Albrecht Dürer

The most famous artist of Reformation Germany, widely 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. Dürer was born May 21, 1471, in Nürnberg. 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 painting (see Gothic Art and Architecture). 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 artistic ideas.

German artists found it difficult to reconcile their medieval devotional imagery—represented with rich textures, brilliant colors, and highly detailed figures—with 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 letters—especially those to his lifelong friend, the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer—and 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 Italian Renaissance.

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 Nürnberg 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. 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 Nürnberg 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, Louvre, Paris).

After marrying Agnes Frey in Nürnberg 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 Nürnberg, 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 Adam and Eve (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.

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. Back in Nürnberg 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, Kunsthistorisches 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 Melencolia I (1514). Through the linear technique of engraving, Dürer was able to create tones of varying darkness and he used them to describe three-dimensional form.

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. 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 Nürnberg, 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 Nürnberg.

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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