Virgil Solis

(Nuremberg, 1514 - Nuremberg, 1562)

A Wolf (Allegory of Desire)

Pen and brown in on paper

70 x 84 cm (2.76 x 3.31 inches)

  • Reference Number: 0233
  • Provenance: Private collection

A she-wolf is depicted in profile while biting an apple above it; what remains of picked-clean bones is on the ground at its paws.

According to a well-known symbology from the Middle Ages, also present in Dante Alighieri’s Canto I of the Inferno, she-wolves were an allegory of cupidity, both in the material meaning and with more or less visible sexual nuances: in our case the bite into the apple, the fruit of sin par excellence, enhances this second meaning. The picked-clean bones on the ground represent a moralising warning from the lack of control of carnal appetites.

The artist behind this precious drawing, most likely a model for an etching, is the German artist Virgil Solis. He trained in the workshop of Dürer, who made him discover the Italian paintings of the early Renaissance, and was active throughout his life in Nuremberg mainly producing engravings and etchings. We can frequently find his prints in the most important museum collections, yet his drawings are far rarer and more sought-after.

The editions of classical texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Phaedrus’ Fables, decorated with the artist’s thin etchings, are obviously rich in animal figures. Yet sometimes, they were also reproduced with allegorical meanings in luxurious ex libris, and Solis was very sough after for this practice. One example is the drawing today part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (inv. 2001.497) representing a hound in profile monogrammed with the date 1549. We can compare that sheet with our drawing, which can therefore be dated to the same period, around the mid-16th century, since they feature the same intuitive quality of the lines and the decorative yet concise nature of the style. Of course, the shadows reveal the master’s training as an etcher.

It does not come as a surprise that the wit of Solis’ inventions brought him a long-lasting editorial success, beyond his lifespan: the famous Bible, featuring his decorations, was published many times over until the beginning of the 17th century and his images were often source of inspiration for the silversmiths of the newly formed – and already well-known at the end of the 16th century – goldsmiths’ school of Nuremberg.

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