The Owl, the Monkey and the Cat (no date) by Jan van SomerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Many of the rich holdings of Old Master and Early Modern works on paper in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, arrived thanks to the generosity of Drs. Marjorie G. (born 1917) and Evan C. Horning (1916–1993), two biochemists who shared a passion for collecting art, especially prints. What started as a leisure pursuit has had a major impact beyond the Hornings’ private collection: The doctors’ first gift to the MFAH more than 40 years ago helped to establish what is today the Museum’s department of prints and drawings. Their legacy continues to enrich the collection through purchases made possible by gifts and funds. Truly a Renaissance couple, these two scientists not only made substantial contributions to advance the field of biochemistry, but also had a profound impact upon the cultural offerings of the city of Houston and beyond.
The Printed Story
This exhibition highlights Old Master and Early Modern European prints from the Horning Collection and explores various ways prints tell stories. Relatively inexpensive to produce and purchase, printed images surged in popularity beginning in the 15th century, first in Germany and then spreading to Italy, the Netherlands, and eventually the rest of Europe. Prints could educate and entertain a broader audience than other art forms, because the small size and lower expense made prints more accessible and easier to collect. Although literacy expanded during the Early Modern period, many individuals still relied on visual imagery and narratives to teach lessons, provide spiritual guidance, and even amuse. The prints in this exhibition all use subtle visual strategies to tell a story, their deeper significance revealed in details.
Christ in Limbo (1512) by Albrecht DürerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
I. Serial Thrillers
Master printmakers told stories through the process of serial printmaking, in
which individual prints illustrate scenes from a larger story, ultimately
revealed when all of the prints are collected together. Moralizing lessons from the Old and New
Testament in the Bible, mythological sagas, and historical events are often
presented in print using this method, as it provides a way to show a scene in
detail while conveying its place within a greater story. Serial prints were also lucrative for
printmakers, expanding the market and encouraging the building of
collections. Among modern collectors,
there often exists a desire to collect a complete set of serial prints. It is rare for collectors to come across a
complete series of Old Master prints at once, meaning that a collector may
spend years or even an entire career working to complete a set. For the Hornings, this goal was achieved in
their collection of Albrecht Dürer’s "The
Small Passion," a series of engravings showing the final period in the life
Each print in this section illustrates a scene from a larger story, vividly relaying its own chapter through rich visual imagery and striking composition. Two prints depict scenes from the New Testament, and another work illustrates a mythological tale from the life of Hercules.
Hercules Slaying the Hydra (1545) by Hans Sebald BehamThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Labors of Hercules
Labors of Hercules" might
be more accurately titled "The Life of
Hercules," as only 3 of the 12 feats of strength and bravery
demanded of the divine hero from classical mythology are included in this
12-engraving series. Measuring about
2x3 inches each, these miniature scenes show moments from the
demigod’s life. Through their comprehensive telling of the hero’s story, the
prints indicate a growing interest in classical themes in 16th-century
In this scene, Hercules—wielding a club and wearing a lion’s skin—attacks the seven-headed Hydra of Lerna, a monster resembling a serpent or dragon whose regenerative abilities made it nearly impossible to defeat.
Hans Sebald Beham depicts the hero’s battle as a team effort: While Hercules strikes the Hydra, his nephew Iolaus seals the monster’s wounds, making it unable to generate new heads.
Although a scorpion attacks Hercules’s ankle—in an apparent team effort for the Hydra as well—the monster’s heads already on the ground hint at the victory to come for the mythological hero.
Christ in Limbo (1512) by Albrecht DürerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Engraved Passion
influential as a painter and theorist, Albrecht Dürer was also the most
prolific printmaker of his period, creating several series of woodcuts and
engravings, including six series that take the Passion of Christ as their
subject. "The Engraved Passion," the final
complete Passion series Dürer produced, comprises 16 scenes from the end
of the life of Christ. Unlike other
print series, "The Engraved Passion" was not intended to be bound into a book and
instead functioned as a devotional guide that could be spread out and
contemplated by a devout audience in a circuit, much like a prayer rosary. The prints in this set are small but highly
detailed, to encourage the viewer to look carefully and slowly while
considering the suffering of Christ. Owning
a complete series is particularly important: It tells the entire Passion story
and reveals the artist’s intention for the prints to be an educational and
This engraving, also known as "The Harrowing of Hell," shows Christ rescuing the patriarchs of the Old Testament from a dilapidated, scaly, devil-infested netherworld.
With Moses, Adam, and Eve already freed and standing at left,
Christ reaches toward a bound John the Baptist, redeeming the Biblical figures and allowing them entrance into Heaven.
