The genius of Albrecht Durer
A painter's icon throughout the ages
Albrecht Durer was the first German artist to emerge north of the Alps who achieved a highly developed artistic self-awareness based on the model of the Italian Renaissance, as well as a high degree of acceptance in society. Being German, he continued throughout his life to receive important artistic stimuli from the Netherlands and Italy. While Durer was more strongly influenced by Flemish art during his early period, possibly a result of the Franconian workshop tradition of his master Michael Wolgemut, in the period after his journeys to Italy he mainly worked with ideas from the Italian Renaissance which enabled him to create new images.
Durer's varied interest in nature and the environment, his study of the works of other masters, and his inspired ability to transform this innovatively, contributed to the important stimulus he gave to the historical development of art, starting north of the Alps, but eventually extending throughout Europe. For example, he was the first artist north of the Alps to paint a self-portrait, and his watercolors were the first autonomous landscape depictions that were freed from the context of Christian iconography.
He was able to take part as an equal in discussions held in circles of famous academics and humanists, and acquired humanist knowledge himself. Studies of the classical period, interpreted by the Italian Renaissance artists, left their mark on his work.
Durer was perfectly adept at brilliantly applying the discovery of central perspective, Vitruvius' (born c. 84 B.C.) canon of human proportions and Da Vinci's (1452 - 1519) theory of the ideal proportions of the horse, to his own art and in particular to his prints. During his lifetime he had already ensured his lasting fame by, for example, having his prints sold abroad by commission agents. This process of choosing new methods of distribution as an independent entrepreneur was an example of the new self-awareness of an artist who gradually distanced himself from his Late Medieval status as a craftsman dependent on commission work.
After his death, Durer remained one of the most highly regarded of artists for centuries. Even today, the term "Durerzeit" (age of Durer) represents the process of transition from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance in Germany.
The quality and wide range of his works and themes, both in terms of content and formal aspects, are also astonishing. Durer's woodcuts and copper engravings made him famous throughout Europe; today he is still regarded as the greatest master of his age in the field of printed graphics. On account of his abilities as a graphic artist and painter, his contemporaries called him a second Apelles, after one of the most famous classical painters who lived during the fourth century B.C. Though his paintings were normally produced as the result of a commission - his two main areas of focus were portrait painting and the creation of altar pieces and devotional pictures - Durer enriched them with unusual pictorial solutions and adapted them to new functions.
His watercolors and drawings are impressive due to their thematic and technical diversity. They demonstrate both Durer's careful method of working when preparing his paintings and his special interest in the surrounding nature.
Fortunately, and in contrast to other artists, many of his works still exist, enabling a comprehensive picture of his work to be created. In addition to 350 woodcuts and copper engravings, 60 paintings and about a thousand drawings and watercolors are known to exist.
During the course of the years Durer achieved the status of icon, and examples of this recognition include the reception of his Self-portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe and the way admiration of him was expressed in the 19th century by the erecting of monuments.
While from the 16th to the 19th centuries it was mainly artists and collectors who promoted the adoption and admiration of Durer and his works, an academic reappraisal of his work, which was able to base itself on extensive source materials, began in the 19th century. Durer's written legacy includes autobiographical writings, theoretical treatises and diary entries as well as poems and letters to clients and humanists who were among his friends. Durer is the first German artist from whom such an extensive selection of private remarks and letters have survived, permitting us to draw conclusions about the artist as a person. Contemporaries such as the Nuremberg patrician Christoph Scheurl (1481 - 1542) provide further clues, as do famous artistic biographers such as the Dutch Karel van Mander (1548-1606), the German artist Joachim von Sandrart (1606 - 1688) and the artist, architect and architectural theoretician Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). This extensive heritage does not merely, however, make it possible to gain a clearer picture of the character and figure of Durer than is possible for other artists of his age; his written legacy enabled Durer to take up a unique position in his age, in which he also differs from his predecessors and successors.
Durer's theoretical treatises give us concrete information regarding his methods of working, his didactic abilities and the theoretical and scientific knowledge which enabled him to write them. A good example of this is Durer's treatise on painting, called Speis der maier knaben (Nourishment for Young Painters), in which he explains the tasks and opportunities of painting and their application to his students. During recent decades, research on Durer has progressed with a flood of contributions. Matthias Mende's bibliography, which appeared on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Durer's birth, contains more than ten thousand bibliographical references.
Every Durer revival since the 16th century has brought with it new views and insights. There ate countless statements from artists, collectors and observers. The academic examination of the figure of Albrecht Durer and his works has continued, with unbroken interest, right up to the present. Although numerous research contributions appear every year on this theme, the complexity of his works means that researchers are constantly faced with new questions. Even in the future, Durer will remain a phenomenon deserving of continuing attention.
From goldsmith to painter
Albrecht Durer's immediate ancestors lived in Hungary. His origins are confirmed by the occasionally patchy family chronicle, much cited in academic works, that Albrecht Durer wrote later in life, on 25 December 1523, based on records kept by his father. Albrecht Durer the Elder (1427-1502) came from a small Hungarian village called "Eytas" close to "a small town called Jula." The place being described is now known as Ajt, Durer wrote later in life, on 25 December 1523, based on records kept by his father. Even today it has not been shown beyond doubt whether the Durers came from Hungary or Germany. It is possible that at least a part of the family was of German origin, as Albrecht Durer the Elder's written German was excellent, and his son also occasionally disassociated himself from other nationalities using the term "Albertus Durerus Germamcus." The family name is a translation of the Hungarian "ajtos," "Tur" (door) in German, and appears in writing as "Thurer" or "Turer." The coat of arms on the back side of Durer's earliest portrait of his father shows a gateway with open doors, possibly a barn door as an allusion to his ancestors' trade, for they were cattle breeders.
