I could have chosen another Durer print, but this is a
much-loved one and one that I came to fully appreciate when I first
saw this exceptional early impression from the plate.
"An ordinary impression is wonderfully detailed but lacks the
subtle play of light and shadow and the exaggerated depth of space
that the room has in this brilliant impression."
These are the basic reasons Clifford Ackley gives for choosing
the German artist Albrecht Durer's 1514 virtuoso engraving, "St.
Jerome in His Study," as a favorite work in the Department of
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
Mr. Ackley is the department's curator.
Ackley explains that in an engraving, the lines that receive the
ink are incised into a copper printing plate with a tool called a
burin (BYOO-rin), a sharply pointed steel tool. "An 'impression' is
a single printing on paper from a plate," he adds.
After many impressions, the plate starts to wear, so later
impressions are not as good as earlier ones.
The MFA's print collection contains 200,000 to 300,000 objects,
Ackley says, "ranging from the mid-15th century to the present." So
selecting just one could not have been easy. This remarkable print
is, however, to be included in an exhibition (Feb. 15-Sept. 7)
called "Durer in His Time" - "mostly prints, but also one or two
drawings by Durer." Most of the time, the majority of the works in
Ackley's department are in storage, but can be seen by appointment.
In 1971, he worked on the department's exhibition "Albrecht
Durer: Master Printmaker." In it, details of the two impressions of
the St. Jerome print that the department owns were compared. "We
conceive of our print collection as a study collection ... and we
like, particularly for a famous print, to have both better and
worse impressions for comparison, so that the student can learn
He describes the "St. Jerome" print as "a milestone in the
history of engraving, an evocation of an absolutely extraordinary
pattern of light and shadow in a rational, coherent space." That,
and "the texture of things" depicted "are elements that are much
more vivid in a brilliant early impression.
"In a later impression, it all becomes more equal.... The thing
that struck me when I first saw this one - or when I have since
seen comparable impressions, and there aren't many - was that
rather than being all over and diffuse, your attention is urgently
directed to the saint himself. The perspective of the space is
actually rather exaggerated. It zooms in on the saint. He is also
picked out by the halo of light around his head - because that's
the only untouched bit of white paper in the entire composition. …