WHERE were the beginnings? When were the beginnings? Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy have each claimed priority. Max Lehrs has settled these rival claims, so far as they can be settled at the present time, by locating the cradle of engraving neither in Germany, in the Netherlands, nor in Italy, but in a neutral country—Switzerland, in the vicinity of Basle—naming the Master of the Playing Cards as probably the earliest engraver whose works have come down to us. Undoubtedly this artist was not the first to engrave upon metal plates, but of his predecessors nothing is known, nor has any example of their work survived.
The technical method of the Master of the Playing Cards is that of a painter rather than of a goldsmith. There is practically no cross-hatching, and the effect is produced by a series of delicate lines, mostly vertical, laid close together. His plates are unsigned and undated, so that we can only approximate the period of his activity. That he preceded, by at least ten years, the earliest dated engraving, the Flagellation, by the Master of 1446, may safely be assumed, since in the manuscript copy of Conrad von Würzburg’s “The Trojan War,” transcribed in 1441 by Heinrich von Steinfurt (an ecclesiastic of Osnabrück), there are pen drawings of figures wearing costumes which correspond exactly with those in prints by the Master of the Playing Cards in his middle period. The Master of the Playing Cards is, therefore, the first bright morning star of engraving. From him there flows a stream of influence affecting substantially all of the German masters until the time of Martin Schongauer, some of whose earlier plates show unmistakable traces of an acquaintanceship with his work.