His grandfather Anton Durer had learned the craft of the goldsmith, and his eldest son, Durer's father, was supposed to follow in his footsteps. The latter, however, left his homeland at an early age and went off on his travels. The imminent danger of a Turkish invasion and the Hussite Wars in Bohemia were reason enough to turn his back on Hungary. Albrecht Durer the Elder spent a short while in Nuremberg around 8 May 1444, but did not return to the Franconian city until 1455 in order to work as an assistant in the workshop of the Nuremberg goldsmith Hieronymus Holper (died 1476) after, so it was said, he had been "a long time in the Netherlands with the great artists."
In 1467, after working as an assistant for twelve years, he married Barbara Holper (1451-1514), the 15 year-old daughter of his master. Marrying a citizen of Nuremberg enabled him to gain civil rights in the city and in 1468, at the advanced age of 41, he qualified as a master. At first the newly married couple lived at the rear of the home of Dr. Johannes Pirckhamer (died 1501), a Nuremberg patrician. This is where
Albrecht Durer the Younger was born on 21 May 1471, their third child. Of his eighteen brothers and sisters, only three brothers survived apart from him: Hans the Elder (born 1478), Hans the Younger (1490-1534/35 or 1538) and Endres (1484-1555). Durer spent his childhood and youth in the smart Latin quarter of Nuremberg. The family lived in the house "unter den Vesten" "which Durer's father had bought in 1475 for 200 florins.
Both of Durer's grandfathers, and his father, were goldsmiths. It was intended that he should continue this tradition. After he had "learned to write and read" in school, his father started him as an apprentice in his workshop. He was a bright student, but soon showed greater interest in painting than in the goldsmith's craft, so that according to his family chronicle his father regretted "the lost time" that his son "had spent learning gold work." This is the period from which Durer's first work dates, a drawing in silver point which demonstrates his inherent ability to draw. At the age of 13, before a mirror, he drew the earliest remaining of the numerous self-portraits that were to record his appearance at various points in his life. Durer noted in the inscription: "Daz hab jch aws eim spiegell nach mir selbs kunterfet im 1484 jar, do ich noch ein kint was" ("I drew this myself using a mirror in the year of 1484, when I was still a child"). The silver point drawing depicts the artist's characteristic, childlike features in a style that is still Late Gothic and somewhat angular, but already demonstrates an assured hand. The young Durer coped with playful ease with the difficult silver point technique, which cannot be corrected and requires a high degree of precision and stylistic confidence. It is the only existing autonomous self-portrait of an artist at such an early age. According to a source, an even earlier self-portrait of Durer at the age of eight was owned by the Bavarian Elector. It was destroyed in the course of a palace fire.
It is probable that the father recognized his son's talent, for in 1486 he finally gave in to his wishes and sent him to become an apprentice in the workshop of the respected Nuremberg painter and entrepreneur, Michael Wolgemut. Christoph Scheurl, a humanist and personal friend of Durer's, reported that the artist had informed him both verbally and in writing that his father wanted to apprentice him at the early age of fifteen to the famous, internationally renowned graphic artist Martin Schongauer (c. 1450-1491).
Schongauer, who was also the son of a goldsmith, produced copper engravings in larger editions than had previously been customary. This increased the familiarity of his works, which were soon so popular that they were also used by other artists of the late 15th century as models for their altars and panel paintings. During this time, selected masterly engravings by Schongauer could be found in many workshops and had a stylistic influence. In his Lives of the Artists, the artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari reports that even Michelangelo (1475-1564) had copied a copper engraving by Schongauer.
The question as to why Durer's father finally decided in favor of Wolgemut as a master must remain open. It is possible that the Durer family could not afford the expensive journey and living and apprenticeship costs. Perhaps the famous Schongauer also no longer wanted to take on any more apprentices.
It seems reasonable to assume that Durer had already finished his apprenticeship as goldsmith with his father at this time. The knowledge of drawing which he had gained doing this was to prove useful later on when making precise preparations for paintings in the form of underpaintings and preliminary drawings. The years spent as an apprentice with Michael Wolgemut, whose style was still rooted in the Late Medieval craftsmen's tradition, were extremely useful for Durer's artistic development, though they do not always appear to have been entirely easy from a human point of view. For example, at the age of 15 Durer was the oldest apptentice in the workshop and had to "suffer much from (Wolgemut's) servants," as he himself wrote in his family chronicle.
In his master's workshop, Durer learned the fundamental things necessary for his training as a painter's assistant. In addition to the basic requirements such as mixing colors, composition, pen and ink drawings and producing landscape backgrounds, there was also the intensive study and use of the technique of woodcuts. This is all the more remarkable as at that time Michael Wolgemut worked with the well-known publisher Anton Koberger (c. 1440/45-1513), who was Durer's godfather, and employed wood block carvers to cut the preliminary drawings into the wood engraving block.
Woodcut illustrations from Michael Wolgemut's workshop were at the time some of the best in terms of technique that were available on the European market. New effects in their preparation, finer interior details and the suggestion of spatiality increased demand. The 645 illustrations for the Nuremberg Chronicle by the Nuremberg doctor and humanist Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), which was published by Anton Koberger, became particularly famous. This work, which appeared in 1493, contained a total of 1809 woodcuts and, with its illustrations and descriptions based on the seven ages, was meant to represent a history of the world and its peoples. The chronicle became internationally famous, and the 123 pictures of cities may have contributed considerably to its popularity. The largest depiction, a view of the then world and trade metropolis of Nuremberg, is a good example of the way city views were recorded in all their detail.
Repeated attempts have been made to stylistically prove Durer's involvement in this book project by comparing it to his woodcuts of the Apocalypse. While there is no source material to confirm his collaboration, it can be assumed that he did so, as Durer was working as an apprentice in Wolgemut's workshop at the time the Nuremberg Chronicle was produced.
The intensive study of woodcut techniques and what were, for the time, exceptionally high technical standards in the Wolgemut workshop were important prerequisites for Durer's inspired potential for development in this field, and for his methodical action in later years when he started to use printed graphics to a broadly commercial extent.
