How M.C. Escher Worked

A visitor admired M.C. Escher's "Metamorphosis III" at The Hague's "Escher in the Palace" exhibit in 2003.
Peter Dejong/Getty Images

Stairways that ascend and descend endlessly -- and yet go nowhere. People who morph into cities. Architectural impossibilities that challenge our understanding of what's visually possible. These are the hallmarks of Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, arguably one of the most recognized -- and marveled at -- artists in modern history.

Although Escher is best known for his prints of mathematically and geometrically inspired structures and forms, such as "Ascending and Descending" and "Metamorphosis I and II," he also created many realistic landscape and architectural pieces in the early part of his career during his travels throughout Italy.


Yet his most imaginative works, because of their almost supernatural ability to bend reality, have had the greatest influence on popular culture. Movies, cartoons and music videos have repeatedly paid homage to Escher's works -- and one in particular, "Relativity," has gotten several tributes. One of the best-known re-creations of that work appears in the final scene of the 1986 movie, "Labyrinth" when David Bowie's character, Jareth the Goblin King, takes Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) to a series of twisted stairwells, which she helplessly ascends and descends. One self-proclaimed "professional nerd" even created his own version of "Relativity" out of Legos; you can take a peek at the original here.

Although the public has long been fascinated with Escher's work -- his prints have adorned many a college dorm room -- the artist had a more difficult time gaining acceptance among his peers. Many other artists of his generation regarded him as too cerebral, as more of an intellectual than an artist. Scientists and mathematicians have found more in common with Escher than other artists. This makes sense, considering that Escher's works are firmly rooted in mathematics, particularly in principles of symmetry and geometry.

Read on to the next section to learn more about the life and works of M.C. Escher.


M.C. Escher Biography

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden, capital of the Dutch province of Friesland, on June 17, 1898. He was the youngest son of renowned civil engineer G.A. Escher. The family moved when Escher was 5 to the city of Arnhem, where Escher spent most of his early years.

Escher wasn't much of a student in the traditional sense. His grades were poor. He had to repeat a grade twice, and eventually he failed his high school exams. The only subject at which Escher excelled was art. It was already obvious to Escher's art teacher, F.W. van der Haagen, that his student had talent.


At his father's urging, Escher enrolled in the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem to study architecture. Yet within just a few days of arriving at the school, Escher fell so in love with the graphic arts that he changed his major. One of the school's faculty members, Samuel Jesserun de Mesquita, convinced him to pursue a degree in that discipline, and Escher studied graphic arts and woodcut techniques under Mesquita from 1919 to 1922.

After leaving art school, Escher went to Italy. He traveled throughout the country and sketched the landscapes and architecture in towns like Amalfi, Campania, Abruzzi and Sicily from 1923 to 1935. During his Italian excursion, he met the woman who would become his wife, Jetta Umiker. They married in 1924 and moved to Rome. In July 1926, they had a son named George. Two more sons, Arthur and Jan, followed in 1928 and 1938, respectively.

With the rise of Mussolini's Fascist regime in Italy, Escher moved to Switzerland in July 1935. He stayed there briefly and then spent a short time in Brussels, Belgium, before finally returning to the Netherlands in 1941. He died in Laren after a long illness on March 27, 1972.


M.C. Escher Artwork

A visitor tries to get a closer look at an Escher lithograph at The Hague's "Escher in the Palace" exhibit.
Peter Dejong/Getty Images

Escher was a prolific graphic artist. During his lifetime, he created more than 2,000 drawings and sketches, and nearly 450 lithographs. He also illustrated books and designed tapestries, drew postage stamps and created murals.

Although Escher is best known for his more imaginative works, in the early part of his career his art was more realistic, depicting landscapes and architecture taken directly from what he saw as he traveled throughout Italy. He used these sketches as the basis of his lithographs, woodcuts and wood engravings.


Even though his early works were more rooted in reality, many of them included bizarre and almost surreal elements, such as his 1932 rendering of mummified bodies in a church in southern Italy, or the floating castle in his 1928 woodcut, "Castle in the Air." His early works already held a sense of his fascination with spatial structure and relationships, which would become intrinsic to his work in the latter part of his career.

In addition to his preoccupation with architectural forms, Escher was fascinated with shading and the contrast between black and white, as well as with mirror reflections.

In 1929, he experimented with scratch drawings, which he made by coating parchment with printer's ink and then drawing on its surface with a pointed instrument. This technique led him into lithography, a method of making prints from a stone surface.

The period after Escher left Italy in 1937 marked the beginning of the second phase of his career. Escher didn't travel throughout Switzerland as he had in Italy. He found the cold, mountainous Swiss landscape uninspiring. From this point on, his works were derived less from the world around him than from the world inside his head. He began combining realistic and illusionary elements in his works to create unorthodox compositions, such as the street rising out of a table in his 1937 woodcut, "Still Life and Street."

Escher also experimented with repeated patterns of geometric shapes (called tessellations), seeing how they fit together. In some of his works, he turned these abstract patterns into recognizable figures. In "Metamorphosis I," a Chinese man transforms into an Italian town. You can take a look at "Still Life and Street" and "Metamorphosis I" here and here.

Escher was a master at implementing the principles of mathematics and spatial reality -- creating images in which the individual parts seem logical and plausible, but when the image is taken as a whole it is obviously impossible. Examples of this technique are "Other World" from 1947, in which the far wall is simultaneously the ceiling, and the aforementioned "Ascending and Descending," in which monks climb and descend stairs endlessly without going anywhere.

For more information on the world's great artists, please see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Ernst, Bruno. "The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher." New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1978.
  • Locher, J.L., ed. "The World of M.C. Escher." Amsterdam, Netherlands: Meulenhoff International, 1971.
  • Schattscheider, Doris. "The Tessellating World of M.C. Escher." Odyssey, November 1999, Volume 8, Issue 8, pgs. 18-20.
  • Scholastic Art. "Endless Images." November 2000, vol. 31, issue 2, pgs. 4-5.
  • The Official M.C. Escher Web site. "Biography of M.C. Escher."