Possibly the most famous artist of the Renaissance German, known worldwide for his paintings, drawings, prints, and theoretical writings on art, works that exerted a profound influence on sixteenth century artists in their own country and in the Netherlands.
Albrecht Dürer was a successful German painter of the Nordic Renaissance. His mastery as a painter was the result of intense work, and in the field of graphic arts he had no rival. He managed to capture emperor Maximilian I’s interest with his works, receiving numerous commissions. In his later years he was primarily engaged in making treatises on human size and proportion. In these works, published after his death, he sought to study and reason his way of approaching art, drawing on the Italian studies of art theory that had preceded it.
Besides being a painter Dürer was also an art theorist and a mathematician, who possessed an extraordinary capability of observation and research and an insatiable curiosity about everything that was perceived through the senses. He was an independent man, proud of his physical appearance and talent; intelligent and cultured, he related to humanists and scholars (his clients included Emperor Maximilian I).Inclined to mysticism and religion, he was also a deeply religious man, who believed in the power of God and of art in the service of the divine. In his late years he became increasingly interested in the Lutheran Reformation.
He was the son of a goldsmith who had emigrated from Hungary. The third of eighteen children, his mother, Barbara Holper, was the daughter of his father’s master. As a child, he attended the local Latin school and met Willibald Pirckheimer, a young man of the nobility, who would later become a respected humanist scholar. They became life-long friends. After leaving school, Dürer studied, as was his custom, the craft of goldsmithing in his father’s workshop. In 1494, he went on to the traditional German “bachelor year”, a period of travel in many cities, when the young man then enjoyed life before settling down and taking on family responsibilities. He traveled for nearly four years, passing through Germany, Switzerland and possibly Holland. In 1494, after marrying Agnes Frey in Nuremberg, Dürer traveled to Italy. There he made watercolours of landscapes with great meticulousness in detail as can be seen, for example, in a view of Trento Castle; having probably painted them on his return journey.He attended the coronation of the new emperor, Carlos V, and his annuity was confirmed. The culmination of that trip was Venice, where he studied the Old Masters. He enjoyed Venetian life, the company of other artists, the food, wine and beauty of the city. Above all, he appreciated the respect the Italians gave to their artists, in contrast to the stinginess of the German bourgeois. “Here I am a gentleman; in my country, a parasite”, he is known to have said. He still painted several portraits and sold many prints, but such was his passion for collections – including objects like turtle shells, parrots, corals, shells and ivories – it made the trip as a whole a huge financial loss. Strangely, however, when he was offered 200 duchies to stay in Venice for another year, he refused. And in January 1507, he arrived back in his country. In 1514, his mother’s death shook him, plunging him into a spiritual and artistic crisis, which was reflected in the engraving Melencolia I (1514). He was still obsessed with the shape of Italian conquests and, in part, with the ideals of beauty and harmony that always seemed to escape him. In the last years of his life, he concentrated his efforts on his writings: he published works on proportion and perspective, in addition to composing his family’s chronicle and his own memories.
Throughout the Renaissance, southern Germany was the center of numerous publications and it was common for painters to make woodcuts and engravings. It was difficult for German artists to reconcile their medieval imagery – represented with exquisite textures, bright colours and figures with great luxury of detail – with the emphasis that Italian artists placed on classical antiquity, inspired by mythological themes and with idealized figures.
He already showed signs of an extraordinary artistic talent while in his father’s workshop, at the age of 15.After training with his father, Dürer entered as an apprentice to the painter and engraver Michael Wolgemut. In the following years, he continued to assimilate the lessons of his Italian season, producing a variety of works. Some commissions came from bourgeois and aristocrats, but it was his woodcuts and metal engravings that gave him fame and allowed him to achieve the independence that he so adamantly desired. He came to life with woodcuts and metal engravings, which his wife and mother sold in public markets and at fairs, and which ran throughout Europe in the hands of merchants. He returned to Italy in 1505, with the task of painting an altarpiece for the association of German merchants in Venice. His engravings were then well known in Italy, respected by artists and eminent figures, such as the doge and the patriarch of Venice who visited him in his studio. He was determined to show the Venetians that he was not only a talented draftsman but also a master of painting and colour. When Bellini, at the age of 80, visited him and praised his work, Dürer, then 35, lived moments of fulfillment.
A great believer in the Renaissance, when he returned home from Venice, he carried in his luggage the rudiments of the Italian Renaissance and the ambition to transplant it for his own land. Obsessed with the shape of Italian conquests and with the ideals of beauty and harmony that always seemed to escape him, he was able to combine his restless spirit, always in search of the new, with his talents, giving a universal dimension to his creations, bringing the Renaissance inside the rigid and traditional German borders. He was very religious, believing that God had entrusted him with great artistic talent, as stated in the following quotes: “Why has God given me such magnificent talent? It is a curse as well as a great blessing” and “The artist is chosen by God to fulfill his commands”. In his last great painting, he prepared the altarpiece The Four Apostles (1526). Here, his deep religious feeling is in perfect harmony with his love for art and, more than that, in this culminating work, his art took on the appearance of a manifesto, translating his engagement in the Lutheran Reformation.
Although Dürer was a Catholic, it is clear from his writings that he had great sympathy for Martin Luther. When finding out the death of the artist, he wrote: “Christ in the fullness of his wisdom will have carried him away from these difficult times, and from the possibly worst that are to come, so that he who was worthy to look upon nothing but excellencies might not be compelled to see so vile and sad. things as they await us. May God have him in his peace.”
Durer’s works are largely characterized for his self-portraits, animals and landscapes, and stood out in the depiction of religious scenes. In paintings that include the human figure, he portrayed a great deal of facial expressions and feelings. His first painting was a portrait of his father, in 1490, with great realistic detail and where the influences of Flemish painting can be seen. He experimented with various mediums and became known for his delicate watercolours of animals and plant life, as well as for his dramatic woodcuts and elaborate metal engravings of religious themes, which gave him international fame throughout his lifetime.
His art is a mixture of Nordic and southern traditions, deeply influenced by Venetian painting. In Venice, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and perseverance that has always characterized him, he dedicated himself to learning everything that contemporary Masters could teach him. He studied the science of perspective and the portrait of the nude model; copied the works of Andrea Mantegna, Antonio Pollaiuolo and Lorenzo di Credi and other recorders; and discussed the various theories of art in the midst of the circle of Venetian painters. His greatest inspiration, however, was the work of Giovanni Bellini, a great master of the previous generation. His woodcuts presented characteristics of the Gothic artistic style.
Battle of the Sea Gods (1490-1506) by Andrea Mantegna.
Durer left no disciples, but the legacy of his work helped German art flourish. With a great impact, first in the Renaissance, and later on, in Romanticism. Among the artists of his time, he was undoubtedly the most universal and widely acclaimed.
Despite all of Durer’s success, not everything was easy. His income was relatively high, but his expenses soon matched it: he spent and lent money freely, filling his house with strange and precious objects of all kinds.
It is known that during his time in Italy, he exchanged drawings with Raphael.
“As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.”
“The artist is chosen by God to fulfill his commands and must never be overwhelmed by public opinion.”
“If a man devotes himself to art, much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.”