In 1490, after his painter's apprenticeship in Michael Wolgemut's workshop ended, Durer left on four years of travels as a journeyman, and immediately before departing painted the two portraits of his parents which were originally connected in the manner of a diprych and were separated after 1588. While the portrait of his father came to be owned by Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, its counterpart remained with the Imhoff family in Nuremberg.
These first painted portraits by Durer demonstrate the knowledge and abilities he had gained in the Wolgemut workshop.
The subjects appear before a dark background and are related to each other by their lines of sight. Their piety is expressed by the rosaries in their hands. The delicate detail of the features, in particular those of the father, is realistic to a degree which is unusual in contemporary portrait painting, and is reminiscent of Dutch portraits of the early 15th century. In the arrangement and opposite positions of the pendants, Durer was following the traditional scheme of portraits of married couples. The woman is positioned to the right of the man, the lower ranking position. The folds of the garments, particularly in the mother's portrait, still show a Late Gothic hardness. Uncertainties in the modeling of the features suggest that the portraits must have been created immediately after Durer's apprenticeship had ended.
The goal of an emerging artist when making a journey was to get to know other workshops, methods of work and styles, and to extend his own repertoire in terms of techniques and motifs. Artistically interesting motifs were recorded in sketch books which were used after the artist returned from his journey to help him find his own forms. Such sketches made by Durer, taken out of a sketch book, still exist.
In his family chronicle, Durer refers to his time as a journeyman with just one laconic sentence: "And as I had finished my apprenticeship, my father sent me away, and I stayed away for four years, until my father called for me again. And I left in 1490, after Easter, and returned again, in the year of 1494, after Whitsun."
Nothing is known about the places Durer stayed at during the first two years of his journey, although portrait drawings such as the Self-portrait with a Bandage presumably date from this time. The theory that Durer possibly stayed in Haarlem in the Netherlands during this time cannot be proven, although it was suggested by the art historiographer and artist Karel van Mander in his lives of the artists Het Schilder-Boeck, which first appeared in 1604, by Joachim van Sandrart in his book Teutschen Academie der Edlen Bau-, Bild- und Mahlerey-Kunste, and was assumed to be the case due to references to paintings by the Haarlem master Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1460 - 1490). It is also called into question by a statement by the Nuremberg humanist Christoph Scheurl, a personal friend of Durer's. In his work, Vita reverendi patris domini Antoni Kressen Nurnberg, dating from 24 July 1515 it says: "Then, after he had traveled back and forth in Germany, he came to Colmar in 1492...".
Encounter with proportion and perspective
The first Italian journey
At the end of May 1494 Durer returned to Nuremberg where he married shortly afterwards on 7 July. The family chronicle provides the following information about this:
"And when I arrived home once more, Hans Frej negotiated with my father and gave me his daughter called Agnes with 200 florins and held the wedding. This was on the Monday before St. Margaret's in the year of 1494."
It was an arranged marriage, a "good catch" which Durer's father had initiated for economic reasons. Hans Frey (1450-1532), Durer's father-in-law, was a master craftsman, a smith from an old Nuremberg family who had specialized in air-driven fountains, machines and banqueting tables, was the site manager and landlord of the town hall, and was elected to the city council in 1496. His wife Anna, nee Rummel (died in 1521), also came from a wealthy and respected family. One of her relatives was the wealthy financier Wilhelm Rummel, who worked mainly in Italy for the Emperor, the Curia and the Medicis.
At the time of her marriage to Durer, Agnes Frey was about 18 or 19 years old. A pen drawing in the Albertina collection, bearing the caption "mein agnes" added by Durer himself, shows her as she might appear when nobody was looking, as a childlike girl with her hair tied back. It is possible that this sketch was even produced before they were married, as Agnes appears without a bonnet, in accordance with the custom for unmarried women.
It can be clearly recognized from various letters from Durer to Willibald Pirckheimer dating from the second Italian journey in 1506 that Durer's marriage, which did not produce any children, was an unhappy one. This is confirmed in later years by the meticulous records in the Netherlands journal, from which it emerges that during the course of the one year trip, Durer took most of his meals together with his numerous friends or alone, while his wife and maid were able "to cook and eat upstairs." Despite this he depicted his wife, who despite all personal differences was a competent business partner and traveled to the fairs and markets with his printed graphics, in numerous portraits. In later years she was his model in the painting of St. Anne. It has been speculated at various times that Durer was homosexual, based on a letter by the Nuremberg patrician Lorenz Behaim (died 1518) to Willibald Pirckheimer on 7 March 1507, in which "Durer's boys" are spoken of. There is, however, no further evidence of this.
A few months after the wedding Durer left on his first Italian journey. The only evidence of this trip is a mention in a letter wrirten during his second period in Italy in 1506/07, in which Durer tells Willibald Pirckheimer: 'And the thing that I liked so much 11 years ago no longer pleases me now."
What is meant here is either a work of art that cannot be more closely identified, or the Italian style in general which may have made a deep impression on Durer as a young journeyman on his first trip to Italy. By the time of his second Italian journey, however, he had already developed his own style and artistic ideas, for which reason he may have remained calm in the face of external influences.
The reason for Durer's sudden departure for Italy in 1494 has frequently been thought to have been the outbreak of the Plague in Nuremberg, which during its worst phase killed over a hundred people every day. As early as 1483, in a report requested by the city council, the Nuremberg city doctors - in imitation of the Florentine doctor and philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) - recommended that the most effective preventative measure against the plague was fleeing from the city. Respected Nuremberg citizens such as the artist Christoph Amberger (c. 1500-1561/62) and Durer's godparent Anton Koberger withdrew to the country to escape the risk of infection.
The plague raging in Nuremberg was probably not the only reason Durer left on so long a journey. This was frequently viewed as a sort of extended journeyman's travels. This later became decisive in Durer's role as a mediator between the Italian Renaissance and Germany, breaking through his customary way of depicting things, marked by the Late Medieval workshop tradition, to reveal the "new" element in Italian art, the recollection of the classical world.
