Albrecht Dürer was the most famous artist of Reformation Germanywidely
known for his paintings, drawings, prints, and theoretical writings
on art, all of which had a profound influence on 16th-century
artists in his own country and in the Lowlands.
|Portrait of the artist's father, 1490
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Dürer was born May 21, 1471, in Nuremberg. His father, Albrecht
Dürer the Elder, was a goldsmith and his son's first art teacher.
From his early training, the young Dürer inherited a legacy of
15th-century German art strongly dominated by Flemish late Gothic
German artists had little difficulty in adapting their own Gothic
tradition to the Flemish art of Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and
especially Rogier van der Weyden. The northern empirical (derived
from observation rather than theory) approach to reality was their
common bond. During the 16th century, stronger ties with Italy
through trade, and the spread of Italian humanist ideas northward,
infused the more conservative tradition of German art with new
German artists found it difficult to reconcile their medieval
devotional imageryrepresented with rich textures, brilliant
colors, and highly detailed figureswith the emphasis by
Italian artists on the antique, on mythological subjects, and
on idealized figures. Dürer's self-appointed task was to provide
a model for his northern contemporaries by which they could combine
their own empirical interest in naturalistic detail with the more
theoretical aspects of Italian art.
In his many lettersespecially those to his lifelong friend,
the humanist Willibald Pirckheimerand in his various publications,
Dürer stressed geometry and measurement as the keys to understanding
the art of the Italian Renaissance and, through it, classical
art. From about 1507 until his death, he made notes and drawings
for his best-known treatise, the Four Books on Human Proportions
(published posthumously, 1528).
Artists of his day, however, more visually oriented than literary
figures, looked more to Dürer's engravings and woodcuts than to
his writings to guide them in their attempts to modernize their
art with the classicizing nudes and idealized subjects of the
Apprenticeship and First Journey
|Self-Portrait 13-year- old
1484 Albertina, Vienna
After studying with his father, Dürer was apprenticed in 1486
to the painter and printmaker Michael Wolgemut at the age of 15.
Between 1488 and 1493, Wolgemut's shop was engaged in the sizable
task of providing numerous woodcut illustrations for the Nuremberg
Chronicle (1493), by Hartmann Schedel, and Dürer must have received
extensive instruction in making drawings for woodcut designs.
Throughout the Renaissance, southern Germany was a center for
publishing, and it was commonplace for painters of the period
to be equally skilled at making woodcuts and engravings.
Musée du Louvre, Paris
As was customary for young men who finished their apprenticeships,
Dürer embarked on his bachelor's journey in 1490. In 1492 he was
in Colmar, where he tried to join the workshop of the German painter
and engraver Martin Schongauer, who, unbeknownst to Dürer, had
died in 1491. Dürer was advised by Schongauer's brothers to travel
to the Swiss publishing center of Basel to find work. In Basel
and later in Strasbourg, Dürer made illustrations for several
publications, including Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff (Ship
of Fools, translated 1507) in 1494.
During this early period of his life, between his apprenticeship
and his return to Nuremberg in 1494, Dürer's art demonstrates
his extreme facility with line and his keen observation of detail.
These qualities are especially evident in a series of self-portraits,
including an early drawing (1484, Albertina, Vienna) done when
he was 13, a thoughtful portrait drawn in 1491 (University Collections,
Erlangen, Germany), and a painting of himself as an extremely
confident young man (1493, Musée du Louvre, Paris).
First Italian Journey
|The Apocalypse (detail)
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
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After marrying Agnes Frey in Nuremberg in 1494, he left for Italy.
He produced some superbly detailed watercolor landscape studies,
probably during his return journey for example, a view of the
Castle at Trent (National Gallery, London).
During the next ten years in Nuremberg, from 1495 to 1505, Dürer
produced a large number of works that firmly established his fame.
These include his woodcut series the Apocalypse (1498) and the
engravings Large Fortune (1501-1502) and Fall of Man (1504).
Collectively these works and others of the period show his increasing
technical mastery of the woodcut and engraving media, his understanding
of human proportions based on passages by the ancient Roman writer
Vitruvius, and his brilliant ability to incorporate the details
of nature into believable pictures of reality. His Self-Portrait
of 1500 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), in which he portrayed himself
as a Christ-like figure, summarizes in visual form his lifelong
concern for the elevation of the artist's status above that of
a mere artisan.
Second Italian Journey
|Melencolia I, 1514 (detail)
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Between 1505 and 1507, Dürer once again traveled to Italy. In
Venice he met the great master Giovanni Bellini and other artists,
and he obtained an important commission for a painting, the Madonna
of the Rose Garlands (1506, National Museum, Prague), for the
German Merchants' Foundation.
|St. Jerome in his Study
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Back in Nuremberg in 1507, he began a second period of great
productivity in which he created such works as an altarpiece (1508-1509,
destroyed by fire in 1729) for the Dominican church in Frankfurt;
an Adoration of the Trinity panel (1508-1511, Art History Museum,
Vienna); portraits; and many prints, including two editions of
the Passion, woodcuts for Triumphal Arch for Holy Roman Emperor
Maximilian I, and a series of engravings that included The Knight,
Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in His Study (1514),
and Melancholia I (1514).
Through the linear technique of engraving, Dürer was able to
create tones of varying darkness and he used them to describe
Final Journey and Late Works
In 1520, Dürer learned that Charles V, Maximilian's successor,
was scheduled to travel to Aachen from Spain to be crowned Holy
Roman emperor of the Habsburg dynasty. Dürer had received an annual
stipend from Maximilian, and he was anxious to meet with Charles
to have it continued.
|The Four Holy Men, 1526
Armed with prints and other artworks, which he sold along the
way to finance his trip, Dürer journeyed to Aachen and on to the
Lowlands between 1520 and 1521. His diary provides a fascinating
account of his travels, his audiences with royalty, and receptions
by fellow artists, especially in Antwerp. His audience with Charles
proved successful. He returned to Nuremberg, where he remained
until his death on April 6, 1528.
His last monumental works are two large panels, depicting the
Four Apostles (1526?, Alte Pinakothek), presented originally as
his gift to the city of Nuremberg.
The quality of Dürer's work, his prodigious output, and his influence
on his contemporaries all underscore the importance of his position
in the history of art. In a broader context, his interest in geometry
and mathematical proportions, his keen sense of history, his observations
of nature, and his awareness of his own individual potential demonstrate
the intellectually inquiring spirit of the Renaissance.
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