Albrecht Dürer

The German painter and graphic artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) introduced the achievements of the Italian Renaissance into northern European art. His prints diffused his new style, a fusion of the German realistic tradition with the Italian ideal of beauty.

Until the end of the 15th century late medieval realism in the north and the art of the Renaissance in Italy developed more or less independently of each other. While Italian artists invented rules of perspective and proportion to govern their representations of man in his natural environment, the German and early Netherlandish painters perfected their observation and depiction of individual natural phenomena without, however, establishing a correct perspectival space within which to contain the multiplicity of detail. Albrecht Dürer was, in effect, the first non-Italian artist to associate the humanistic disciplines with the esthetic pursuits of art.

Albrecht Dürer was born on May 21, 1471, in Nuremberg. His father, Albrecht the Elder, was a Hungarian goldsmith who went to Nuremberg in 1455, where he married Barbara Holper, daughter of a goldsmith. The young Dürer received his first training in his father's workshop as an engraver. He executed his first self-portrait, a drawing in silverpoint, at the age of 13.


His Apprenticeship

From 1486 to 1490 Dürer was apprenticed to the Nuremberg painter and woodcut illustrator Michael Wolgemut, following which he went on his bachelor's journey, the route of which is not known but which presumably led him to the Rhineland and to the Netherlands, since influences of early Netherlandish art are traceable in his works. He arrived in Colmar in 1492, soon after the death of the prominent German graphic artist Martin Schongauer in 1491, and continued on to Basel, where he stayed until late 1493 working extensively as a woodcut designer.

There is a difference of scholarly opinion in regard to Dürer's work in Basel, mostly woodcuts in books illustrated by several artists. The works generally ascribed to him show he was an extremely lively and many-faceted artist, interested in the representation of various aspects of daily life. The prints and drawings he executed at that period were influenced by Schongauer and the Housebook Master, the two major representatives of Rhenish graphic art.

In 1493 Dürer painted a self-portrait (Paris) in which he represented himself in a lyrical, romantic vein and inscribed above his head, "My affairs will go as ordained in Heaven." In May 1494 he returned to Nuremberg, and 2 months later he married Agnes Frey.


First Trip to Italy

In the fall Dürer journeyed to Venice, Padua, and Mantua. He copied works by the leading contemporary Italian masters, and it is apparent in his drawings that he soon learned how to impart to his figures perfection of anatomy, classical pathos, and harmony. It was at this time that Dürer began to be interested in the art of the ancients, although he probably had access to the classical works largely through Italian copies and interpretations. In the process of assimilating the spirit of classical art, he became aware of the necessity of art theory, to which he later devoted much of his time. Dürer's travels not only opened his eyes to the marvels of ancient art but also to the variety to be found in nature, which he captured in his excellent landscape drawings and watercolors of Alpine views.


Return to Nuremberg

In 1498 Dürer published a series of 15 woodcuts, the Apocalypse, which represents the highest achievement of German graphic art in that medium and which had a dramatic message to impart on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. The series is a tour de force in giving shape, in a realistic framework, to the fantastic images conjured up in the Book of Revelation. Each of the woodcuts represents a homogeneous action but at the same time contributes to create a powerful unity of the whole series. In the Apocalypse series as well as in the later series of prints representing the Passion of Christ (The Great Passion, begun before 1500 and published in 1511; the Small Passion, 1509-1511, repeated in copper engravings in 1507-1513; and the Life of the Virgin, 1500-1511), Dürer interpreted the Gospel in a new, human, and understandable language, organically fusing northern realism with the ideal beauty of Italy.