A decisive element in Durer's interest in making this journey to Italy may have been the desire to learn from the sculptural and spatial conceptions of classical art and the Italian Renaissance artists and to understand the practice and theory of what the latter were striving for, the overlapping of the "image of man, perspective, proportion, the classical age, nature, mythology and philosophy." In this area, German art had remained stuck at a Late Medieval level.
Durer probably first heard of the new trends in Italian art while he was in Basle. The first examples to reach the North were graphic sheets and devotional pictures. Drawn copies of a series of copper engravings by a master from Ferrara from about 1470 are some of the earliest proofs of northern interest in Italian Renaissance art. Copper engravings made by the Italian artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) were in circulation in Germany even before Durer's Italian journey. Durer traced them directly from the original sheets, though it is uncertain whether he did this immediately before his journey or during his stay in Italy.
Durer's first Italian journey is an important milestone in his artistic development. First of all, he was no longer familiar with southern art merely in the form of printed graphics, as was the case north of the Alps, but was able to see the works on the spot.
Basing their insights on the classical architectural theoretician Vitruvius, Italians were studying both the ideal proportions of the human body and the development of central perspective as a means to a more realistic depiction of space. Durer was to learn about all these things from Italian artists such as Jacopo de Barbari (c. 1440/1450-1515) and Giovanni (1430-1516) and Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), with whom he may have become acquainted in Venice at the arrangement of Nuremberg merchants. There is, however, no evidence as to whether he ever sketched directly from antiques or whether he received his knowledge of classical forms solely from copying engravings made by Italian masters.
The route of Durer's journey presumably first took him via Augsburg to Innsbruck, where he drew the two watercolors of the courtyard of Innsbruck Castle. These are the first two in a series of landscape watercolors which were created during the journey. They were used as independent study material and private records. Later they were also incorporated into Durer's printed graphics and the landscape backgrounds of his paintings. There are a total of 32 water-colors dating from the period between 1494 and shortly after 1500, most of which are connected with
Durer's travels to Italy. None of the sheets is signed or dated. For this reason there is to date no agreement concerning their precise sequence. The watercolors are some of the most studied in Western art history. They can rightly be considered autonomous works and document an altered relationship with landscape painting, which had previously been the least regarded artistic genre, its function being entirely subservient to history paintings. A decisive factor in the new conception of landscape pictures is an individual concept of nature as well as an innovative technique in using watercolors, making it possible to produce the subtlest nuances by building up layers of glaze similar to the technique used in oil painting. While Durer's early watercolors are still reminiscent of typical examples of topographical methods of depiction from the Franconian workshop tradition, such as the views of Bamberg from the workshop of Wolfgang Katzheimer (active from 1478-1508), in the later works their composition, color and painterly design becomes considerably more free. The atmospheric conception of landscape in these later watercolors has even led to their being compared to those of the impressionist, Cezanne (1839-1906).
Durer's watercolors can be divided into two groups. The early examples frequently include topographical studies which are the first autonomous colored landscapes to record particular locations in detail. They still contain some perspectival uncertainties, such as the depiction of the Wire-drawing Mill. Here, the artistic interest in producing a realistic picture is at the fore. This leads to all details being recorded additively with the same emphasis, and the color being softened very little. His knowledge about the influence of light and air on the appearance of color only becomes noticeable in later works. These move from a natural to an atmospheric and cosmic record of landscape, which becomes clear both in the overall composition and in the more relaxed use of color. The detailed record is now subordinate to the harmonious effect of the whole. A single motif that aroused Durer's interest, such as a section of wall, a mass of roots in a quarry or a complex of buildings, may stand out from the otherwise summary picture, captured with a few brushstrokes and color surfaces. In later, mature watercolors such as the Quarry dating from about 1506, a section is placed freely on the surface of the picture. Here, Durer is experimenting with the technical opportunities of watercolor by allowing various brown tones to come into effect in numerous nuances and shades. The knowledge of perspective gained in Italy was already leaving its mark on watercolors such as the Landscape near Segonzano in the Cembra Valley, making them easier to date.
His road led on across the Brenner Pass and through the Eisack Valley to Venice. The likely route can partly be deduced from the watercolors, and partly from information about frequently used routes that has been handed down in the first map printed as a woodcut, complete with travel routes and distances, by the mathematician and doctor Erhard Etzlaub (c. 1460-1532). According to this, Albrecht Durer's route would have taken him from Innsbruck on the road over the Brenner Pass, then to Bressanone (Brixen) and Chiusa (Klausen), where a watercolor of the Rabenstein near Weidbruck was created. According to the "Bolzano Chronicle" dating from 1494, the roads near Bolzano (Bozen) were flooded at the time of Durer's journey. It is therefore likely that the artist made a detour through the Cembra Valley, which is confirmed by the watercolor. During his return trip, on the road to the Brenner, he probably created a view of Klausen in the Eisack Valley which has since been lost, though it was reworked in the copper engraving Nemesis or Good Fortune.
Durer's stay in Venice, however, was characterized mainly by drawings produced from originals and from life. Throughout his life, Durer expressed his enthusiasm for the variety of fauna and flora in numerous drawn studies. During his stay in Venice, the large-format water study sheets with depictions of a Sea Crab and a Lobster were created. Initially there was doubt about the authenticity of these sheets, but Winkler established that the lobster was a member of a species predominantly native to the Adriatic Sea. Studies of lions, reminiscent of Venice's heraldic animal, and mythological depictions have also survived. These sheets, like the watercolors, were independent studies not made in preparation for any concrete work.
