Painter and printmaker generally regarded as the greatest German Renaissance artist. His vast body of work includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings. His woodcuts, such as the Apocalypse series (1498), retain a more Gothic flavour than the rest of his work.
Education and early career
Dürer was the second son of the goldsmith Albrecht Dürer the Elder, who had left Hungary to settle in Nuremberg in 1455, and of Barbara Holper, who had been born there. Dürer began his training as a draughtsman in the goldsmith’s workshop of his father. His precocious skill is evidenced by a remarkable self-portrait done in 1484, when he was 13 years old (Albertina, Vienna), and by a Madonna with Musical Angels, done in 1485, which is already a finished work of art in the late Gothic style. In 1486, Dürer’s father arranged for his apprenticeship to the painter and woodcut illustrator Michael Wohlgemut, whose portrait Dürer would paint in 1516. After three years in Wohlgemuth’s workshop, he left for a period of travel. In 1490 Dürer completed his earliest known painting, a portrait of his father (Uffizi, Florence) that heralds the familiar characteristic style of the mature master.
Dürer’s years as a journeyman probably took the young artist to the Netherlands, to Alsace, and to Basle, Switzerland, where he completed his first authenticated woodcut, a picture of St Jerome Curing the Lion (Kunstmuseum, Basle). During 1493 or 1494 Dürer was in Strasbourg for a short time, returning again to Basle to design several book illustrations. An early masterpiece from this period is a self-portrait with a thistle painted on parchment in 1493 (Louvre, Paris).
First journey to Italy
At the end of May 1494, Dürer returned to Nuremberg, where he soon married Agnes Frey, the daughter of a merchant. In the autumn of 1494 Dürer seems to have undertaken his first journey to Italy, where he remained until the spring of 1495. A number of bold landscape watercolours dealing with subjects from the Alps of the southern Tirol were made on this journey and are among Dürer’s most beautiful creations. Depicting segments of landscape scenery cleverly chosen for their compositional values, they are painted with broad strokes, in places roughly sketched in, with an amazing harmonization of detail. Dürer used predominantly unmixed, cool, sombre colours, which, despite his failure to contrast light and dark adequately, still suggest depth and atmosphere.
The trip to Italy had a strong effect on Dürer; direct and indirect echoes of Italian art are apparent in most of his drawings, paintings, and graphics of the following decade. While in Venice and perhaps also before he went to Italy, Dürer saw engravings by masters from central Italy. He was most influenced by the Florentine Antonio Pollaiuolo, with his sinuous, energetic line studies of the human body in motion, and by the Venetian Andrea Mantegna,. an artist greatly preoccupied with classical themes and with precise linear articulation of the human figure.
Dürer’s secular, allegorical, and frequently self-enamoured paintings of this period are often either adaptations of Italian models or entirely independent creations that breathe the free spirit of the new age of the Renaissance. Dürer adapted the figure of Hercules from Pollaiuolo’s The Rape of Deianira for a painting of Hercules and the Birds of Stymphalis (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg). A purely mythological painting in the Renaissance tradition, the Hercules is exceptional among Dürer’s works. The centre panel from the Dresden Altarpiece, which Dürer painted in about 1498, is stylistically similar to the Hercules and betrays influences of Mantegna. In most of Dürer’s free adaptations the additional influence of the more lyrical, older painter Giovanni Bellini, with whom Dürer had become acquainted in Venice, can be seen.
The most striking painting illustrating Dürer’s growth toward the Renaissance spirit is a self-portrait, painted in 1498 (Prado, Madrid). Here Dürer sought to convey, in the representation of his own person, the aristocratic ideal of the Renaissance. He liked the way he looked as a handsome, fashionably attired young man, confronting life rather conceitedly. In place of the conventional, neutral, monochromatic background, he depicts an interior, with a window opening on the right. Through the window can be seen a tiny landscape of mountains and a distant sea, a detail that is distinctly reminiscent of contemporary Venetian and Florentine paintings. The focus on his own figure in the interior distinguishes his world from the vast perspective of the distant scene, another world to which the artist feels himself linked.
