Albrecht Dürer - German Painter and Engraver

Albrecht Dürer - German Painter and Engraver
Albrecht Dürer was a very famous painter and engraver of his time. This article describes his life in brief.
One of the fine works of Albrecht Dürer is his superb water-color painting of the hare. However, it is not as impressive as the self-portrait that he sent to Agnes Frey on the occasion of their engagement. He was 22 then, with long golden tresses and a sensitive, strong-willed face, an elegant style in dressing, and an undoubted talent for self-promotion. In the portrait, he is seen holding a sprig of the Eryngium flower, a symbol of eternal fidelity; never mind that the marriage, which took place in 1494 and brought him a dowry of 200 gold florins, did not turn out successful. It is a beautiful work of art, and incidentally, the very first self-portrait in the entire history of European Art. He went on to paint several other self-portraits, but none of these are quite as strikingly charming as the first one.

Early Life

Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg on 21 May 1471, the third of eighteen children. His father, whose name was also Albrecht, was a Hungarian Goldsmith who had moved to cosmopolitan Nuremberg to work in Hyeronimus Holper's workshop, and had stayed on and married his master's daughter, Barbara Holper.

After an initial education at the local Latin school, Dürer and his brothers trained in the goldsmith trade in their father's workshop. Only he amongst them all, showed an extraordinary artistic skill, but his heart was not into becoming a goldsmith; he had a passion for drawing and painting. He expressed this interest to his father and the latter, although unhappy about having wasted precious time in training him, agreed to let him switch trades. He was apprenticed with Michael Wohlgemut, one of the leading painters of Nuremberg. Dürer studied under him for three years and developed a high regard for him.

In 1490, his apprenticeship over, he embarked on the customary Wanderjahre. It was usual in those times for young men to travel to cultural places for about a year and learn about the world before getting married; young women stayed put as worldly experience wasn't considered necessary for a lifetime of childbearing and drudgery.

Dürer traveled widely through the cities of the Holy Roman Empire. He went to Basle to study the paintings of Konrad Witz, and then went to Alsace to meet Martin Schongauer, one of the greatest engravers of the time. Unfortunately, Schongauer, who lived a quiet life, had died a few months previously. Dürer, however, stayed on in Alsace for a while and studied engraving techniques from Schongauer's sons. Then he traveled to Strasbourg and worked as a book illustrator until he was recalled home to marry Agnes Frey.

First Trip to Italy

Soon after his marriage, Dürer took off alone for Italy. In those times, this was rather a perilous journey, conducted entirely on foot or horseback. However, being quite the adventurous soul, he relished the trip and executed many excellent water-color landscapes on the way. In Italy, he went to see his old school-friend Willibald Pirckheimer, who was then studying at the University of Pavia. Pirckheimer, later to become a famous Humanist scholar and poet, introduced Dürer to Greek Classics and Humanist principles. Being a very sensible, independent-minded, and rational man by nature, he was immediately attracted by the latter.

Next, he traveled to Venice and remained there for almost a year. He met with contemporary Italian painters and exchanged ideas, and studied Perspective, Anatomy, and Engraving. He was particularly impressed with the works of Mantegna and Pollaiuola.

He then returned to Nuremberg and got busy with establishing himself as an artist. While his vast output included portraits and altarpieces like 'Portrait of Frederick the Wise', the 'Jabach Altarpiece', and the 'Polyptych of the Seven Sins' (produced for his first major patron, The Grand Elector Frederick of Saxony), he concentrated mainly on woodcuts and engravings for his livelihood as these were more in demand. He experimented with the techniques he had learned, and added his own ideas and produced extraordinarily original works like 'The Apocalypse of St. John'. The prints were sold by his wife and his mother in the local market and taken abroad by the traveling merchants. There were other artists producing prints at Nuremberg's excellent printing presses, but Dürer was the first to insist on including his name on each print as the publisher. He was also the first to include his recognizable signature, a large A with a small D inside it, in all his works. This made him well-known in Nuremberg and abroad

Second Trip to Italy

In 1505, he went back to Venice to study Perspective with the famous mathematician Luca Pacioli, and stayed there for longer than a year this time. At that time, the city was home to artists like Giorgione and Bellini, who were churning out consistent masterpieces, and unlike in Nuremberg, these were not only greatly appreciated by the general population but the artists too were accorded a very high respect. Dürer's prints were already known to the Venetians, and everyone from the Doge of Venice to Giovanni Bellini gave him a warm welcome. Flush with such reception, he set up a studio and painted amongst other works, 'The Feast of the Rose Garlands' for the German Church of San Bartolomeo di Rialto, a painting that was so admired that he was offered an official commission to work in Venice. However, he turned down the offer and returned to Nuremberg in 1507.