In Venice, Durer copied from works by Mantegna, Lorenzo di Credi (1456/1460-1537) and Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1430 - 1498), and here his interest in nudes was in the foreground. Studies such as the Female Nude of 1493 provide evidence that Durer had already considered the depiction of human proportions before his journey to Italy. A prominent example of drawn copies of Italian originals is the pen drawing of the Death of Orpheus in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, which Durer probably produced in imitation of a painting by Mantegna. The original is only known by a copper engraving which is also in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. The pictorial theme was drawn from the eleventh chapter of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1-43): the classical hero and famous singer Orpheus is killed by two women during a feast of Bacchus in Thrace for having introduced homosexual love to Thrace. This early drawing already demonstrates something that was to become significant in Durer's later graphic works: recording the human body in motion had priority over narrating the mythological theme. The sweeping gestures of the two Thracian women, both seen from the front and the back, form a counterweight to the movement of Orpheus' body. The study of human proportions and search for the ideal measurement were echoed in numerous other nudes such as the standing nude woman seen from the rear.
On repeated occasions, Durer spontaneously recorded new impressions from life. This is also documented by the studies of Venetian women wearing the city dresses with very low necklines that were widely considered to be "indecent". In a pen drawing Durer contrasts a Venetian with a Nuremberg woman, and the liberal Venetian dress clearly differs from the tight and modestly laced German costume.
In this connection, Erwin Panofsky compares Durer with a modern art historian contrasting a Late Gothic town house and a Renaissance palazzo in a similar manner. Studies of traditional Venetian dress reappear in Durer's printed works at a later date, such as in the drawing and woodcut of the Martyrdom of St. Catherine and the depiction of the Babylonian Whore in the series of woodcuts for the book of the Apocalypse.
It has frequently been questioned how Durer managed to finance this journey to Italy. It is possible that he was able to invest a portion of his wife's dowry, but it is likely that he kept his head above water by selling woodcuts, perhaps even by doing commissioned work. Researchers differ in their opinions about Durer's activities as a painter during his first journey to Italy, as there is no corresponding painting that can be definitely attributed to this period by means of a signature or sources.
The picture of the Virgin and Child that is now in a private collection but used to be in the Capuchin monastery of Bagnacavallo near Bologna is considered by Anzelewsky to be part of a group of four paintings which were possibly created during the first journey to Italy. There are other opinions, to the effect that Durer possibly painted the picture after his return to Nuremberg and took it with him on his second Italian journey in order to sell it there. The work was not tediscovered until after the Second World War. Before this time it had been in Italy.
In this picture, the Late Gothic style is already combined with the first hints of the Italian Renaissance. The Virgin is enthroned before a gate arch which opens to one side, the Christ Child bedded on a cloth on her lap. In terms of composition, the group of figures is in the shape of a triangle. Mary and Jesus are related to each other by their postures. The mother is tenderly holding her son's hand and gazing at him both lovingly and mournfully, foreseeing his Passion to come. The strawberry twig in Mary's hand, a symbol of both Christ and Mary, is a sign both of motherhood and, because of its red color, of Christ's Passion. In the monumental and well-proportioned conception of the group of figures Durer was following Italian models, in particular the Madonna paintings by Giovanni Bellini, though the spatial composition still owes much to the Late Gothic style as influenced by Dutch painting. The physiognomy of the Christ Child is reminiscent of Durer's drawing of a reclining Christ Child after Lorenzo di Credi. While this drawing is not a concrete model, there are nonetheless stylistic parallels.
During the following decades, the achievements of Italian Renaissance art, as conveyed by both printed graphics and the works and writings of Durer, enabled all genres of art north of the Alps to take a decisive step forwards. Artists no longer went just to the Netherlands in order to study the originals of great masterpieces by painters such as Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) or Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400- 1482), copy them and continue work on them after they returned home; now they also allowed Italian forms to leave their stylistic mark on their works. Many German artists, however, merely fed on the indirect influence of printed graphics and did not journey to Italy themselves.
A revolution in printed graphics and painting
"But Durer, however admirable in other respects - what cannot he express in monochrome, that is with black lines? Light, shade, splendor, the sublime, depths; and, although it has started from the position of a single object, the eye of the observer is offered much more than an aspect..." (Erasmus of Rotterdam, in de recta Latini Graecique sermonis pronuntiatione, 1528)
In 1495 Durer returned to Nuremberg and started by putting the knowledge and ideas he had gained during his five year journey into practice in printed graphics, though a few years later he also applied them to paintings. The time after his journey can be termed the first high point in Durer's creative work, during which, in a very short period, he perfected his abilities and revolutionized printed graphics and painting in terms of function, methods of depiction, themes and technical methods in a way no other artist of his age did. Between 1495 and 1500 about a dozen paintings and over sixty printed sheets were produced. The latter also comprise, in addition to almost the entire series of the Great Passion and the Apocalypse, seven large format single-leaf woodcuts and 25 engravings which he printed on his own printing press in the Nuremberg workshop he founded in 1495, and upon which his international fame was to be based.
In addition, Durer was the first German artist to find new opportunities for production and distribution. Technical reproducibility, the possibility of reusing worked wood engraving blocks and copper plates as setting copies and printing high print runs, was something he used to a degree previously unknown. He was the first to introduce the production of printed graphics in his own publishing business on an equal footing with the running of a painter's workshop.
In contrast to his teacher Michael Wolgemut, Durer produced his printed graphics in advance and not on commission. This meant that in this medium he was independent of the traditional iconography and of the prescriptions normally stipulated by paying customers when ordering works. At that time, the artist was still considered to be a craftsman, an agent who had to meet the client's requirements. Durer's new method of using the medium of printed graphics made a considerable contribution towards changing artists' self-image in Germany and raising their social acceptability. In this way the artist emancipated himself from being a simple craftsman to being the more self-determined "creator" of new themes or new artistic interpretations of existing themes. A sign of this increasing self-determination, independent of the traditional social understanding of artists, is the process of signing and dating printed graphics. The fact that Durer's copyright was shamefully ignored suggests that the signature was an attempt to guard against abuse. Letters which Durer wrote to Jakob Heller (c. 1460 - 1522) in 1507 clarify his endeavor to apply his ideas and knowledge independently of clients. This is probably also the reason why the emphasis of his work during the first five years after the foundation of his workshop was on the area of printed graphics. During this time he perfected his engraving technique and achieved his own style which has yet to be surpassed technically. Durer also applied the experience he gained in this way to woodcuts, which he liberated from their Late Gothic stylistic forms. He enabled both techniques, which he treated equally in his work, to achieve new pioneering forms of expression.
