M.C. Escher was born on 17 June 1898, in Leeuwarden. He’s the third son from the second marriage of George Arnold Escher, to Sarah Gleichman. Escher’s father already had two sons from a previous marriage. From remarks by Escher’s father, it is clear that M.C. Escher’s birth in 1898 was something of an accident; his wife very much wanted another daughter. Maurits Cornelis was named after his mother’s uncle. When he was small, his official name was changed by the family to the familiar ‘Maukie’, later becoming Mauk, a name that would also be used by his friends.
Escher’s father was a hydro-mechanical engineer and one of the Dutch ‘Watermen’ who worked in Japan in the late 19th century at the invitation of the emperor. After returning to the Netherlands, his father ultimately became, in 1890, Chief Engineer at the Ministry of Water in Leeuwarden. He rented the Prinsessehof house in Leeuwarden for his family, where he had his office at home.
In 1903, the family moved to Arnhem. Mauk Escher had a happy childhood despite suffering many illnesses. At seven years old (1907), he spent quite some time in a kind of children’s convalescence centre in Zandvoort to build up his strength. Like his brothers, Escher received a broad education, including carpentry and piano lessons. There was a telescope on the flat roof of the house that he and his father frequently used. But drawing and painting were his real passions, even at an early age.
Despite the age difference between Mauk Escher and his brothers, there was a close bond between them. For their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary in 1917, he designed the brother’s combined present: a silver comb that was created by a silversmith in Arnhem. Escher was then just 19.
The bond between the brothers remained close. Later, his half-brother Berend, professor of geology and subsequently rector of the University of Leiden, kept him informed about the latest scientific literature in the field of crystallography.
In 1912, M.C. Escher went to secondary school in Arnhem. There he met his life-long friends Roosje Ingen Housz, Bas Kist, Jan van der Does Willebois and his sister Fiet.
School did not interest Escher; he had to do his second class twice and in 1918 he failed his final exams. Through his father’s connections, he was nevertheless accepted as a first-year student at the Technical University in Delft. His parents hoped that he would become an architect. In February 1919, Escher visited Richard Roland Holst, artist and teacher at the National Academy in Amsterdam. He advised him to work with wood.
As a compromise to his parents, Maurits Cornelis Escher started in September 1919 at the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts. He enrolled in the architecture department, but within a week he showed his work to the graphics arts teacher, Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita. He advised him to switch to the graphics arts department. The director of the school, H.C. Verkruysen, agreed. After a discussion with Jessurun de Mesquita, his parents consented: Mauk could become a graphics artist.
One of the objections Escher’s father had against his son’s choice of profession was that he suspected he would not be able to support himself later in his life. This certainly appears to be the case after his education. Escher’s parents – and after his marriage in 1924 also his parents-in-law – supported M.C. Escher’s family. Father Escher helped all his sons when it was needed. In this sense, his support of Mauk was not exceptional.
Even before his international breakthrough after the Second World War, Escher had always earned his money by selling his prints. It was, however, not enough to be able to maintain his family. He also regularly received commissions, including for a wooden intarsia panel for the restored city hall in Leiden in 1940-41, and for postage stamps and bookplates. He produced illustrations for his friends’ books or commissions for others. In 1938, the Dutch government asked Escher to produce woodcuts of the city of Delft. Escher regularly had exhibitions in the Netherlands and in Italy that were positively received.
Travel and marriage
After his time at college in Haarlem, Escher made several long trips to Italy and, in 1922, to Spain. This is where he first visited the Alhambra in Granada where he saw the Moorish tiles with their continuous decoration. In 1923, Escher met the Swiss family Umiker in the Italian town of Ravello. He fell in love with their youngest daughter Jetta. In the coming years, there was contact between both families which ultimately led to the consent to a marriage on 12 June 1924 in Viareggio in the presence of all the parents.
In the summer of 1925, Escher and Jetta took on an apartment in Rome. George was born in 1926 and Arthur in 1928. In 1938 their son Jan was born. Even after his marriage, Escher continued to make his journeys through Italy, and also to North Africa and Spain, sometimes with and sometimes without Jetta. Each spring, Escher made a long journey through a different part of Italy, such as Calabria, Sicily, the Abruzzi and the coast around Naples. He also visited Corsica in 1928 and 1933.
In February 1924, Escher held his first Dutch exhibition at art gallery ‘De Zonnebloem’ in The Hague. His work was extolled in ‘Elsevier’s Illustrated Monthly’ of June 1924. Escher created his first lithograph in July 1929.
In the coming years, he exhibited regularly in Italy and the Netherlands, including at Pulchri in The Hague, in Amsterdam, Leeuwarden and Utrecht, but also in Rome. In 1934 his print Nonza, Corsica won third prize at the “Exposition of Contemporary Prints” at the Chicago Art Institute.
The family left Rome for Switzerland on 4 July 1935. Arthur had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. In 1937 the family moved to Ukkel, near Brussels. Finally, in 1941, they settled in Baarn. In 1955, Escher would move house once again within Baan. He went to live in the Rosa Spier nursing home in Laren in 1970.
In his Italian period (1924-1935), Escher mainly produced prints that were close to reality. These works consisted of drawings that he made in the countryside. The drawings were later turned into prints on his worktable. It was here that reality was changed into art, and here that the difference between reality and realistic art came about. Each work of realistic art is an artist’s vision of a part of reality. The work of art became his reality that had no one-to-one correspondence with the reality of the location.
In the works Escher produced after 1935, the connection between direct perception and the work of art is distinctly lost. The constructions Escher creates, such as Belvedere (1958), Drawing Hands (1948) and Waterfall (1961), can exist within art, but not in reality. Although the works make sense in the details, Escher was able to connect these various details with each other in a subtle way so that an impossible reality ultimately arises.
From remarks by Escher, it appears that his perception of nature in Italy – the true reality – and his way of looking at it for his later works were not as far apart as is generally assumed. Escher says in 1963:
‘The element of enigma which he (M.C.E.) wishes to focus attention on must be enveloped, be veiled by a commonplace, familiar to everyone, everyday self-evidence. This true to nature, plausible environment to any superficial observer is essential to bring about the desired shock’.
From ‘The Impossible’, a lecture held on 5 November 1963
From his vision, Escher uses stylistic elements that he was already investigating in Italy, such as the double perspective line, tessellation and sometimes reflection. In his later works, he also adds metamorphosis, which can also be viewed as a derivation of tessellation, the idea of eternal motion or cycle and Escher’s quest for a representation of infinity. Thus the other world of M.C. Escher in which impossible things have apparently become possible gradually emerges.
In 1951, the British magazine The Studio wrote about his work. Following this publication, the two international magazines Time and Life covered Escher’s work. This created great interest in America. Escher received many requests for new prints. Day and Night (1938) was particularly loved. Escher later complained that he had to print more than 600 copies of it. In 1961, E.H. Gombrich wrote about Escher’s work in the Saturday Evening Post.
Escher also now had exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (as part of the International Mathematics Conference) and in America and Great Britain. Finally, in 1968 at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Escher’s first retrospective exhibition was held in honour of his 70th birthday. In 1955, M.C. Escher was knighted, in 1965 he was awarded the Culture Award of the city of Hilversum and in 1967 he received a royal honour.
Already since his earliest youth, M.C. Escher struggled with his health. In his later years, he underwent two serious operations in the hospital. In 1969, Escher produced his final woodcut: Snakes. After this, he continued to print older works but did not create any more new ones.
M.C. Escher died on March 27, 1972 in the Diakonessehuis hospital in Hilversum.