His father had died in 1502 and he had family responsibilities. He was very close to his mother, and took her to live with him when his business success enabled him to buy his own house in Siztelgasse in 1509. He was completely devastated by her death later in 1514, and it was during this period, in the throes of a deep depression that he produced the incomparable engravings 'Melancholia I' and 'The Knight'.

With Emperor Maximilian I

In 1511, which was a very remarkable year for him in artistic terms, Dürer produced the justifiably famous and very complex sets of woodcuts 'The Life of the Virgin', 'The Large Passion', and 'The Apocalypse'.

These brought him to the attention of Emperor Maximilian I and the following year, he received commissions to decorate a prayer-book and contribute woodcuts for the two great projects 'Triumphal Arch' and 'Procession'. Nobody before Emperor Maximilian I had thought of commissioning 192 large wood-cuts to make a 10 by 11 feet Triumph Arch, and 138 large wood-cuts to make a 180 feet long Triumphal Procession, and nobody has thought of it ever since.

He had a splendid time there, and was publicly honored in Nuremberg. He was made an honorary citizen of the Great Council of Nuremberg, and given a life-long annuity of one hundred florins by his new friend, the Emperor.

This annuity was repealed by the Great Council of Nuremberg after the Emperor's death in 1519, and Dürer had to travel to the Netherlands to petition the new 20-year-old Emperor Charles V at his coronation for a renewal. This proved to be another memorable trip, replete with new drawings, sketches, and paintings. He saw a beached whale in Zeeland, was inspired by the Aztec treasures presented to the new Emperor by the Conquistadors in Brussels, and was feted in all the towns that he visited.

On the Reformation

Dürer was recognized as an intellectual as well as an artist, and counted amongst his friends and acquaintances many of the leading thinkers, businessmen, aristocrats, writers, and painters of the day. He knew Erasmus, Melanchthon, Martin Luther, the Fuggers, Albrecht Altdorfer, Grunewald, and many others.

It is clear from his diary which he kept throughout his life and only a part of which has survived, that he was deeply interested in Martin Luther's struggle to reform the Church. He was invited to the Diet of Augsburg and participated in the debates over the religious crisis. Nothing conclusive came about from this meeting; the second Diet at Worms proved to be a failure too and subsequently, there was much bloodshed. For all his previous admiration of Martin Luther, the aggressive and anti-Art stance adopted by the Reformation was to greatly disillusion him.

A Naturalist and Writer

Dürer's beautifully detailed landscapes already show a keen interest and observation of nature. There doesn't seem to be anything that failed to interest him. His delicate water-color rendering of a grass patch - 'The Large Piece of Turf' - is botanically breath-taking. His paintings of birds and animals are equally compelling; he loved drawing exotic animals like lions, elephants, and rhinos, and was the first European artist to draw a walrus.

He was also an excellent writer and authored three books on Geometry, Symmetry and Proportions, and Fortification, as well as his Memoirs and Family Chronicle.

He died on 6 April 1528, at just 57 years of age. Unfortunately for someone who had such a marvelous appetite for life, he suffered in his last years from pleurisy, depression, and other ailments.

Famous Works

Portrait of Oswolt Krel, 1499, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

The Painter's Father, 1497, National Gallery, London.

Portrait of a Young Italian Woman, 1505, Kunthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Wing of Blue Bird, 1512, Albertina, Vienna.

References:

The World of Art, by Robert Payne, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972

Dürer, Art Book, Dorling Kindersley Publishing, New York, 1999

Dürer, The Great Artists, Marshall Cavendish Ltd., 1994
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