In addition to the artistic, it was probably also the commercial possibilities of the new medium that proved decisive. As early as 1497 Durer engaged his first art dealer, Conrad Swytzer, who was to offer the prints for sale at the highest possible prices - as established in the contract - by taking them "from one place to the next and from one town to the next." Nuremberg was the ideal place to produce and sell printed graphics. On the one hand, the city had been a center of parchment, and later of paper production since the Middle Ages, and on the other hand copper crafts were also widespread there, so that the workshops' demand for copper engraving plates could be met without difficulty. The numerous Nuremberg city festivities, fairs with shooting matches, funfairs and annual "Heiltumsfest" provided an outstanding sales opportunity.
Durer's earliest monogrammed copper engravings date from the time immediately after his first Italian journey, and they are still influenced by Martin Schongauer, particularly as regards their figural composition. There are about 30 engravings dating from this period. They are not dated at this point, something that Durer started adding to his sheets from 1503 onwards.
The course of Durer's artistic development in this technique can be followed in a sequence consisting of about 13 engravings. One can detect a gradual refinement of his use of lines which become continually more painterly and free.
Years of theoretical and artistic research
The turn of the century marked a fundamental change in Durer's style and view of the world. He studied the artistic theories of the Renaissance more intensively than ever, in particular the theory of the ideal proportions of the human body and central perspective. His interest in these themes is documented in numerous works. Printed graphics also provided him with undreamed of opportunities for experimentation free of the prescriptions relating to commissioned works.
For Durer, the year of 1500, which was expected to signal the end of the world, started with the preparation of his Self-Portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe, his last and most famous self-portrait which is now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. In it he included the sum of his artistic and humanist ideas and, at the same time, introduced a new period in his creative work. Since he gives his age as being 28 in the inscription, the painting must have been created before 21 May, Durer's birthday. Karel van Mander reports that he saw the picture in Nuremberg in 1577 and held it in his hand. Durer retained possession of the painting during his lifetime, but after his death it ended up in the "upper regimental chamber" of the Nuremberg town hall which was used as a sort of art gallery. In 1805 it was finally acquired by the royal collection in Munich. Without understanding the humanist content of the panel, one would assume from a modern perspective that Durer's self-portrait had a provocative effect at the time, since for the first and last time in Western art history an artist was portraying himself in the same style, in terms of composition and type, as Christ. Such a strict frontal view had until then been reserved for depictions of Christ, and portraits traditionally made use of a half or three-quarter profile view. Durer used the geometric scheme of proportions in his self-portrait on which depictions of Christ had been based, and which had been reserved for this purpose, since Byzantine art. This was the scheme by which pictures of Christ appeared to be "vera icon," true portraits of the Savior. It was in this sense that the form of the self-portrait was repeated a century later in Georg Vischer's painting of Christ and the Adulteress, which he created for the Bavarian Elector Maximilian I.
Although Durer realistically reproduced his own physiognomic features such as bis large nose and differently sized eyes, the fine, illusionistic manner of painting gives the self-portrait an idealizing glow. Durer is clutching his smart fur coat with one hand, the position of which is reminiscent of Christ's hand raised in blessing. The eye is particularly significant, being the painter's second "tool" after his hand. Hence, a small window is reflected in the portrayed artist's iris, and this should be viewed not as a naturalistic depiction of the workshop window, but as an expression of the classical topos "oculi fenestra animae," the eye as a window to the soul, which Durer had presumably heard about from Konrad Celtis (1459-1508). The dark background helps us to concentrate on the figure of the artist. The inscription, "Albertus Durerus Noricus ipsum me proprus sic effingebam coloribus aetatis anno xxviii" (I, Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg, painted myself thus in everlasting paints at the age of twenty-eight years), emphasizes his intention to create a portrait for eternity.
Five epigrams praising Durer, written by the Nuremberg humanist Konrad Celtis, date from the same time; they are written in the same antiquated script as the inscription on the self-portrait and have a similar wording. In them, Celtis stressed Durer's creative powers by comparing him to Apelles and Phidias (5th century B.C.), two of the most famous classical artists. He also did not shy away from comparing him to the medieval philosopher Albertus Magnus (c. 1206 - 1280) and emphasized that God had given both similar creative powers. These sources prove that Durer, in his self-portrait, was expressing the God-given "natural" similarity of the artist to Christ brought about by his quality as a creator. We do not know for certain what the purpose of the portrait was. The fact that the painting remained Durer's property for the rest of his life suggests that it had a didactic function as a teaching aid for his students and as a showpiece for his clients. The importance of the unity of "Harmonia" and "Symmetria" emphasized by classical authors such as Cicero (106-43 B.C.), Lucian (120-180 A.D.) and Vitruvius is clearly reflected in this portrait. The strict frontal view also reminds us that sight was the sense that Durer valued the most highly, as can be deduced from the preface to his planned Treatise on Painting in 1512.
The color palette, limited to brown and gray tones, could possibly be an allusion to the writings of the classical author Pliny (23/24-79 A.D.), who reported that Apelles used a palette of four colors, and it was his masterly use of them that gave his paintings a special radiance. In this respect, Durer appears here as the new Christian Apelles who sees himself as a creator in the service of God and as such takes up a forward-looking position. An earlier interpretation connected the similarity to Christ in the picture with the desire to imitate Christ as promoted in the Imitation of Christ, a book that was widely available in the late Middle Ages and written by the religious mystic Thomas a Kempis (1379/1380-1471).
The Self-Portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe of 1500 is both the climax and the conclusion to Durer's three painted self-portraits.
