Adam and Eve is undoubtedly one of Dürer's most celebrated engravings and one of the most widely reproduced - and hence most familiar - images of the Fall of Man. Yet to see a fine impression in the original is an altogether different and exhilarating experience. The rendering of the subtle effects of light and shade on the beautifully sculpted bodies against the velvety black background of the forest, the slight nuances of skin colour between Adam and Eve, and the variety of different materials and surfaces - hair, feathers, fur, snake skin, tree barks, leaves and rocks - is astounding, and it almost beggars belief that this should have been achieved with the simple means of a copper plate, a sharp steel tool, ink and paper.
This is quite clearly a work of great ambition and confidence, and Dürer took an unusual amount of care in its creation. More preparatory drawings survive for it than for any other print by Dürer, including a beautiful study of the two figures on a blackened background (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York; W. 333). It is also the only one of his prints to bear his full name and birthplace: ALBERT DVRER NORICUS FACIEBAT 1504 reads the plaque in a sober Latin script.
In 1505 Dürer embarked on his second journey to Venice, possibly to escape another outbreak of the plague in Nuremberg, and it is likely that he intended the print to be a show-piece for the Italian market, to demonstrate his talent and abilities and to attract commissions as a painter and printmaker. For this purpose, Dürer combined the virtues of Northern art, the painstaking realism and attention to detail for which the Italians admired the Flemish masters, with Italy's own artistic ideals of the Renaissance: disegnoand the depiction of nudes of classical proportions.
Yet Dürer's Adam and Eve is more still than a stupendous formal exercise and a dazzling display of technical virtuosity. A precedent to his most mature prints, the three so-called 'Master Prints' (see Melencolia I, lot 7), it is also a work of great symbolic and intellectual complexity. The entire composition is an image of duality and division. The Tree of Knowlegde separates Adam from Eve, and divides the image into two halves. Whilst Eve is associated with this tree, Adam grasps a branch of mountain ash, identified as the Tree of Life. The parrot and the serpent respectively symbolise wisdom and betrayal. The cat and mouse in the foreground form another pair of opposites as predator and prey, but death has not yet come into the world and they sit peacefully together.
Apart from Christian iconography, Dürer also alluded to contemporary humanist philosophy, and the other animals depicted are not just examples of God's creation in the Garden of Eden: the moose, the cow, the rabbit and the cat each respectively represent the melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine and the choleric temperaments. The theory of these 'four humours' as the ruling principles of the human spirit was widely debated amongst the educated at the time. The mountain goat however is a traditional symbol of lust and damnation. Far in the background behind Eve, it stands on the edge of the abyss, about to fall.