Artist profile: M.C. Escher – Introduction

Self-portrait (1929)
Self-portrait (1929)

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) needs no introduction. He is an extremely well-known woodblock print artist; his images appear everywhere from posters in the workplace to math books to the film Labyrinth. I was ridiculously fortunate to view an exhibit of Escher’s work a few years ago, and I was just wiped out at the end – it was so amazing.

Obviously my four posts this month can’t do Escher’s art justice, so I strongly encourage you to research his massive body of work. My resources are at the bottom of this article.

Escher was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, to George and Sarah. His father was Chief Engineer for a government department and Escher initially entered college to study architecture, but quickly switched to graphic design. Drawing had been the only subject he’d ever liked in school, and a university teacher (Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita) encouraged him to change majors. Escher probably went into woodblock printing because he had taken carpentry classes as a child.

Escher was very lucky to have been in college during World War I – he was able to defer military service in 1918; the next year, he was rejected by the military, probably because of his poor health.

After leaving school (it’s unclear to me whether he graduated or not), Escher attempted to sell art but wasn’t particularly successful. He had a few commissions and he also had some prints made to sell. In 1922, he vacationed in Italy and Spain to get inspiration. The landscapes and cities had a great affect on him, especially those in the south that had Moorish influences. It’s easy to see how Moorish architecture and decorative design sparked Escher’s lifelong exploration of “the regular division of the plane”.

sketch from his trip to the Alhambra (1936)
sketch from his trip to the Alhambra (1936)

Escher met his Swiss wife, Jetta Umiker, while she was vacationing in Italy and he was exhibiting his works. He proposed to her the next year, when she and her family returned. In 1924, nearly a year after the proposal, they married in Italy and honeymooned in Genoa (Italy), Annecy (France), and Brussels (Belgium). They lived in Rome for eleven years (1924-1935), having two children there.

Every spring, Escher and a group of artists traveled extensively to make sketches and get inspiration. Escher’s parents provided him an allowance to support his family and art during this time, but he sold many prints, published a book of artwork (Emblemata, 1932), and illustrated for books. Art critics described his work as “mechanical” and “reasoned”.

Cloister of Monreale, Sicily (1933)
Cloister of Monreale, Sicily (1933)

The Escher family moved to Switzerland in 1935 as the political situation in Italy shifted towards fascism. Jetta and M.C. disliked Switzerland, however, missing the warmth of Italian country and culture. Escher traded a few paintings in exchange for travel on a Mediterranean cargo vessel, and over the next few months, he visited Venice, Ancona, Bari, Catania, Palermo, Genoa, and other cities; Jetta met up with him near end of the ship’s run and they finished the trip together. At the end of the year, 1936, Escher began exploring perspective tricks and Moorish art again.

Unlike Alphonse Mucha, Escher escaped the ravages of World War II by returning to the Netherlands in 1938. This is when his inspiration turned inward: previously, he had reproduced Italian vistas and architecture, but he found nothing interesting to draw in the Netherlands, and so explored “the interpretation of personal ideas”.

Three Spheres II (1946)
Three Spheres II (1946)

The Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940; although Escher was able to continue working under the occupation, the man who had convinced him to study art, Samuel de Mesquita, died in Auschwitz. After the war, Escher was instrumental in preserving his mentor’s artworks and arranging an exhibit for him at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Escher himself had works in an exhibition of anti-Nazi artists, after which he gained several commissions. In the years after the war, his fame grew slowly but steadily: he lectured, had exhibits, attracted commissions, and was the subject of magazine articles. In 1957, he was unexpectedly awarded a Knighthood of the Order of Oranje Nassau. Writing to his son, Arthur, he said:

…did you ever imagine that your dad, who lives so far away from the bustle and intrigue of the world, working on his prints day after day like a hermit, would some day be drawn into the sickening scene of vain officialdom, despite himself? However, there is one thing they will never get me to do and that is wear a decoration in my buttonhole. When I’m tired, I occasionally travel second class on the train and I see one of these important gentlemen wearing his decoration. Their deliberate pose and condescending self-satisfied smiles clearly distinguish them from the sad anonymous crowd with empty buttonholes.

But what on earth can I do about it? Luckily I can swear by God and all his angels that I never moved a finger to get the decoration or licked the boots of any bigwigs.

In the early 1960s, Escher published a book of 76 prints with notes called Grafiek en Tekeningen. This book caught the attention of scientists, and Escher lectured internationally to mathematicians and crystallographers. In 1965, Professor Caroline MacGillavry wrote Symmetry Aspects of M.C. Escher’s Periodic Drawings, which focused on the geometric qualities of his works.

Tetrahedral Planetoid (1954)
Tetrahedral Planetoid

From 1964 on, Escher experienced ill-health. He hung on for another eight years, dying in 1972. In that time, he slowly completed projects (his last was Snakes) and enjoyed more popularity from a biography titled The World of M.C. Escher, published in 1971.

Join me this month as I present M.C. Escher’s traditional works, intriguing tessellations, and experiments with perspective.


Other parts in the M.C. Escher artist profile series
Impossible perspective
Tessellations to infinity



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