This painting, produced at a turning point in his creative work, includes humanist ideas. Durer was also attempting to place his other works of the period on a new footing in the sense of a reformation of art in imitation of classical artists. During the following four years, numerous studies on human proportions were produced, encouraged by his meeting with the Italian artist Jacopo de Barbari (c. 1440- c. 1515), who he met in Nuremberg in 1500 and who spurred him on to study the canon of ideal proportions according to Vitruvius. This theme was to occupy Durer for the rest of his life and finally resulted in the Four Books on Human Proportions which were published posthumously. This is the context within which his efforts to depict the ideal proportions of a horse should be seen, which manifests itself in various drawings and copper engravings such as the Large Horse and the Small Horse and reached perfection in Durer's masterly engraving of Knight, Death and the Devil. In the third chapter of Vitruvius' famous treatise de architeetura, he considers human proportions and central perspective. This, and the rediscovery of a classical statue of Apollo in Rome as well as Jacopo de Barbari's copper engraving of Apollo and Diana, exerted considerable influence on the so-called Apollo Group and other studies on male and female proportions in imitation of the classical era that were finally to culminate in his famous masterpiece, the engraving of Adam and Eve. Durer believed that classical artists had possessed the secret that he spent his entire life trying to track down "with compass and spirit level." Both secular and sacred themes were a pretext for him to capture ideal depictions of nudes in printed graphics. An example of his studies of the proportions of the female body is the copper engraving that was created in about 1501 or 1502, Nemesis or Good Fortune. In technical terms, Durer refined the unusually large copper engraving even further. The larger lines are subdivided two or three times, and the use of double cross-hatchings is further improved, giving the sheet a high degree of material density. The depicted theme is derived from a Latin poem by the Florentine humanist and Neoplatonist Politian (1454 - 1494), published in his book Manto which appeared in 1499 and with which Durer probably became acquainted in the library of his friend Willibald Pirckheimer. The poem combines Fortuna, the goddess of Fate, with Nemesis, the goddess of Revenge.
In Durer's depiction, a winged female figure is floating on a globe high above the clouds. The landscape visible beneath is confirmed by one of Durer's watercolors that has since been lost. It is thought to be the small town of Klausen in the Eisack Valley in the Southern Tirol, Italy. The figure is holding a goblet and bridle in her hands, symbols of good and bad fortune. She appears to be standing still, only the fluttering cloth and uncertain standing position reveal motion. Panofsky put it very aptly: "The mighty figure is depicted in a geometric side elevation, like a diagram in a treatise on anthropometry."
This was the first figure to which Durer had applied Vitruvius' canon of proportions, in which individual parts of the body are proportioned in a particular way relative to the size of the body. Studies of proportions confirm that Durer started by inscribing a measurement scheme on his figures which included all the details of the body. The result, as is also the case here, appears rather artificial.
The masterly engraving of Adam and Eve, dating from 1504, must be considered the conclusion to his studies of proportion. It is a famous engraving in which his efforts to achieve the classical ideal of beauty were combined with Old Testament, Christian themes. The copper engraving was preceded by preparatory studies. Adam and Eve appear to be two independent studies of the ideal proportions of man and woman. The classical pose is a result of Durer's familiarity with classical sculpture. The figure of Adam is related to earlier dated drawings of Apollo, Asdepius and Sol, and Eve to such as the Medici Venus. The first human couple is standing before a dark forest. Their bodies are lit by light falling from the left. The centrally placed tree compositionally separates the couple who are facing each other. The surrounding flora and fauna symbolically emphasize the typological relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The mountain ash, the Tree of Life in front of which Adam is positioned, stands opposite the Tree of Knowledge which, complete with the diabolical serpent, is assigned to Eve. The parrot appears as a symbol of Mary and sign of the overcoming of sin by Mary, the second Eve. The animals in the foreground are references, in keeping with scholastic teachings, to the link between the Fall of Man and the four humors. According to them, the constitution and soul of Man before the Fall were in perfect harmony, but afterwards illness, death and vice entered his life. The soul was divided up into the four humors, embodied by the four animals depicted here.
The elk represents the melancholy, the cat the choleric, the ox the phlegmatic and the hare the sanguine humor. The cat and mouse symbolize the tense relationship between the genders, and the ibex on the rocky peak in the background is a symbol of the first human couple's disbelief when they disobeyed God's law and sinned. Durer self-confidently signed the work with the Latin inscription "Albertus Durerus Noricus faciebat 1504" (this was created by Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg in the year of 1504) on the so-called "cartellino," a small plaque hanging in the tree. This type of signature had already been pioneered by the Italian artist Antonio Pollaiuolo, as had the arrangement of various nudes in front of a half shaded background.
The small copper engraving of the Nativity, also created in 1504, was a reformulation of the Paumganner Altar produced shortly beforehand, and the result of Durer's study of spatial composition using central perspective, again based on Italian models.
Mary is shown in an old half-timbered building symbolizing the ruin of the Old Covenant, kneeling in prayer before the Child who has come as a symbol of the New Covenant to replace the old. Joseph, separated from this scene, is fetching water from the well. In contrast to the shepherd kneeling in the background, he does not appear to have noticed the holy events. In the background, in miniature, the Annunciation to the shepherds can be seen. In this sheet, "the stage is almost more important than the actors," as Panofsky stated, and the events are subordinate to the struggle for compositional unity in the sense that every detail has to fit in to the perspective of converging lines.
At the same time the twelve drawings of the famous Green Passion in the Albertina in Vienna were created, named after the olive green primed paper medium. For the first time, Durer used white highlights, creating dramatic lighting effects. The use of black ink increased the effect. The sheets already anticipate Durer's Engraved Passion, dating from just a few years later. The drawings were presumably used as sketches for twelve panels in the castle and university chapel in Wittenberg, commissioned by Elector Frederick the Wise.
