Had Albrecht Dürer lived in the 20th century, he might have been a great filmmaker – imagine a blend of Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Instead he was born in the 15th century, and he remains the greatest printmaker – rivaled only by Rembrandt – the Western world has ever seen.
A supremely gifted and versatile German artist of the Renaissance period, Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was born in the Franconian city of Nuremberg, one of the strongest artistic and commercial centers in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He was a brilliant painter, draftsman, and writer, though his first and probably greatest artistic impact was in the medium of printmaking. Dürer apprenticed with his father, who was a goldsmith, and with the local painter Michael Wolgemut, whose workshop produced woodcut illustrations for major books and publications. An admirer of his compatriot Martin Schongauer, Dürer revolutionized printmaking, elevating it to the level of an independent art form. He expanded its tonal and dramatic range, and provided the imagery with a new conceptual foundation. By the age of thirty, Dürer had completed or begun three of his most famous series of woodcuts on religious subjects: The Apocalypse (1498; 19.73.209, 18.65.8), the Large Woodcut Passion cycle (ca. 1497 – 1500), and the Life of the Virgin (begun 1500). He went on to produce independent prints, such as the engraving Adam and Eve (1504; 19.73.1), and small, self-contained groups of images, such as the so-called Meisterstiche (master engravings) featuring Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513; 43.106.2), Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), and Melencolia I (1514; 43.106.1), which were intended more for connoisseurs and collectors than for popular devotion. Their technical virtuosity, intellectual scope, and psychological depth were unmatched by earlier printed work. More than any other northern European artist, Dürer was engaged by the artistic practices and theoretical interests of Italy. He visited the country twice, from 1494 to 1495 and again from 1505 to 1507, absorbing firsthand some of the great works of the Italian Renaissance, as well as the classical heritage and theoretical writings of the region. The influence of Venetian color and design can be seen in the Feast of the Rose Garlands altarpiece (1506; Narodni Galerie, Prague), commissioned from Dürer by a German colony of merchants living in Venice. Dürer developed a new interest in the human form, as demonstrated by his nude and antique studies. Italian theoretical pursuits also resonated deeply with the artist. He wrote Four Books of Human Proportion (Vier Bücher von menschlichen Proportion), only the first of which was published during his lifetime (1528), as well as an introductory manual of geometric theory for students (Underweysung der Messung, 1525; 125.97 D932), which includes the first scientific treatment of perspective by a northern European artist.
Dürer’s talent, ambition, and sharp, wide-ranging intellect earned him the attention and friendship of some of the most prominent figures in German society. He became the official court artist to the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and his successor Charles V, for whom Dürer designed and helped execute a range of artistic projects. In Nuremberg, a vibrant center of humanism and one of the first to officially embrace the principles of the Reformation, Dürer had access to some of Europe’s outstanding theologians and scholars, including Erasmus (19.73.120), Philipp Melanchthon, and Willibald Pirkheimer, each captured by the artist in shrewd portraits. For Nuremberg’s town hall, the artist painted two panels of the Four Apostles (1526; Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Munich), bearing texts in Martin Luther’s translation that pay tribute to the city’s adoption of Lutheranism. Hundreds of surviving drawings, letters, and diary entries document Dürer’s travels through Italy and the Netherlands (1520 – 21), attesting to his insistently scientific perspective and demanding artistic judgment.
The artist also cast a bold light on his own image through a number of striking self-portraits – drawn, painted, and printed. They reveal an increasingly successful and self-assured master, eager to assert his creative genius and inherent nobility, while still marked by a clear-eyed, often foreboding outlook. They provide us with the cumulative portrait of an extraordinary Northern European artist whose epitaph proclaimed: “Whatever was mortal in Albrecht Dürer lies beneath this mound.”
He had one of the most famous signatures in art
Dürer was keenly aware of what today we’d call his own branding. In the mid-1490s, he started signing his works with his initials. Indeed, the ‘AD’ monogram became so esteemed and valuable that it was routinely forged by artists copying his work. Dürer even took one of these, Bolognas Marcantonio Raimondi, to court, prompting the first copyright action in art history.
His depiction of a rhinoceros is one of the most celebrated animals in art history.
Dürer was alive at the time Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors were claiming the New World for Spain. The exotic booty they brought back to King Charles V (weapons, jewellery, textiles and much else besides) was the talk of all Europe. Dürer saw a selection of Meso-American treasures on a trip to Brussels in August 1520. According to an entry in his travel diary, he had ‘not seen anything in [his] whole life that delighted [his] heart as much as these marvellously artistic things’.
It was around this time that Portuguese adventurers caused an even greater sensation by transporting a rhinoceros to Europe from India for their king, Manuel I. Dürer never saw the animal himself, but cashed in on the furore about it – producing a woodcut image of the rhino, based on a sketch by a German merchant in Lisbon. Dürer’s version came with numerous fanciful additions, intended to fire the viewer’s imagination – including folds of skin that looked like armour.
ADAM AND EVE
Throughout his life, Dürer was in thrall to the idea that the perfect human form corresponded to a system of proportion and measurements and could be generated by using such a system. Near the end of his life, he wrote several books codifying his theories, including the Underweysung der Messung (Manual of measurement), published in 1525, and Vier Bücher von menschlichen Proportion (Four books of human proportion), published in 1528 just after his death. Dürer’s fascination with the ideal form is manifest in Adam and Eve. The first man and woman are shown in nearly symmetrical idealized poses: each with the weight on one leg, the other leg bent, and with one arm angled slightly upward from the elbow and somewhat away from the body. The figure of Adam is reminiscent of the Hellenistic Apollo Belvedere, excavated in Italy late in the fifteenth century. The first engravings of the sculpture were not made until well after 1504, but Dürer must have seen a drawing of it. Dürer was a complete master of engraving by 1504: human and snake skin, animal fur, and tree bark and leaves are rendered distinctively. The branch Adam holds is of the mountain ash, the Tree of Life, while the fig, of which Eve has broken off a branch, is from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Four of the animals represent the medieval idea of the four temperaments: the cat is choleric, the rabbit sanguine, the ox phlegmatic, and the elk melancholic.
THE HOLY FAMILY
Dürer created only three prints in the medium of drypoint. Since the other two are dated 1512, this drypoint is presumed to date from the same time. The print was thus produced at the height of the artist’s career, just prior to such famous “master prints” as the Melancholia and Knight, Death, and the Devil. Yet the composition harks back to one of the artist’s earliest engravings, produced when Dürer was under the influence of the most prolific drypoint artist of the Renaissance, the Housebook Master.
Produced by scratching the surface of the metal with a sharp needle, the image has the character of a delicate drawing. Apparently conceived in an experimental mode and never completed, the print is nonetheless highly evocative. The three ghostly figures who press into the space behind the Virgin and Child – Saint John, the Magdelene, and Nicodemus – do not belong to the story of Christ’s childhood but, as witnesses to the Crucifixion, are a presentiment of his future suffering. The soft shadow produced by the drypoint burr shrouds the figures and deepens the melancholy atmosphere.
This picture of Christ as Savior of the World, who raises his right hand in blessing and in his left holds a globe representing the earth, can be appreciated both as a painting and as a drawing. Albrecht Dürer, the premier artist of the German Renaissance, probably began this work shortly before he departed for Italy in 1505, but completed only the drapery. His unusually extensive and meticulous preparatory drawing on the panel is visible in the unfinished portions of Christ’s face and hands.