M.C. (Maurits Cornelis) Escher, Dutch (1898 - 1972)

MC Escher

Maurits Cornelis Escher, world famous left-handed graphic artist. M.C. Escher and his unforgettable prints of impossible structures, such as Ascending and Descending, Relativity, and his Transformation Prints, such as Metamorphosis I, II and III are a few of the works that has earned Escher worldwide acclaim and the right to be known as the master of graphic art illusions. He is known for his often mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints. These feature impossible constructions, explorations of infinity, architecture, and tessellations.

M.C. Escher was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. His parents, George Arnold Escher and Sarah Gleichman Escher, had three sons of which Maurits (called Mauk for short) was the youngest. His father, George, was a civil engineer. He was a sickly child, and was placed in a special school at the age of seven and failed the second grade. Although he excelled at drawing, his grades were generally poor. He also took carpentry and piano lessons until he was thirteen years old. In 1919, Escher attended the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. He briefly studied architecture, but he failed a number of subjects (partly due to a persistent skin infection) and switched to decorative arts. He studied under Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, with whom he remained friends for years.

He did well in anything art related, however, and did receive encouragement from his art teachers. Escher began private lessons and studies in architecture at the Higher Technology School in Delft. He managed to get a deferment on military service in order to study, but poor health prevented him from keeping up with the curriculum. He was rejected by the military service in 1919, and as a result could not continue school. During this difficult period, Escher did many drawings, and also began using woodcuts as a medium. It was also at this time that his work began to receive favorable reviews i the media.

The first print by M.C. Escher that sold in large numbers was St. Francis (Preaching to the Birds), a woodcut that Escher claimed to have &quotworked on like a madman." He finished out the year doing some sign work and a few commissioned prints.In 1922, Escher left the school after having gained experience in drawing and making woodcuts. Escher was in search of fresh inspiration, he decided to go to Italy.

M.C. Escher met his wife, Jetta Umiker, in Italy and in 1924 they married. Together they settled in Rome, where they stayed for 11 years until 1935.

In 1935, the political climate in Italy (under Mussolini) became unacceptable to Escher. He had no interest in politics, finding it impossible to involve himself with any ideals other than the expressions of his own concepts through his own particular medium, but he was averse to fanaticism and hypocrisy. When his eldest son, George, was forced at the age of nine to wear a Ballila uniform in school, the family left Italy and moved to Château-d'Œx, Switzerland, where they remained for two years.

Escher, who had been very fond of and inspired by the landscapes in Italy, was decidedly unhappy in Switzerland. In 1937, the family moved again, to Uccle, a suburb of Brussels, Belgium. World War II forced them to move in January 1941, this time to Baarn, Netherlands, where Escher lived until 1970. During the Second World War, he drew 62 of the total of 137 Regular Division Drawings he would make in his lifetime. Most of Escher's better-known works date from this period. The sometimes cloudy, cold and wet weather of the Netherlands allowed him to focus intently on his work. For a time after undergoing surgery, 1962 was the only period in which Escher did not work on new pieces.

Escher moved to the Rosa Spier Huis in Laren in 1970, an artists' retirement home in which he had his own studio. He died at the home on 27 March 1972, aged 73.


In his early years, Escher sketched landscapes and nature. He also sketched insects, which appeared frequently in his later work. His first artistic work, completed in 1922, featured eight human heads divided in different planes. Later around 1924, he lost interest in "regular division" of planes, and turned to sketching landscapes in Italy with irregular perspectives that are impossible in natural form.

Escher's first print of an impossible reality was Still Life and Street, 1937. His artistic expression was created from images in his mind, rather than directly from observations and travels to other countries. Well known examples of his work include Drawing Hands, a work in which two hands are shown, each drawing the other; Sky and Water, in which light plays on shadow to morph the water background behind fish figures into bird figures on a sky background; and Ascending and Descending, in which lines of people ascend and descend stairs in an infinite loop, on a construction which is impossible to build and possible to draw only by taking advantage of quirks of perception and perspective.

He worked primarily in the media of lithographs and woodcuts, though the few mezzotints he made are considered to be masterpieces of the technique. In his graphic art, he portrayed mathematical relationships among shapes, figures and space. Additionally, he explored interlocking figures using black and white to enhance different dimensions. Integrated into his prints were mirror images of cones, spheres, cubes, rings and spirals. Escher was left-handed.

Although Escher did not have mathematical training—his understanding of mathematics was largely visual and intuitive—Escher's work had a strong mathematical component, and more than a few of the worlds which he drew were built around impossible objects such as the Necker cube and the Penrose triangle. Many of Escher's works employed repeated tilings called tessellations. Escher's artwork is especially well liked by mathematicians and scientists, who enjoy his use of polyhedra and geometric distortions. For example, in Gravity, multicolored turtles poke their heads out of a stellated dodecahedron.

The mathematical influence in his work emerged around 1936, when he journeyed to the Mediterranean with the Adria Shipping Company. He became interested in order and symmetry. Escher described his journey through the Mediterranean as "the richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped."

After his journey to the Alhambra, Escher tried to improve upon the art works of the Moors using geometric grids as the basis for his sketches, which he then overlaid with additional designs, mainly animals such as birds and lions.