Dürer invites the viewer to contemplate both the sinfulness of man and the redemptive embrace of God by organizing the composition so that the viewer sees the action taking place from within the fiery pits of Hell.
"Christ in Limbo" is preceded in the series by this print, "The Entombment." Dürer uses the composition of the prints in this series to show the story's continuation: The line created by the wall of the tomb is continued by the ruins in "The Harrowing of Hell" at right.
These prints were intended to be viewed as a continuous narrative. A viewer living during Dürer's time might have spread these works out in a rectangular group and viewed them in a clockwise fashion. This visual prayer was a way to contemplate the spiritual meaning of the story.
The Conversion of St. Paul from The New Testament (c. 1635) by Jacques CallotThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
French printmaker Jacques Callot produced more than 1,000 prints in
his lifetime, including many series on subjects related to war; aristocratic
pageantry; and daily life in Florence, Italy, and his native Lorraine
(present-day France). "Nouveau Testament" is the last series etched before Callot's death in 1635. It depicts scenes from
the life of Jesus and his followers through a set of 10 etchings and one
frontispiece, or title page.
In the center of the print lies Paul, thrown from his horse by the sheer power of the light streaming down from the heavens.
Paul was a devout Jew adamantly opposed to Christianity. As he was traveling with his men to the city of Damascus to arrest newly converted Christians, the resurrected Christ appeared to him in a vision.
The "Nouveau Testament" etchings are small—less than 3x4 inches—but are highly detailed and compellingly dramatic. Although its subject is religious, "The Conversion of Saint Paul" is as theatrical as some of Callot’s secular prints of pageantry. Callot shows the exact moment of revelation at its most dramatic: Clouds break as men and horses scatter, emphasizing the power the vision would have on Paul, who was to become an important apostle of Christ.
II. The Moral of the Story
Early Modern prints were sometimes used to teach lessons about morality, warning of the dangers of vices and temptation, and functioning as commentary on societal values. A central guiding principle in the period, moral virtue was often featured prominently as a subject in art—either through the promotion of virtuous figures or through the depiction of persons of questionable character. In their consumable and accessible form, prints provided a way to present moral lessons to a malleable public. These detailed, dramatic scenes made for appealing illustrations that drew the viewer’s attention but also educated. The three stories in this section warn of temptation or laud virtue, captured in a moment of heightened tension or drama. In some works, such as Martin Schongauer’s "The Fifth Foolish Virgin" from the "Wise and Foolish Virgins" series, the drama is subtly conveyed through detail. Conversely, the Master of the Housebook’s "Aristotle and Phyllis" presents the viewer with an almost-theatrical scene. Through these illustrative images, the lesson of the story unfolds.
The Temptation of St. Anthony (1509) by Lucas Huygensz. van LeydenThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Depictions of Saint
Anthony, who renounced his wealth to live as a hermit, traditionally presented
the Christian saint being tormented by demons or tempted by flagrant sin. However, this dramatic style of representation
did not fit the needs of the early-16th-century Dutch public, whose
reserved tastes and introspective, pious Catholicism called for a more personal
depiction of temptation.
In Lucas’s engraving, it is not a scaly monster who approaches Saint Anthony, but an alluring woman who proffers a vase of perfume.
The horns that protrude from the temptress's bonnet betray her true identity as a devil in the guise of a beautiful woman.
Although this may appear to be a scene of attempted seduction, the temptress’s perfume might instead allude to enlightenment: Perfumes were associated with the scent of God and were thought to encourage religious sense. Perhaps the temptress’s offer is not herself, but rather easy access to religious understanding by means of the mystical fragrance.
Valuing instead the hard work of study, Saint Anthony rejects the woman’s offer, placing his hand on the book. Dutch audiences might have understood the engraving to be emphasizing the importance of reverent contemplation and thoughtful study of religious texts.
Aristotle and Phyllis (1500s) by Master of the HousebookThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Aristotle and Phyllis
This drypoint by the unknown German Master of the Housebook, sometimes
called the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, is as curious as it is rare. Fewer than 100 prints are attributed
to the Master’s hand, and at least 60 of his works exist only in single
impressions, meaning that only one print was made. This tondo, or rounded image,
depicts the royal Phyllis astride the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Here, Aristotle has allowed Phyllis to ride him like a horse as two bemused men watch the action from behind the garden wall.
A peculiar story that does not appear in any accounts of Aristotle’s life, the subject of this print may result from conflict between two intellectual movements in 15th-century Germany: the Via Antiqua, who followed Aristotle's belief that humans were able to prove things only through prior universal knowledge from a greater power; and the Via Moderna, who emphasized logic and scientific research as a means to proof and understanding.