In Dürer's painting, another self-portrait (1498; Madrid) marked the turning point of his art. He represented himself as a humanist scholar and an elegant young man without the attributes of his profession. In this way he opposed the concept of art as craft current outside of Italy. "There were many talented youths in our German countries who were taught the art of painting but without fundamentals and with daily practice only. They therefore grew up unconscious as a wild uncut tree," he wrote. He wanted to be different and to change his followers: "Since geometry is the right foundation of all painting, I have decided to teach its rudiments and principles to all youngsters eager for art…"

In his altarpieces Dürer revealed his interest in perspective, as in the Paumgartner Altarpiece (1502-1504). His portraits, such as Oswolt Krell (1499), were characterized by sharp psychological insight. Dürer depicted mythological and allegorical subjects in engravings on metal, for example, the Dream of the Doctor (after 1497) and Sea Monster (ca. 1498), and he also used that technique for one of his most popular prints, the Prodigal Son (ca. 1496). Dürer represented the hero in a novel way, the scene chosen being neither the prodigal son's sinful life nor the happy ending of his return to his father, but the moment in which the hero becomes cognizant of his sinful life and begins his repentance. In the print Nemesis (1501-1502) Dürer's study of human proportion is manifested, together with his taste for complicated humanistic allegory, which appears in several of his prints of that period.


Second Trip to Italy

In 1505 Dürer went to Venice again. Records of that stay abound in his letters to his humanist friend Willibald Pirckheimer. There is no mention of a visit to Rome. The assumption that Dürer visited Rome has been a subject much discussed by art historians. It was only quite recently that the inscription "Romae 1506" was discovered on his painting Christ among the Doctors (Lugano), which seems to argue favorably for the assumption that he did go to Rome. Until recently scholars knew only that he went as far as Balogna, but even if he really visited Rome his stay there must have been rather short as it left no visible traces in his drawings.

It was the art of Venice that profoundly influenced Dürer's work. He was on good terms there with artists, humanists, and noblemen. He wrote Pirckheimer that the painter Giovanni Bellini was his friend and wanted Dürer to paint a picture for him. It seems, however, that it was Dürer's prints rather than his paintings which established his reputation.

In 1506 Dürer painted for the church of the German merchants in Venice, S. Bartolommeo, his most Italian picture—in composition as in color: the Feast of the Rose Garlands. Even today, in spite of its damaged condition, "a solemn splendor of the southern town rests upon the picture," according to M. J. Friendländer. Dürer's portraits done at this time excel by nature of their soft subtlety of chiaroscuro, compositional simplicity, and lyrical mood, for example, Portrait of a Young Girl (1505; Vienna). The same freedom of touch, subtle and flexible, characterizes his drawings of nudes, done during and after the Italian journey.


Nuremberg Altarpieces

The large altarpieces executed when Dürer returned to Nuremberg show a mixture of colorful Italianisms with the traditional northern style. One of them is the Heller Altarpiece (1507-1509). The central panel was destroyed by fire in 1729 and is known only through a copy by Jobst Harrich. The wings were painted by Dürer's assistants, and four panels were executed by Mathias Grünewald.

The other two important altarpieces of that period are the Adoration of the Trinity (1511) and the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (1508), in which Dürer's placement of little figures in vast landscapes was a return to his early style, based on the traditions of northern painting. Dürer was also returning to his personal heritage in that he once again took up the engraver's burin as his main tool.

Melancholy and Humanism

Perhaps Dürer's most important works of the period from 1513 to 1520 were his engravings. In them his humanistic interests appear, developed through his friendships with distinguished German scholars, especially Pirckheimer. Through Pirckheimer, Dürer became acquainted with contemporary Italian thought as well as with classical philosophy and its recent revival known as Neoplatonism. The three so-called Master Engravings Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), St. Jerome in His Study (1514), and Melencolia I (1514) are the climax of Dürer's graphic style and also express his thoughts on life, man, and art.

These engravings are allegories of the three kinds of virtue associated with the three spheres of human activity: in Knight the active sphere is depicted; in St. Jerome, the contemplative sphere; and in Melencolia I, the intellectual sphere, which Erwin Panofsky describes as an allegory of "the life of the secular genius in the rational and imaginative worlds of science and art." The three prints excel not only in transmitting their complicated allegorical messages but also in conveying a powerful expression of mood: heroic in Kinght, intellectually concentrated but serene in St. Jerome, and dramatic and gloomy in Melencolia. At the same time they show the greatest virtuosity in the handling of the medium; their silvery, vibrant surfaces contain both graphic and pictorial effects. It is possible that Melencolia was connected with a difficult moment in the development of Dürer's theoretical concepts, which he formulated at that time, although it was only later that his theoretical works were published.