His first study of mathematics, which later led to its incorporation into his art works, began with George Pólya's academic paper on plane symmetry groups sent to him by his brother Berend. This paper inspired him to learn the concept of the 17 wallpaper groups (plane symmetry groups). Using this mathematical concept, Escher created periodic tilings with 43 colored drawings of different types of symmetry. From this point on he developed a mathematical approach to expressions of symmetry in his art works. Starting in 1937, he created woodcuts using the concept of the 17 plane symmetry groups.

In 1941, Escher summarized his findings in a sketchbook, which he labeled Regelmatige vlakverdeling in asymmetrische congruente veelhoeken ("Regular division of the plane with asymmetric congruent polygons").[8] His intention in writing this was to aid himself in integrating mathematics into art. Escher is considered a research mathematician of his time because of his documentation with this paper, in which he studied color based division, and developed a system of categorizing combinations of shape, color and symmetrical properties.

Around 1956, Escher explored the concept of representing infinity on a two-dimensional plane. Discussions with Canadian mathematician H.S.M. Coxeter inspired Escher's interest in hyperbolic tessellations, which are regular tilings of the hyperbolic plane. Escher's wood engravings Circle Limit I–IV demonstrate this concept. In 1959, Coxeter published his finding that these works were extraordinarily accurate: "Escher got it absolutely right to the millimeter."

Escher was awarded the Knighthood of the Order of Orange Nassau in 1955. Subsequently he regularly designed art for dignitaries around the world.

In 1958, he published a book entitled Regular Division of the Plane, with reproductions of a series of woodcuts based on tessellations of the plane, in which he described the systematic buildup of mathematical designs in his artworks. He emphasized, "Mathematicians have opened the gate leading to an extensive domain."

Overall, his early love of Roman and Italian landscapes and of nature led to his interest in the concept of regular division of a plane, which he applied in over 150 colored works. Other mathematical principles evidenced in his works include the superposition of a hyperbolic plane on a fixed 2-dimensional plane, and the incorporation of three-dimensional objects such as spheres, columns and cubes into his works. For example, in a print called "Reptiles", he combined two and three-dimensional images. In one of his papers, Escher emphasized the importance of dimensionality and described himself as "irritated" by flat shapes: "I make them come out of the plane."

Escher also studied topology. He learned additional concepts in mathematics from the British mathematician Roger Penrose. From this knowledge he created Waterfall and Up and Down, featuring irregular perspectives similar to the concept of the Möbius strip.

Escher printed Metamorphosis I in 1937, which was a beginning part of a series of designs that told a story through the use of pictures. These works demonstrated a culmination of Escher's skills to incorporate mathematics into art. In Metamorphosis I, he transformed convex polygons into regular patterns in a plane to form a human motif. This effect symbolizes his change of interest from landscape and nature to regular division of a plane.

His piece Metamorphosis III is wide enough to cover all the walls in a room, and then loop back onto itself.

After 1953, Escher became a lecturer at many organizations. A planned series of lectures in North America in 1962 was cancelled due to an illness, but the illustrations and text for the lectures, written out in full by Escher, were later published as part of the book Escher on Escher. In July 1969 he finished his last work, a woodcut called Snakes, in which snakes wind through a pattern of linked rings which fade to infinity toward both the center and the edge of a circle.

The special way of thinking and the rich graphic work of M.C. Escher has had a continuous influence in science and art, as well as being referenced in popular culture. Ownership of the Escher intellectual property and of his unique art works have been separated from each other.


In 1969, Escher's business advisor, Jan W. Vermeulen, author of a biography in Dutch on the artist, established the M.C. Escher Stichting (M.C. Escher Foundation), and transferred into this entity virtually all of Escher's unique work as well as hundreds of his original prints. These works were lent by the Foundation to the Hague Museum. Upon Escher's death, his three sons dissolved the Foundation, and they became partners in the ownership of the art works. In 1980, this holding was sold to an American art dealer and the Hague Museum. The Museum obtained all of the documentation and the smaller portion of the art works.

The copyrights remained the possession of the three sons – who later sold them to Cordon Art, a Dutch company. Control of the copyrights was subsequently transferred to The M.C. Escher Company B.V. of Baarn, Netherlands, which licenses use of the copyrights on all of Escher's art and on his spoken and written text, and also controls the trademarks. Filing of the trademark "M.C. Escher" in the United States was opposed, but the Dutch company prevailed in the courts on the grounds that an artist or his heirs have a right to trademark his name.

A related entity, the M.C. Escher Foundation of Baarn, promotes Escher's work by organizing exhibitions, publishing books and producing films about his life and work.

The primary institutional collections of original works by M.C. Escher are the Escher Museum, a subsidiary of the Haags Gemeentemuseum in The Hague; the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa); the Israel Museum (Jerusalem); Huis ten Bosch (Nagasaki, Japan); and the Boston Public Library.

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, published in 1979, discusses the ideas of self-reference and strange loops, drawing on a wide range of artistic and scientific work, including the art of M. C. Escher and the music of J. S. Bach, to illustrate ideas behind Gödel's incompleteness theorems.

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