M.C. Escher was born on 17 June 1898 as the fifth son from the second marriage of George Escher with Sarah Gleichmann. 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 one of his mother’s grandfathers. 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, George Arnold Escher, was a hydro mechanical engineer and one of the eight Dutch ‘Watermen’ who worked in Japan between 1873 and 1878 at the invitation of the emperor. After returning to the Netherlands, his father ultimately became, in 1890, Chief Engineer Second Class at the Ministry of Water in Leeuwarden. He rented the Prinsessehof house for his family, where he had his office at home.
In 1903, the family moved to Arnhem. Mauk had a happy childhood despite suffering many illnesses. When he was seven (in 1905), he spent quite some time in a kind of children’s convalescence center in Zandvoort to build up his strength. Like the other sons, Escher received a broad education, including carpentry and piano lessons, and 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 sons’ 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 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 stayed down in the second class and in 1918 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. They would have liked him to learn ‘a real profession’ rather than, as Mauk wished, to become an artist. 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 through selling his prints. It was, however, not enough to be able to maintain his family. He regularly received such commissions as a wooden intarsia panel for the restored city hall in Leiden in 1940-41, postage stamps and bookplates. He produced illustrations for his friends’ books or commissioned by others, and the Dutch government asked Escher to produce woodcuts of Delft in 1938. Escher had regular 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 1923, to Spain. This is where he first visited the Alhambra in Granada where he saw the Moorish tiles with their running 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. Every spring, Escher made a long journey through a different part of the country; Calabria, Sicily, the Abruzzi and the coast around Naples. And he also visited Corsica in 1928 and 1933. George was born in 1926 and Arthur in 1928. By 1938, the Eschers had moved to Ukkel, close to Brussels, where 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.
In February 1924, Escher held his first Dutch exhibition at ‘Galerie Zonnebloem’ (Sunflower Gallery) 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, of an Italian landscape, won third prize at the “Exposition of contemporary Prints” at the Chicago Art Institute.
From Rome, the family left on the 4th of July for Switzerland. Arthur had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Initially they chose Switzerland but in 1937 the family moved to Ukkel near Brussels. Finally they settled in Baarn in 1941. In 1955, Escher would move house once again within Baan. He went to live in the Rosa Spier nursing home in Laren (North Holland) 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 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, Drawing Hands and Waterfall, 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 a single reflection. His later works add 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 American professional magazine The Studio wrote about his work. Then the two international general interest magazines Time and Life covered Escher’s work. This created great interest in America. Escher received many requests for new prints. Day and Night 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 modern art museum in Amsterdam (as part of the International Mathematics Conference) and in America and Great Britain. Finally, in 1968 at the Council of The Hague Museum, 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.
Since his earliest youth, M.C. Escher’s health had not been good. In his later years, he underwent two serious operations in 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.