In this print, the Master aligns himself with the Via Moderna movement, lampooning Aristotle by reducing the revered scholar to a frivolous plaything ruled by desire for a woman’s attention. The message becomes clear: It is dangerous to follow too closely the writings of the ancients, for even they were mere humans.
The Fifth Foolish Virgin (c. 1490) by Martin SchongauerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Fifth Foolish Virgin
In this engraving from Martin Schongauer’s series of 10 wise and foolish virgins, a beautiful maiden—clad in an elegantly billowing processional costume—wipes away a tear and
forlornly turns her back. Based on a parable told by Jesus, this moralizing
lesson tells of 10 virgins who were selected to carry lamps in a wedding.
When the time came for the ceremony, five of the virgins were prepared with their lamps and the oil needed for the lights to shine. The other five, however, neglected to bring lamp oil and were denied a share from the prepared virgins. Rejected and crestfallen, the “foolish” virgins without lamp oil were excluded from the festivities. The parable thus teaches the importance of readiness, with an underlying lesson on the need for preparedness of the spirit for the eventual return of God to Earth.
The lamp in her left hand unlit,
her garland discarded on the ground,
this fifth foolish virgin cries with remorse at her imprudence.
III. Take a Closer Look
Careful examination of these visually stunning prints is highly rewarded: Beyond the immediate pictorial or visual interest lies a message waiting to be discovered. The works in this section use detailed imagery, narrative, and compositional techniques to entice a viewer, whether through charming animals, vivid settings, or curious figures. However, upon closer review, the complex messages layered within these masterful works begin to become apparent. Contemporary audiences would likely have discovered the underlying messages through familiar visual cues. The messages may not reveal themselves as readily to modern viewers, but the subtle signals can be discerned through close looking and historical context.
The Star of the Kings (c. 1630) by Jan van de Velde IIThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Star of Kings, A Night Piece
Although rooted in the New Testament story of the journey of the three
Magi to Bethlehem after the birth of Christ, the Twelfth Night celebrations of
the 17th-century Netherlands were generally secular affairs. Also known as the Feast of Epiphany, Twelfth
Night was one of the most important domestic festivals of the year and involved
all societal levels, not unlike a kermis
or fair that encouraged feasting, singing, and drinking. This engraving by Jan van de Velde II after
Pieter de Molijn shows a typical evening activity characteristic of Twelfth
Night celebrations in the 1630s: star singing.
This print owes its sumptuous darkness to the work of renowned Dutch etcher Rembrandt, who was heralded for his execution of night scenes.
In the foreground, two men and one woman sing a song in front of a residence, their faces illuminated by lamplight. Reversing the traditional Biblical story of gift-giving, star singers such as these three often requested traditional cakes, drinks, or money from houses that opened their doors.
The busy processional in the background is also a group of star singers, named for the large paper star they carried on a pole, seen here illuminating the velvety darkness by a kings’ candle. Some in the group wear paper crowns, meant to mock King Herod, who was hostile toward God after the birth of Christ.
Together, the singers in the foreground and those marching through the streets behind them present a picture of a 17th-century Dutch celebration apparent only through careful examination.
The Owl, the Monkey and the Cat (no date) by Jan van SomerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Owl, the Monkey, and the Cat
This delightful work depicts a theatrical scene performed by an owl and a costumed monkey,
accompanied by a cat playing a horn. The
subject of the print can be tied to several works created by contemporaries of
Jan van Somer, including David Teniers the Younger, a painter from Antwerp. Teniers featured monkeys in social settings
in several paintings and drawings, which van Somer may have seen.
Images of monkeys behaving or dressed as nobility were intended to be amusing, but also functioned as subtle commentary on the social structure of the Netherlands during the period. Commoners, who could elevate their social status through work, government positions, and land ownership, aspired to become like the nobility, and engaged in elite social behaviors in order to do so. Their aspiration may be the real subject of this print.
A close look at the print reveals the parody, as the monkey—wearing a plumed hat and fur muff—gestures toward the owl in a particularly human manner. Like the commoners who robed themselves in the trappings of nobility, the monkey tries to be something he is not.
With plumes resembling a fashionable lace collar worn by the nobility, the regal bird turns away, eyes downcast.
The cat, whose horn situates the scene in the realm of performance, looks outward at the viewer, as if to send a reminder of the metaphor at play and draw attention to the theatricality of the commoner aping the nobility.
This work is a mezzotint, a type of print produced by making tiny dots or hatches on a metal plate. The dots retain ink, creating a rich tone when pressed onto paper.
