design. Woodcut suited his forceful line well, and the detailed illusionism of Dürer did not interest Baldung in any medium.
Strasbourg was a centre for publishing, and most of his prints were illustrations for books, many fairly routine, but in his independent prints he allowed his highly idiosyncratic imagination full rein, as the three we reproduce show.
His best prints are powerful, sensual, suggestive and complex in ways that defy tidy analysis. Women, often portrayed nude in his work, have bodies more alive than those of either Dürer or Cranach, but are very often shown as malign or sinister. The same could be said of his horses. His compositions make no attempt at classical balance and decorum, and often crowd the image-space, increasing the force of the image.
There are also about 250 surviving drawings, many designs for stained glass, but including some very finished and beautiful works on coloured paper with some bodycolour. Some of these relate to his first colour woodcut, the Witches Sabbath. He was very early to adopt this technique (for which see the notes on the Witches Sabbath and Burgkmair’s Lovers Surprised by Death), as was the other leading printmaker in Strasbourg, Hans Wechtlin .
In his treatment of his subject-matter he was highly innovative, but stylistically he was conservative, and resistant to Italian influence. During his lifetime he was highly regarded, but after his death his reputation declined until the C19, mainly for this reason. Despite being woodcuts, from which large numbers of impressions are possible, his prints are now very rare.