DüRER, Albrecht

DüRER, Albrecht
Albrecht Dürer, a native of Nuremberg and the son of a goldsmith, emerged as the greatest of the German artists who worked in the period leading up to the Reformation. His fame stretched far beyond Germany and far beyond his own lifetime. It was Dürer more than any other artist who interpreted and in­troduced the ideas and techniques of the Italian Renaissance to northern Europe. He was also a consummate businessman who took full advantage of the print medium, selling his prints throughout Europe.
What we know of him and his life is largely taken from his own copious writings, a family chronicle, letters, diaries, and treatises, all of which illustrate the extraordinary breadth of his interests. Dürer was apprenticed to Michael Wolgemut of Nuremberg when he was fourteen, and it was in Wolgemut's workshop that he learned the art of the woodcut. Nuremberg was a center of printing, and this craft would serve the young artist well. After his apprentice­ship, he traveled on his traditional Wanderjahre to Colmar and Basel, but unlike many young artists of his time, he also twice visited Italy. He would have become aware of Italian art through prints, which were by his lifetime widely available in the north.
Setting up his workshop in Nuremberg around 1500, Dürer painted three self-portraits that give one a glimpse into his character. We see the handsome young Dürer on the occasion of his engagement, holding a sprig of eryngium, and another portrait of a splendidly dressed young Dürer in clothes of the latest fashion, probably bought in Italy. But one portrait in particular shows his aware­ness of the great gift he possessed, the self-portrait of 1500 in imitation of Christ. He saw his talent as a gift from God.
Dürer's intelligence and belief in his own worth shine out in these early portraits and in his writings. He was a simple and devout man with a friendly disposition, though possibly a little vain as to his looks, who enjoyed his fame yet never seemed to regard it as his due. This general understanding of the worth of the individual led Dürer to form strong connections with the German humanists, particularly his old friend Willibald Pirckheimer,* who had encour­aged his visits to Italy, but also Conrad Celtis, librarian to Emperor Maximilian I, and others.
Dürer's greatest artistic achievements were undoubtedly in the print medium, a medium that he preferred to painting in oils. His subject matter initially was largely religious, such as the Large Passion and Apocalypse series, both of 1498, but his insatiable curiosity is also evident throughout his career, whether it was aroused by the sight of a walrus, a monstrous pig, or a simple piece of turf. He also led the way in botanical illustrations with exquisite watercolors of birds and animals. Most of Dürer's earliest prints are woodcuts, made with an almost incredible delicacy and skill, but he was equally a master of engraving.
During his second Italian visit, he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the German merchants in Venice, the Rosenkrantz Madonna (Feast of the Rose Garlands): he commented to Pirckheimer that he might have earned more money if he "had not undertaken to paint the German picture" but instead had sold his prints. These prints, which he took with him wherever he traveled, and his success in selling them made him a wealthy man and enabled him to buy a house in Nuremberg; the house still stands today beneath the castle walls.
Probably his most admired engravings are the three known as the Master Prints that date from the years 1513-14: Knight, Death, and the Devil; St. Je­rome in His Study: and Melancolia I. These are complex works, the first two symbolizing the contrast between the militant Christian and the contemplative Christian; the third print is by far the most enigmatic and is also the most Italianate, seeming to refer to the predicament of the Melancholy Humor, per­sonified as a winged woman, which was believed to control the personality of the artist, awaiting inspiration.
Dürer had great admiration for Martin Luther* and was apprehensive of the dangers that surrounded Luther, as was vividly illustrated in the outburst in his diary for 17 May 1521, on hearing the news of Luther's supposed arrest, news that turned out to be erroneous. In 1520 he wrote of receiving a book by Luther, sent him by the elector of Saxony, and had asked a friend to send him anything written by Luther "in German," at the same time encouraging Frederick the Wise to take Luther under his protection. Another man to whom he looked for moral and spiritual guidance was the Dutch scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus.*
Dürer's synthesis of Christian thought and the Italian Renaissance is perhaps best shown in his pair of paintings known as the Four Apostles, made for the town hall in Nuremberg and not for a church. The four were St. John the Evan­gelist with St. Peter (a symbol of Rome) behind him in the left panel, while St. Paul stands in front of St. Mark in the right panel. These four figures with their monumental, Italianate forms also symbolize the four temperaments, sanguine and phlegmatic on the left, melancholic and choleric on the right. Below the feet of the Apostles are translations by Martin Luther of passages from their writings. This was Dürer's last great painting, completed in 1526, two years before his death.
E. Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer, 1971. R. Wittkower and M. Wittkower, Born under Saturn, 1963.
Rosemary Poole

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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