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Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The Bath House
A woodcut of four men at a male bathhouse (a communal meeting place for both washing and socialising) listening to two musicians. One leans against a water pipe, another drinks from a tankard and two sit in the foreground, one holding a back scraper, the other a carnation. A fifth man observes the group from outside.
This large woodcut dates from around 1496. Just as he would use his 'St Eustace' engraving to present a dog in different attitudes, so here Dürer takes the opportunity to demonstrate his skill at portraying the male nude in varying poses. The print is not simply a study of the male figure however. The man standing against the water pipe is recognisably the artist himself, while the plump seated man drinking is clearly a portrait of Dürer’s friend Willibald Pirckheimer. The two figures in the foreground have been tentatively identified as Lukas and Stephan Paumgartner, friends of Dürer who commissioned, and were portrayed in, an altarpiece by the artist. If the observer in the background is included, the figures stand for the five senses: Dürer as hearing, Pirckheimer as taste, the figure holding the flower as smell, his companion as touch and the onlooker in the background as sight.
The print includes touches of visual humour, such as the suggestive cock-topped tap jutting from the pipe against which Dürer leans. A topical reference may be provided by the fact that the communal baths in Nuremberg were closed in 1496 in an attempt to prevent the spread of syphilis (which was believed to be spread by proximity to sufferers); to a Nuremberg audience the subject matter would have been immediately relevant. But the print clearly had wide appeal, and was reproduced in painted and printed copies almost immediately after its publication.
Catalogue entry adapted from 'The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein', London 2011