When thinking of early artistic prints, perhaps one of the few things that come to mind would be playing cards. In modernity, playing cards are not really considered “artistic” items. However, during the earliest days of print, playing cards were the original media made by the printing process. Even before the printing press, Europe had a love of cards and, whether they were actually intended to be used for play or for show, the people wanted to get their hands on them. Because of the wide spread popularity of cards, it is no surprise that this early print media featured elements that are visually present in other printed media, even to this day. Through the influence of printmakers’ works on each other, these men honed their craft and helped develop printing as a proper art form.
The Master of the Playing Cards and the Master E.S. of 1466 were both major engravers in Germany during the fifteenth century. Distinct subject matter, technique, and prevalence in their field has marked them as “Masters” of their art – a label which has outlived any other identifying information about them. This paper discusses the introduction of printing into Europe and the development of the technique under the influence of these two Masters. The Master of the Playing Cards introduced new subject matter and techniques in his cards, which through his pupil, the Master E.S. of 1466, who replicated and altered these learned skills, went on to spread into other areas of printed medium and marked a path of influence for all who would come after them.
Markedly one of the most important developments in the history of visual media was that of the printing press. Brought about by German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, in the mid-fifteenth century, it is often manifested as the beginning of a new era for two-dimensional media. However, prints were around for hundreds of years before the creation of the printing press, originating in Asia and brought to Europe though various interactions over centuries of time. Additionally, even before the utilization of print techniques, playing cards (which would go on to be a dominantly print-based medium) had become quite popular across Europe after being introduced at the end of the Crusades.
As early as 1375, the demand for playing cards was high enough that Germany had begun exporting handmade card decks, particularly to Italy, in exchange for various tradable goods. These very early cards were made using only stencils and paints, and as a result, it is surprising that it was possible to produce them efficiently enough for use as tradable commodities; however, at the turn of the century, a newly established method became available: woodblock printing. This caused a sudden and extreme burst in the output of mass-produced cards from Germany, resulting from the increased speed and ease that came with printing rather than hand producing each card. Because of the demand for this popular media, cards aided...