A self-portrait of Albrecht Durer shows us a handsome and serious-looking young man with a carefully trimmed beard, long curly hair and an intense gaze. It is the gaze of an artist.
There is sensuality and artistic delicacy in the pale face that also conveys a sense of business-like discipline; it is the face of one who does not suffer fools and gets on with the job. Certainly, Durer turned his hand to many jobs: he was a painter, printer, illustrator, engraver, portraitist and theoretical mathematician!
Albrecht Durer was born in Nuremberg, Franconia, in 1471, in present day Germany. At the time it was the Holy Roman Empire. Nuremberg was important to him, he was born and he died there and, after travelling, always returned there.
Durer's house, where he lived and worked from 1509 to 1528, is still there, near the Durer monument on Bergstrasse. The Gothic style of the building has been carefully preserved and the house has been made into an interesting museum that gives insights into life in the early sixteenth century, and into the everyday life of Albrecht Durer, the most prominent Nuremberg artist.
Albrecht's father was a goldsmith and the young Albrecht naturally became his apprentice, learning the art of shaping and engraving jewellery. Albrecht served a double apprenticeship: shortly after becoming an apprentice goldsmith, he started working and studying art with a local artist, Wolgemut, who specialised in artistic woodcuts for books.
Durer's first contact with art was in the woodcut/printing sphere, so it is little wonder that he went on to specialise in this field. He actually expanded the craft of producing illustrations for printing, giving it more scope, tone and depth, and he raised print-making into an art-form. Towards the end of the century (1497-1500), Durer produced an impressive series of religious woodcuts: "The Apocalypse", "The Passion" and "The Life of the Virgin".
From woodcuts to engravings the step is short and Durer excelled in producing intricate, richly detailed, suggestive engravings, many riddled with symbolism that arouse discussion even today. He engraved many biblical scenes, such as "Adam and Eve" which includes the name of the artist and the date of execution (1504) in the picture itself. Later engravings show the full perfection of Durer's art.
One of his most famous engravings is the intriguing "Knight, Death and the Devil", full of medieval fascination. Light filtering through mottled glass windows shows us "Saint Jerome in his Cell", and another well known piece is "Melencolia" (the artist has inserted the title in the work itself, hence the old spelling) which is full of symbols, geometry and even a magic square with the date of the engraving (1514).
Taking a step back in our biography of Durer, we see the young artist wrapping up his apprenticeship years and refining his art. However, upon completion of his apprenticeship to the printer-artist Wolgemut, Albrecht did not immediately start exercising his artistic profession. In 1490, following the tradition of taking a gap-year to travel around before starting in a profession (the German "Wanderjahre"), he visited Germany and Northern Europe, meeting fellow printers and artists and studying engraving techniques.
His gap year turned into four and it was not until 1494 that he returned to Nuremberg. In this same year he married Agnes Frey, the daughter of a prominent local brass worker. Three months later he was travelling again, this time in Italy, where he was greatly influenced by the works of Bellini and by the magic of Venice. Travelling over the Alps, he turned his hand to an alternative art-form, making a series of delicate watercolour sketches.
He returned to Nuremberg in 1495 and set up his own workshop. Influenced by the grand art of the Italian Renaissance, he produced highly artistic drawings for woodblocks that his assistants turned into woodcuts for printing. He set new standards for this art-form, using techniques and styles he had seen in Italy which contrasted strongly with traditional German styles.
Sixteen forceful pieces make up the "Apocalypse" series which he produced in 1498, followed by the "Great Passion", the "Holy Family and Saints", the "Seven Sorrows Polyptych" (commissioned by Frederick III of Saxony) and, later, the "Life of the Virgin" series. In 1496 he first used his distinctive monogram signature: a stylised letter "D" nestling under a large letter "A" that forms an archway over and around it; this distinctive signature is present in most of Durer's works. He produced great art in this fertile period, including many Madonnas and several atmospheric landscapes; his backgrounds became even more detailed and suggestive. His fame spread rapidly; print is the perfect medium for spreading the word or, as in this case, the picture.
Durer made another trip to Italy in 1505, staying until 1507 and diversifying his artistic output. He produced altar pieces, portraits and a series of paintings in tempera on linen.
Famous paintings from this period are the rich and sensitive "Adoration of the Magi", which reveals the various influences of his recent trip to Italy, and a curious oil-on-wood tryptych painting, the Paumgartner altar piece. This three-panel altar piece was commissioned by Nuremberg's prominent Paumgartner family, indeed Saint Eustace and Saint George on the flanking panels have the faces of the Paumgartner brothers while other family members are depicted as small figures in the nativity scene in the central panel.