The Hog (1643) by Rembrandt van RijnThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
At first glance, this print may appear to be only a careful and detailed
study of a sow, with the lightly etched background figures reiterating that the
animal motif is the central focus. However, careful inspection of the figures and composition reveals the
work’s narrative and greater symbolic meaning. Likely inspired by allegorical illustrations of nature in emblem books, Rembrandt deliberately employed the compositional technique of combining highly detailed flora or fauna in the foreground and a lightly etched figural scene in the background, in order to indicate the work’s metaphoric purpose.
While the rotund, bound sow rests, a family prepares for the animal’s slaughter, which will provide sustenance for the winter ahead. A man gathers utensils in a basket, and a boy plays with an inflated pig’s bladder, an item commonly used as a child’s toy. The animal’s grim future is clear. Perhaps intended as a memento mori, or a reminder of mortality, Rembrandt’s print subtly reminds the viewer of the brevity of life.
The masterful handling of linework in this etching exemplifies Rembrandt’s creativity and inventiveness.
The central figure of the hog is etched intricately and in great detail.
In contrast, the familial scene in the background appears more like a sketch. This experimental and highly innovative approach to composition, which incorporates techniques used in drawing, would have a significant impact on printmaking.
"A Renaissance Couple: Stories from the Print Collection of Drs. Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston" was organized by Claire Spadafora, the 2015-2016 Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Interpretation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669). The Hog (Le cochon), 1643. Etching on laid paper, state II/III. Plate: 5 3/4 × 7 1/4 in. (14.6 × 18.4 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning 74.282
Jan van Somer (Dutch, c. 1645–after 1699), possibly published by John Smith (English, 1652–1743). The Owl, the Monkey and the Cat, mid–late 17th century, possibly 1668–167. Mezzotint on white laid paper, proof before lettering. Plate: 5 7/8 × 7 7/16 in. (14.9 × 18.9 cm) Sheet: 5 3/4 × 7 9/16 in. (14.6 × 19.2 cm). Gift of Dr. Marjorie G. Horning, 2013.587.
Jan van de Velde II (Dutch, c. 1593–1641), after Pieter de Molijn (Dutch, 1595–1661), published by Claes Jansz. Visscher the Younger (Dutch, 1586–1652). The Star of the Kings, A Night Piece, c. 1630. Engraving on cream laid paper, state II/IV. Plate: 8 × 7 1/4 in. (20.2 × 18.4 cm) Sheet: 8 1/16 × 7 3/8 in. (20.5 × 18.4 cm) Frame (outer): 16 3/4 × 14 7/8 in. (42.5 × 37.8 cm). Gift of Dr. Marjorie G. Horning, 2013.588
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528). Christ in Limbo from The Small Engraved Passion, 1512. Engraving on laid paper. Plate: 4 5/8 × 3 in. (11.7 × 7.6 cm) Sheet: 4 5/8 × 3 in. (11.7 × 7.6 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 75.582.5.
Hans Sebald Beham (German, 1500–1550). Hercules Slaying the Hydra, from The Labors of Hercules, 1545. Engraving on laid paper. Plate/Sheet: 2 1/16 × 3 1/16 in. (5.2 × 7.8 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 83.306.
Jacques Callot (French, 1592–1635). The Conversion of St. Paul from The New Testament, 1635. Etching on laid paper. Plate: 2 11/16 × 3 7/16 in. (6.8 × 8.7 cm) Sheet: 3 1/16 × 3 7/8 in. (7.7 × 9.9 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 78.241.11.
Master of the Housebook (South German, active c. 1465–1500). Aristotle and Phyllis, 1500s. Drypoint on laid paper. Plate: 6 1/16 × 6 1/16 in. (15.4 × 15.4 cm) Sheet: 9 15/16 × 7 15/16 in. (25.3 × 20.2 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 91.1919.
Lucas Huygensz. van Leyden (Dutch, 1489/94–1533). The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1509. Engraving on laid paper. Plate: 7 3/16 × 5 3/4 in. (18.3 × 14.6 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 74.270.
Martin Schongauer (German, 1445/50–1491). The Fifth Foolish Virgin, from the series Wise and Foolish Virgins, c. 1490. Engraving on laid paper. Plate/Sheet: 4 9/16 × 2 1/2 in. (11.6 × 6.4 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 92.95.
Gascoigne, Bamber. "How to Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Ink-Jet." Thames and Hudson, 1986.
Suzuki, Sarah. "What Is a Print? Selections from the Museum of Modern Art." The Museum of Modern Art, 2011.