About Escher

From optical illusions and impossible architecture to realistic natural landscapes: the work of Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) has it all. In 2023 it will be 125 years since his birth. With the world’s largest museum collection of Escher’s work, Kunstmuseum Den Haag and Escher in The Palace will be the focus of this special anniversary year.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden on 17 June 1898, but spent most of his childhood around Arnhem. Despite failing his final school exams, in 1918 he started studying architecture at the Technical College in Delft. He soon left Delft, however, to continue his training at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. There, encouraged by his graphic techniques teacher Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, he switched from architecture to graphic art in 1919.

In his early work Escher chose a broad range of traditional subjects, trying out his talent in woodcuts of people, landscapes, cityscapes and Bible scenes. After completing his training he travelled through southern Europe. He fell in love with Italy and its landscape, and with a Swiss-Russian woman, Jetta Umiker. After they married in 1924 the newlyweds settled in Rome, from where Escher often travelled around the country, focusing on the natural environment, landscapes, and the arches and pillars in churches, and the alleyways and staircases in old towns. Trips to Spain, including visits to the Alhambra in Granada and the Mezquita in Córdoba, also influenced Escher’s development as an artist. He increasingly experimented with architecture, opting in his prints for an extreme perspective on structures, and regularly pushing the boundaries of reality. From 1926 onwards he regularly exhibited his work in Italy and the Netherlands, including at Pulchri Studio in The Hague, and also in Warsaw, Prague and Madrid. In 1929 Escher started making lithographs. His trips around Italy, Spain and Corsica continued to inspire his art. He left Italy in 1935, but the landscape of Switzerland and – after a subsequent move – Belgium barely inspired him, and Escher turned more and more to his own imagination. His earlier fascination with landscapes evolved into a fascination with mindscapes: imaginative ‘landscapes’ created in Escher’s own head. He could spend hours thinking about new worlds full of impossibilities, albeit always with Italy in the back of his mind. After a long sea voyage to Spain in 1936 he turned his attention to tessellations, and from that moment on these contiguous patterns increasingly formed the basis of his prints.

MC Escher, Sky and Water I, 1938, woodcut. Collection Kunstmuseum Den Haag. © The M.C. Escher Company – Baarn – Holland. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com

Escher returned to the Netherlands in 1941 and settled in Baarn, where he would spend the majority of his life and make many of his best-known prints, including Waterfall, Belvedere and Relativity. He became world-famous for his optical illusions full of impossibilities, after the publication of two articles in the American magazines Time and Life in the 1950s. His successful exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 1954 during the International congress of Mathematicians also brought him many new fans. Mathematicians and scientists admired his work, and they also gave him inspiration. As a result of his popularity, and his declining health, Escher made less and less new work, though he did make new prints of older work at the request of his clients. Although this took up a lot of his time, he regarded this as a printmaker’s calling: to delight as many people as possible with their work.

In 1968 the Haags Gemeentemuseum (now Kunstmuseum Den Haag) hosted Escher’s first major retrospective, in honour of his 70th birthday. Escher designed his final woodcut, Snakes, in 1969. After that he printed some older designs, but never made any new ones. In 1970, as his health declined further, he moved to the Rosa Spier Huis in Laren, a community of retired artists and academics, where he was surrounded by like-minded people. M.C. Escher died at the Diakonessehuis hospital in Hilversum on 27 March 1972.