Italian influences were slower to take hold in Dürer’s graphics than in his drawings and paintings. Strong late Gothic elements dominate the visionary woodcuts of his Apocalypse series (the Revelation of St John), published in 1498. The woodcuts in this series display emphatic expression, rich emotion, and crowded, frequently overcrowded, compositions. The same tradition influences the earliest woodcuts of Dürer’s Large Passion series, also from about 1498. Nevertheless, the fact that Dürer was adopting a more modern conception, a conception inspired by classicism and humanism, is indicative of his basically Italian orientation. The woodcuts Samson and the Lion (c. 1498) and Hercules and many prints from the woodcut series The Life of the Virgin (c. 1500-10) have a distinct Italian flavour. Many of Dürer’s copper engravings are in the same Italian mode. Some examples of them that may be cited are Fortune (c. 1502), The Four Witches (1497), The Sea Monster (c. 1498), Adam and Eve (1504), and The Large Horse (1505). Dürer’s graphics eventually influenced the art of the Italian Renaissance that had originally inspired his own efforts. His painterly style, however, continued to vacillate between Gothic and Italian Renaissance until about 1500. Then his restless striving finally found definite direction. He seems clearly to be on firm ground in the penetrating half-length portraits of Oswolt Krel (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), in the portraits of three members of the aristocratic Tucher family of Nuremberg – all dated 1499 – and in the Portrait of a Young Man of 1500 (Alte Pinakothek). In 1500 Dürer painted another self-portrait (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) that is a flattering, Christlike portrayal.
During this period of consolidation in Dürer’s style, the Italian elements of his art were strengthened by his contact with Jacopo de’ Barbari, a minor Venetian painter and graphic artist who was seeking a geometric solution to the rendering of human proportions; it is perhaps due to his influence that Dürer began, around 1500, to grapple with the problem of human proportions in true Renaissance fashion. Initially, the most concentrated result of his efforts was the great engraving Adam and Eve (1504) in which he sought to bring the mystery of human beauty to an intellectually calculated ideal form. In all aspects Dürer’s art was becoming strongly classical. One of his most significant classical endeavours is his painting Altar of the Three Kings (1504), which was executed with the help of pupils. Although the composition, with its five separate pictures, has an Italian character, Dürer’s intellect and imagination went beyond direct dependence on Italian art. From this maturity of style comes the bold, natural, relaxed conception of the centre panel, The Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi), and the ingenious and unconventional realism of the side panels, once believed to belong to this altarpiece, one of which depicts the Drummer and Piper and the other Job and His Wife (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne). However, the side panels belong to the Jabach altarpiece, the cenral panel of which is lost.
Second journey to Italy
In the autumn of 1505, Dürer made a second journey to Italy, where he remained until the winter of 1507. Once again he spent most of his time in Venice. Of the Venetian artists, Dürer now most admired Giovanni Bellini, the leading master of Venetian early Renaissance painting, who, in his later works, completed the transition to the High Renaissance. Dürer’s pictures of men and women from this Venetian period reflect the sweet, soft portrait types especially favoured by Bellini. One of Dürer’s most impressive small paintings of this period, a compressed half-length composition of the Young Jesus with the Doctors of 1506, harks back to Bellini’s free adaptation of Mantegna’s Presentation in the Temple. Dürer’s work is a virtuoso performance that shows mastery and close attention to detail. In the painting the inscription on the scrap of paper out of the book held by the old man in the foreground reads, “Opus quinque dierum” (“the work of five days”). Dürer thus must have executed this painstaking display of artistry, which required detailed drawings, in no more than five days. Of even greater artistic merit than this quickly executed work are the half-length portraits of young men and women painted between 1505 and 1507, which seem to be entirely in the style of Bellini. In these paintings there is a flexibility of the subject, combined with a warmth and liveliness of expression and a genuinely artistic technique, that Dürer otherwise rarely attained.
In 1506, in Venice, Dürer completed his great altarpiece The Feast of the Rose Garlands for the funeral chapel of the Germans in the church of St Bartholomew. Later that same year Dürer made a brief visit to Bologna before returning to Venice for a final three months. The extent to which Dürer considered Italy to be his artistic and personal home is revealed by the frequently quoted words found in his last letter from Venice (dated October 1506) to Willibald Pirckheimer, his long-time humanist friend, anticipating his imminent return to Germany: “O, how cold I will be away from the sun; here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite.”
Development after the second Italian trip
By February 1507 at the latest, Dürer was back in Nuremberg, where two years later he acquired an impressive house (which still stands and is preserved as a museum). It is clear that the artistic impressions gained from his Italian trips continued to influence Dürer to employ classical principles in creating largely original compositions. Among the paintings belonging to the period after his second return from Italy are Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (1508) and Adoration of the Trinity (1511), which are both crowd scenes. Drawings from this period recall Mantegna and betray Dürer’s striving for classical perfection of form through sweeping lines of firmly modeled and simple drapery. Even greater simplicity and grandeur characterize the diptych of Adam and Eve (1507; Prado), in which the two figures stand calmly in relaxed classical poses against dark, almost bare, backgrounds.
