Hans Sebald Beham
Hans Sebald Beham (1500–1550) was a German printmaker who did his best work as an engraver, and was also a designer of woodcuts and a painter and miniaturist. He is one of the most important of the “Little Masters“, the group of German artists making printss in the generation after Dürer.
The older brother of Barthel Beham by two years, he was born into a family of artists in Nuremberg. In 1525, along with his brother and Georg Pencz, the so-called “godless painters”, he was banished from Nuremberg, accused ofheresy (against Lutheranism), blasphemy and not recognising the authority of the City council. Within months the three were allowed to return to the city, but Beham was exiled again in 1528 for publishing a book on the proportions of the horse regarded as plagiarised from an unpublished manuscript by Albrecht Dürer, who had recently died. He then spent time working in various German cities; his woodcuts were published at Ingolstadt between 1527 and 1530, and in the latter year he was in Munich, where he recorded the triumphal entry of Emperor Charles V in a woodcut entitled The Military Display, 10 June 1530. He lived mostly in Frankfurt from 1532, becoming a citizen of the city in 1540 and remaining there until his death ten years later.
Until about 1532 his prints were monogrammed ‘HSP’, reflecting the Nuremberg pronunciation of his surname: Peham. After this date, when he had moved to Frankfurt, his monogram became ‘HSB’.
He is increasingly known just as “Sebald Beham”; there is no documentary evidence for the name “Hans”, which appears in older literature. It seems to derive purely from the “H” in his monogram, which may have represented the second syllable of his surname.
He is not to be confused with his contemporary Hans Beham (or Behem or Böhm), also of Nuremberg, who cast the “Sigismund” bell (Zygmunt) at theWawel castle in Poland for the Polish king Sigismund I the Old.
Beham is best known as a prolific printmaker, producing approximately 252 engravings, 18 etchings and 1500 woodcuts, including woodcut book illustrations. He worked extensively on tiny, highly detailed, engravings, many as small as postage stamps, placing him in the German printmaking school known as the “Little Masters” from the size of their prints. These works he produced and published himself, whilst his much larger woodcuts were mostly commissioned work. The engravings found a ready market among German bourgeois collectors, but were not much seen in Italy. He also made prints for use as playing cards, wallpaper, coats of arms, and designs for other artists, including many for stained or painted glass. He also illuminated two prayer books and painted a table top (now in the Louvre ) for Cardinal Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz.
The book on the proportions of the horse, for which he was briefly exiled in 1528 following accusations of plagiarism, was an artist’s manual, later followed by one on the human figure. These were simplified borrowings of Dürer’s works on the subjects, but rather easier to use (and cheaper), so they had a long-lasting success among artists.
His engravings cover a range of subjects, but he is especially known for scenes of peasant life, and scenes from classical myth or history, both often with an erotic element. His early work was done under the shadow of Dürer, who was still working in Nuremberg, and one early woodcut “Head of Christ”, to which the AD monogram was added in the 2nd state (probably not by Beham), was long believed to be a work by Dürer by Adam Bartsch and others. He also borrowed from his brother Barthel’s rather more original works. In his later work he boldly re-interpreted many of Dürer’s most famous prints in works like his Melancholia of 1539 that exploit the difference in scale between his work and the original.