Dürer was equally interested in a direct depiction of observed data. Throughout his life he drew and engraved simple motifs studied from life, as in the dramatic drawing of his old mother, emaciated and ill (1514).

Until 1519 Dürer worked for Emperor Maximilian I, taking part in the execution of various artistic projects of allegorical and decorative character, mostly in graphic media (the Triumphal Arch and the Triumphal Procession of Maximilian I) but also in miniature (drawings in the Maximilian I Prayer Book, 1515).

Last Period

In July 1520 Dürer left for the Netherlands in order to receive from Charles V, Maximilian I's successor, the re-confirmation of his yearly salary of 100 florins that Maximilian had allotted him. This trip was a triumph for the artist and proved the esteem with which he was regarded. In his travel journal Dürer left a moving day-by-day record of his stay in Antwerp and of his visits to various Dutch, Belgian, and German towns. He met princes, rich merchants, and great artists. He drew portraits, landscapes, townscapes, and curiosities in his sketchbook. He met Erasmus of Rotterdam, whom he greatly admired and of whom he made a portrait drawing, which he later engraved (1526).

Dürer's last years were difficult. The Reformation was creating great religious and social changes. Dürer supported Martin Luther, whose teachings were heralded by Dürer's Apocalypse. In his last drawings, such as the Oblong Passion (10 drawings, 1520-1524), he expressed his powerful religious feelings, but held in check by a severe composition.

Dürer's last great work was the so-called Four Apostles (1526). The monumental, sculpturesque figures towering in their shallow space represent Saints John and Peter (left panel) and Saints Mark and Paul (right panel). The two paintings were probably intended as the wings of a triptych, the central panel of which was not executed. He gave the panels to the Town Council of Nuremberg. In the panels he included quotations from the writings of the saints represented, which contained accusations against "false prophets." Dürer's work proclaimed the unity of the new faith against the different sects arising at that time.

In 1525 Dürer published his book concerning perspective (Instruction in Measurement), and in 1527 his treatise on fortifications appeared. He died on April 6, 1528, a few months before his last and most important theoretical work, The Four Books on Proportions, was published. Excellent painter, engraver, and draftsman, Dürer was also a learned theorist. Active in art and science, he was the first true Renaissance artist outside of Italy and in his diversity a typical Renaissance man.

Dürer's Influence

Dürer's influence was greater than that of any artist of northern Europe of his time and was most widely felt through his woodcuts and engravings. He created a language of visual forms that furnished his contemporaries and followers with modern tools adapted to their needs: his art was a translation of the Italian Renaissance vocabulary into a dialect understandable north of the Alps. Dürer was beloved by the German romantic artists and writers of the 19th century, for whom he represented the quintessential German artist.

Further Reading on Albrecht Dürer

An English edition of Dürer's writings is William Martin Conway, Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer (1889; rev. ed. 1958). A selection of his writings is included in Wolfgang Stechow, ed., Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600: Sources and Documents (1966). There are several works on Dürer in English, all overshadowed by the magisterial monograph of the foremost Dürer scholar, Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (2 vols., 1943; paperback ed., 1 vol., 1971). Old but good is William Martin Conway, The Art of Albrecht Dürer (1910). Wilhelm Waetzoldt, Dürer and His Times (1935; trans. 1950), written for a general audience, stresses the cultural background. For a study of Dürer's drawings see Dürer: Drawings and Water Colours, selected and with an introduction by Edmund Schilling (trans. 1949); and for the prints see Arthur M. Hind, Albrecht Dürer: His Engravings and Woodcuts (1911). The humanistic background and the symbolism of the Melencolia I print are discussed in Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy (1964).