Between 1507 and 1513 Dürer completed a Passion series in copperplate engravings, and between 1509 and 1511 he produced the Small Passion in woodcuts. Both of these works are characterized by their tendency toward spaciousness and serenity. During 1513 and 1514 Dürer created the greatest of his copperplate engravings: the Knight, Death and Devil, St Jerome in His Study, and Melencolia I – all of approximately the same size. The extensive, complex, and often contradictory literature concerning these three engravings deals largely with their enigmatic, allusive, iconographic details. Although repeatedly contested, it probably must be accepted that the engravings were intended to be interpreted together. There is general agreement, however, that Dürer, in these three master engravings, wished to raise his artistic intensity to the highest level, which he succeeded in doing. Finished form and richness of conception and mood merge into a whole of classical perfection. To the same period belongs Dürer’s most expressive portrait drawing – one of his mother.
Service to Maximilian I
While in Nuremberg in 1512, the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I enlisted Dürer into his service, and Dürer continued to work mainly for the emperor until 1519. He collaborated with several of the greatest German artists of the day on a set of marginal drawings for the emperor’s prayer book. He also completed a number of etchings in iron (between 1515 and 1518) that demonstrate his mastery of the medium and his freedom of imagination. In contrast to these pleasing improvisations are the monumental woodcuts, overloaded with panegyrics, made for Maximilian. In these somewhat stupendous, ornate woodcuts, Dürer had to strain to adapt his creative imagination to his client’s mentality, which was foreign to him.
Besides a number of formal show pieces – a painting entitled Lucretia (1518; Alte Pinakothek), and two portraits of the emperor (c. 1519) – during this decade Dürer produced a number of more informal paintings of considerably greater charm. He also traveled. In the fall of 1517 he stayed in Bamberg. In the summer of 1518 he went to Augsburg where he met Martin Luther, who had in the previous year circulated his Ninety-five Theses denouncing the sale of papal indulgences. Dürer later became a devoted follower of Luther. Dürer had achieved an international reputation as an artist by 1515, when he exchanged works with the illustrious High Renaissance painter Raphael.
Final journey to the Netherlands
In July 1520 Dürer embarked with his wife on a journey through the Netherlands. In Aachen, at the October 23 coronation of the emperor Charles V, successor to Maximilian I (who had died in 1519), Dürer met and presented several etchings to the mystical and dramatic Matthias Grünewald, who stood second only to Dürer in contemporary German art. Dürer returned to Antwerp by way of Nijmegen and Cologne, remaining there until the summer of 1521. He had maintained close relations with the leaders of the Netherlands school of painting. In December 1520 Dürer visited Zeeland and in April 1521 traveled to Bruges and Ghent, where he saw the works of the 15th-century Flemish masters Jan and Hubert van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hugo van der Goes, as well as the Michelangelo Madonna. Dürer’s sketchbook of the Netherlands journey contains immensely detailed and realistic drawings. Some paintings that were created either during the journey or about the same time seem spiritually akin to the Netherlands school – for example, the St Anne with the Virgin and Child (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), a half-length picture of St Jerome (1521; Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), and the small portrait of Bernhard von Resten, previously Bernard van Orley (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden).
By July, the travelers were back in Nuremberg, but Dürer’s health had started to decline. He devoted his remaining years mostly to theoretical and scientific writings and illustrations, although several well-known character portraits and some important portrait engravings and woodcuts also date from this period. One of Dürer’s greatest paintings, the so-called Four Holy Men (St John, St Peter, St Paul, and St Mark), was done in 1526. This work marks his final and certainly highest achievement as a painter. His delight in his own virtuosity no longer stifled the ideal of a spaciousness that is simple, yet deeply expressive.
Dürer died in 1528 and was buried in the churchyard of Johanniskirchhof in Nuremberg. That he was one of his country’s most influential artists is manifest in the impressive number of pupils and imitators that he had. Even Dutch and Italian artists did not disdain to imitate Dürer’s graphics occasionally. The extent to which Dürer was internationally celebrated is apparent in the literary testimony of the Florentine artist Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), in whose Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors, the importance of Albrecht Dürer, the “truly great painter and creator of the most beautiful copper engravings,” is repeatedly stressed. Like most notable Italian artists, Dürer probably felt himself to be an “artist-prince,” and his self-portraits seem incontestably to show a man sure of his own genius.