In the first decades of the 16th Century (According to Jacques Lavalleye), the art of engraving was dominated by three artistic personalities: Albrecht Dürer’s, Marcantonio Raimondi’s, and Lucas van Leyden’s. Of the three, van Leyden’s prints were perhaps the least influential, and his working life was the shortest, but his engravings were greatly esteemed by his contemporaries, and Vasari wrote ‘Albert [Dürer], on returning to Flanders, found another rival who had begun to make many delicate engravings. This was Lucas of Holland, who, although unequal to Albert in design, was his peer with the burin.’
Lucas Hugensz (or Jacobsz) was born in Leiden in 1494 (or 1489). His father had been a painter (none of whose works are known to have survived), and Lucas would presumably have studied with him, before he continued his training with another local painter, Cornelius Engelbrechtsz. His earliest dated engraving is from 1508, and his first survivng painting from 1511. He entered the Leiden painters’ guild in 1514. Lucas married in 1517: his marriage was childless, but it is thought he may have fathered an illegitimate daughter. He travelled a certain amount within Holland and Flanders, but is not known to have ventured any further.
‘Master Lukas, who engraves in copper, asked me as his guest. He is a little man, born at Leyden in Holland; he was at Antwerp. I have drawn with the metal-point the portrait of Master Lukas…’ So wrote Dürer in the notebooks he kept during his travels through Flanders in 1521. While Dürer’s prints were a formative influence on his graphic work, van Leyden also absorbed Italian influences through his acquaintance with Jan Gossaert, and by studying Raimondi’s prints. Lucas was also a notable and a successful painter, but his skill with paint & canvas was generally perceived as less exceptional than his way with copper & ink.
The majority of Lucas’s engravings were on religious subjects, but he also produced numerous ‘genre’ prints, such as those in the two pairs of details immediately above and below. According to Lavalleye, in his book Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Lucas van Leyden: The Complete Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts, the engraving above, traditionally entitled ‘Old Woman With a Bunch of Grapes,’ (but which could equally well be an ‘Old Man With a Bunch of Grapes’), shows the beginnings of an increased emphasis on caricature in van Leyden’s work, perhaps influenced by the contemporary successes of Quentin Massys.
One of Lucas’s most elaborate engravings on a secular theme is his ‘Virgil Suspended in a Basket’ (below—also here). In this composition, the ostensible subject is relegated to the background, the foreground being occupied by an richly-detailed group of figures, most of whom seem altogether unconcerned with the dangling poet’s plight. According to this page, this image exemplifies Lucas’s style of engraving as ‘characterized by long, flowing, gently curved strokes that impart grace to his draped figures, emphasize gesture, and unify the image.’
Lucas’s health began to fail him in the late 1520s, and his last known engravings date from 1530. He died in his home town in 1533. Lavalleye writes that van Leyden remained something of a singular, isolated figure, who, although widely copied, had no real artistic disciples or descendents. Nevertheless, he was the first Dutch artist to gain a truly international reputation. The present images are all details of scans from my copy of Lavalleye’s book, as mentioned above: click on them to see the images in full.