In 1506, whilst still in Italy, he was commissioned by the German community of Venice to create an altar piece for the church of San Bartolomeo. The beautiful "Adoration of the Virgin", also called the "Feast of the Rose Garlands" was later taken to Prague where it can still be seen in Prague's National Gallery.
Despite invitations to stay and work in Venice, Durer returned to Nuremberg where he continued to produce fine art, displaying his multiple talents in woodcutting, painting, engraving, print-making and portraiture. A simple preparatory drawing dating from 1508, the "Praying Hands", is a fine example of the artist's great talent and enduring fame. In 1507, he produced Germany's first full-scale nude painting: "Adam and Eve" (on two panels), elaborating on his 1504 engraving. Other famous Durer artworks include "Virgin with Iris" (1508), the "Assumption of the Virgin" altar piece (1509) and the "Adoration of the Trinity" (1511). Although he delighted in painting pictures, in 1513 he went back to woodcutting and engraving, which he saw was more profitable than painting. His most famous woodcuts and engravings date from this period. Indeed, it was in 1513-1514, that Durer produced the three extraordinary engravings ("Knight, Death and Devil"; "Melencolia"; "Saint Jerome in his Cell") that had a strong impact on the art world and came to be known as the Master Engravings.
Durer's major patron, from 1512 on, was the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Maximilian I, who commissioned a woodcut print of mammoth proportions. A total of 195 separate woodblocks were prepared and printing was on 36 very large sheets of paper. This was a fashion of wall decoration for palaces much in vogue in the early sixteenth century, although the art thus produced did not have a long survival span. An art historian, Hyatt-Mayor, speaks about "Maximilian's programme of paper grandeur". Luckily, much of this great work, bound in book form, has survived and come down to us. Under Maximilian's patronage, Durer made many portraits of the Emperor and also enhanced Maximilian's personal printed prayer book with decorative images in the margins. A curiosity: in 1515, Durer created a life-like image of a rhinoceros based only on a written description. This picture is so powerfully realistic that it was used in science text-books right up until the last century.
Albrecht Durer was not only an artist. He also wrote theoretical books on geometrical forms and proportions, and even a book on fortifications. His "Four Books on Measurement" deal with geometry, from linear geometry to polygons or two-dimensional geometry. He explains the applications of geometry in architecture and typography, and then goes on to combine science and art, examining linear perspective in pictures. The "Four Books on Human Proportion" give examples of different body types, male and female, and consider the various parts of the body as fractions of the total height. The books also deal with human physiognomy and movement of the body. There is also an intriguing appendix devoted to aesthetics in which Durer tries to answer the impossible question: what is beauty?
Upon the death of Emperor Maximilian I in 1519, Durer travelled to Aachen to be present at the coronation of, and to ensure the patronage of, the new Emperor, Charles V. On this trip he visited many cities, Antwerp, Bruges, and others, where he was well received, his fame having gone before him. He made drawings in charcoal and silver-point, he visited art galleries and admired other artists, and he sold, exchanged or gave away a sizeable stock of prints that he had brought with him. He finished his trip in Brussels where King Christian II of Denmark had commissioned a royal portrait. In Brussels, the goldsmith in him was very impressed when he was invited to see the abundant golden treasures that Cortès had brought back from the New World and presented to the Emperor.
Durer had contracted an illness during his travels which affected his health and slowed down his artistic and intellectual production. On his return to Nuremberg, in 1521, he embarked on several ambitious projects, dividing his energies between preparing and compiling his theoretical works on geometry and proportion, and a series of artworks with religious themes. Due to his declining health and to his devoting much time to geometry, his artistic output was reduced in his last years, and some works remain unfinished. His last great painting, "The Four Apostles", is composed of two panels; it was painted in 1526 and shows the four saints (John, Peter, Mark, Paul) beautifully robed and consulting heavy books. This was a gift from Durer to the city of Nuremberg and can be seen in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. His last engravings were illustrations for his treatise and a few portraits, including one of Erasmus of Rotterdam, with whom he kept up a friendly correspondence.
Durer had been unwell for some time. He died in 1528, in Nuremberg, and he is buried in the cemetery of the church of Saint John. Not having any children, he left everything to his wife: the grand house and a conspicuous amount of money. Durer had been among the ten richest citizens of Nuremberg; he amply repaid his privileged state by leaving such a rich artistic legacy to the city of Nuremberg and the world.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.