European Painters

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

German Renaissance Draughtsman, Engraver, Woodcutter and Painter

As early as the fifteenth century the buds were swelling and making ready for that burst of blossom, which gives the art of Germany in the sixteenth century a right to a place of honour in the general history of art. Painting, in Germany, found its great masters sooner than the other arts. The powers of the greatest German artists were matured on the soil of Nuremberg, a free town of the Empire and busy centre of trade, where the old traditions of the craft were conscientiously kept up in the painters’ workshops.

Albrecht Dürer was born at Nuremberg on the 21st May 1471.  His father was a goldsmith of Hungarian origin, who had spent a long time in his youth with the great artists in the Netherlands, had then come to Nuremberg in 1455 and obtained a position in the workshop of the goldsmith Hieronymus Holper; in 1467 he had married the latter ‘s daughter, Barbara, only fifteen years of age, and had become a “master” and citizen of Nuremberg in the following year. Young Albrecht, at whose baptism the famous painter and bookseller, Anton Koburger, stood godfather, was
intended for his father’s trade. When his schooling was over, he learnt the art ot the goldsmith from his father. But he fancied painting more than goldsmith’s work; and when he made representations accordingly to his father, the latter gave way, although he regretted the time which his son had wasted as a goldsmith’s apprentice. We owe this information to Dürer’s own memoranda.

Two proof of the astonishingly early development of Albrecht Dürer’s talent lies at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.  The collection of prints and drawings in the Albertina Museum in Vienna possess a portrait of the goldsmith’s apprentice drawn by himself in silver-point, with the inscription added later in his own hand: “I did this counterfeit of myself from a mirror in the year 1484 when I was still a child  “Albrecht Dürer”.

On the 30th November 1486, Albrecht Dürer was entered as a pupil of Michael Wolgemut, for the duration of three years. To this ‘prentice-period of Dürer’s belongs a portrait of his father which is preserved on the second floor of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The Artist’s Father, oil on wood, Painted in 1490.

Even in this early work, the young artist can be recognised as a master of portrait-painting. The serious, intelligent features of the man, whose piety is indicated by the rosary in his hands, are portrayed with great vivacity and refinement; we see that the portrait must have been a speaking likeness. In the present state of the picture, we can only admire the loving care which the young painter bestowed on the execution of this first portrait that was in very bad preservation and had, in consequence, to undergo a restoration.  In this process, everything has come to look harder than it did before it was restored.

It is here that the well-known monogram of Albrecht Dürer, which he retained throughout his life, appears for the first time on a picture.

When Albrecht had served his time as a pupil, his father sent him off on his voyages just after Easter in 1490.  He was kindly received at Colmar and Basle by the brothers of Martin Schongauer (German engraver and painter).  From there he appears to have wandered across the Alps and to have gone as far as Venice.

On the way, he took many landscape-sketches, which were sometimes most carefully finished in water-colours. Dürer was probably the first painter who grasped the importance of landscape as an independent thing and the poetry which landscape can suggest. He was able, too, to reproduce the forms and colours of nature with absolute fidelity. Many of his earlier and later studies of foreign lands and of his own home are landscapes in the most modern and realistic sense possible.

In addition to studies and sketches of various kinds, dating from the time of his travels, we have a careful portrait of Dürer by himself in oils, painted in 1493.

Self-portrait, oil on linen at the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

Goethe has given a description of it in the following words: “An inestimable treasure is Albrecht Dürer’s portrait by himself, dated 1493, and painted accordingly in his twenty-second year, half life-size, half-length, showing both hands, but not the whole of the elbows, a crimson cap with a short tuft of little strings, the throat bare to below the collar-bone, an embroidered hem to the shirt, the folds of the sleeves tied with peach-coloured ribands, a greyish-blue mantle with a border of yellow braid, to show that he was a young man of fashion who  liked bright and showy dress, a blue-flowered eryngium held significantly in his hand, the face of a serious young man, with the beard sprouting around mouth and chin, the whole splendidly drawn, rich yet unaffected, harmonious in all its parts, finished in the highest degree, completely worthy of Dürer, though painted with very thin pigments.”

When Dürer came home after Whitsuntide in 1494, his father had already arranged a match for him. The bride was Agnes Frey, the daughter of a man of a respectable family, “artistic and experienced in all things”.  The marriage soon took place, on the 14th of July in the same year.

Dürer’s marriage was a childless one. Notwithstanding, he had soon to provide for the maintenance of a biggish family. In 1 502 Dürer’s father passed away; he had spent his life in great toil and hard, grievous work. In Dürer’s short memoir he has honoured in simple, heartfelt words the memory of the man who had brought him up from earliest childhood to piety and righteous conduct. Now, after his father’s death, the young artist had to provide not only for his dearly loved mother, whom he took to his own home but also for a troop of younger brothers and
sisters. To all appearance, his circumstances were for some time by no means brilliant; but by indefatigable efforts and restless energy, he attained by degrees to a very fair amount of prosperity.

Portrait of Oswald Krell. Oil-painting of 1499, in the Pinakothek in Munich.

Soon after his marriage Dürer opened an independent studio.  No “masterpiece”, in the literal sense of the term, or any other formality was required for this because in  Nuremberg, in contrast to the other towns of Germany,  painting was reckoned a “free” art, and was not subject to the regulations of any guild. That was advantageous to the position of a painter who was a true artist; Albrecht Dürer has never been regarded as a mere journeyman-painter.

The first large commissions which fell to the share of the young artist for altarpieces and memorial pictures had to be produced in a customary way with the assistance of apprentices. Yet even in these works, the creative energy of the master and his sure command of form were clearly revealed, and he impressed on many of the pictures the unmistakable traces of his own artist’s hand.

Lamentation for Christ
Lamentation for Christ. Oil-painting of 1500, in the Pinakothek in Munich.

In Dürer’s character as an artist, two main features are especially prominent; he has a scientific and an imaginative side. Dürer declared the yearning after knowledge to be the only one among the appetites and energies of the soul of man which could never be appeased and satiated.  Thus his attitude even to his own art was that of a scientific inquirer.  He wanted to increase his powers of perception, in order to perfect himself ever more and more. The search after the nature of beauty led him, to the acknowledgement, in the language of a true artist: “Beauty! what it is, I know not.” But from youth to old age he never desisted from examining with rule and compass the form of man, and that of the creature which comes next to man in beauty, the horse; not that he supposed that beauty was to be attained by measure and number, but because he was determined to fathom the laws on which the harmony of the visible shape must rest.

The Nativity. The central portion of the Paumgartner altarpiece of 1500 in the Pinakothek in Munich.

By way of compensation for this meditative and critical bent in his intelligence, he was endowed with a soaring and ardent fancy. Whilst one side of his mind sought for what was in accordance with the law, the other loved the unusual and strange; it urged him to clothe in visible shape the phantoms of his dreams. The passion for knowledge and the force of imagination alike led him to see in nature the best of all teachers of art. This was the great step which parted Dürer’s art from that of his predecessors.

Dürer’s fame as an artist was undisputed even in his lifetime, not only in Germany and the Netherlands but also in Italy. At Venice, as well as at Antwerp, an annual pension was offered in order to retain him permanently, and it was only his sense of patriotism that resisted the offers, which were sufficiently good to be tempting.

Albrecht Dürer passed peacefully away by a sudden and unexpected death before completing his fifty-seventh year. He was buried in St. John’s churchyard at Nuremberg.

Albrecht Dürer lived and worked in this massive half-timbered house in Nuremberg for nearly 20 years, from 1509 onwards.


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