Principal painted works
The second Italian journey
"That which I liked so much eleven years ago, I do not like any more;" Durer to Pirckheimer in a letter dated 7 February 1506
In contrast to the first Italian journey, the only evidence of which is the sentence dating from 1506 quoted above, Durer's second period in Italy is documented in ten letters written to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer, who also made the journey financially possible. Eight of these letters were discovered in 1748, when renovation work revealed a hollow wall in the family chapel in the house belonging to Pirckheimer's brother-in-law, Hans Imhoff (1488-1526). As the first existing personal private letters from an artist to his friend in the history of German art, they are extremely significant. Other letters that no longer exist and which Durer wrote to his wife and mother are mentioned in this correspondence.
It is thought that the reasons for Durer's second departure for Venice were partly due to the desire to escape a new outbreak of the plague in Nuremberg, and partly to do with matters of copyright, for Giorgio Vasari mentions in his Lives of the Artists that Durer came to Venice in order to initiate proceedings against the artist Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1530). Marcantonio had seen prints by Durer on sale in St. Mark's Square in Venice, and had been extremely enthusiastic about them. Subsequently, he engraved copper copies of Durer's woodcuts and added his own monogram to them. It was the first trial in German art history to revolve around the protection of copyright. Durer's achievement was that the Signoria, the city government of Venice, forbade Marcantonio to add his monogram to the copies. However, these forgeries also prove just how highly regarded Durer was and internationally renowned at this time. In Italy, Durer's works were already being imitated in a big way by painters, copper engravers and ceramists. Copper engravings such as The Prodigal Son and the Madonna with the Monkey were frequently used as models, particularly because of their successful composition and finely executed, "natural" background landscapes.
Durer was mainly accepted by Italian artists as a graphic artist, less so as a painter. The criticism leveled at him was that he did not imitate the classical period enough. But barely a year later, Durer proudly reported to Willibald Pirckheimer in a letter that he had silenced those who did not think him a good painter in his major commissioned work for the German commercial brotherhood of San Bartolommeo, the Feast of the Rose Garlands : "jch hab awch dy moler all gschilt, dy do sagten, jm stechen wer ich gut, aber jm molen west ich nit mit farben vm zw gen" (I have also silenced all the painters who said, I was good at engraving, but I did not know how to work with paints).
But his own artistic judgment also altered: Things that had enthused him on his first visit to Italy now no longer impressed him. Equally, his opinions about his colleagues changed. Jacopo de Barbari, whom he had previously respected so much, could now no longer withstand his criticism. His judgment about the old Giovanni Bellini, who he also mentioned in his letters to Pirckheimer, was rather different. He and the old master behaved with respect towards each other and always praised each other in public.
All the paintings created during these years reveal Durer's endeavors to combine Italian feelings about color and composition with his own pictorial ideas and to develop his own personal style.
The Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman in the costume typical of the city is the first painting that Durer produced shortly after his arrival in Venice in 1505. The figure of the young, unidentified woman stands out against the dark background. She is wearing a bonnet interwoven with gold thread on her reddish hair. Her face and hair are surrounded by gentle white highlights. The emphasis in the portrait is not on creating a picture of ideal beauty but rather on depicting individuality. The full, irregular lips, the large nose and high forehead underline the impression of personal proximity. The summary execution of the dress indicates that Durer did not complete the portrait. The type of portrait, with the depicted woman gazing to the right against a dark background, is characteristic of portraits created during this time.
Durer summed up his experiences with Italian Renaissance art in the composition and colors of his main work during these years, created in 1506 and known since the 19th century as the Feast of the Rose Garlands. The large community of German merchants living in the "Fondaco dei Tedeschi," the German warehouse by the Rialto, commissioned him to produce this panel. In a letter dated 6 January 1506, Durer told Willibald Pirckheimer that he had been commissioned by the "Tewczschen" to paint an altar-piece for their church of San Bartolommeo. It has not been shown beyond doubt just who precisely was the donor and commissioner of the altar painting. It is probable that the artist was commissioned by the community of German merchants belonging to the German Brotherhood of the Rosary, founded in Venice in 1504 and attached to San Bartolommeo, a church in which sermons were given in German.
A fee of 110 Rhenish florins was agreed for the completion of the "Tewczsche thaffel," as Durer always called the picture. The deadline had been fixed: the panel should "ein monett nach ostern awff dem altar stehen" (stand on the altar one month after Easter.)
Durer prepared the picture very carefully in a large number of drawn studies, 22 in all. Each of these studies is an independent work of art of the highest level.
Durer's altar painting is a brilliant conglomeration of German Dutch, Flemish and Italian stylistic features. The shape of the altarpiece, without wings, is derived from Venetian types of pictures and formats. These are also the source for the method of composition - the type known as Sacra Conversazione comes to mind - as well as the integration of the central group of figures into a triangle.
The influence of Bellini's rich and shining colors is evident here in the symmetrical composition; a concrete model is the votive picture of Doge Agostino Barbarigo (died 1571). The precise recording of materials is reminiscent of works by Flemish artists such as Jan van Eyck, and the crowd of figures of the German tradition of altars full of figures such as those painted by Stefan Lochner (1410 - 1451). However, the depicted theme reminds us that Durer's teacher, Michael Wolgemut, had also created an altar for the Brotherhood of the Rosary in the Nuremberg Dominican church of St. Marien, and Durer must certainly have been familiar with it.
The theme is part of the German pictorial tradition of the Brotherhoods of the Rosary: Mary, crowned by angels, the Christ Child and St. Dominic are handing out rose garlands to mankind, led by the pope and emperor. The objects of homage here were both Mary and the Rosary, and the secular and ecclesiastical authorities of the Germans.
The symmetrical composition is supported by framing trees on the right and left edges of the picture. Mary, enthroned in the center beneath a baldachin held by an angel, and dressed in Venetian costume, is crowning Emperor Maximilian on her left as the leader of the secular ranks. The Christ Child in her arms is about to put a rose garland on the pope, the head of the spiritual ranks. The events are being given a musical accompaniment by an angel at Mary's feet who is playing a lute. The counterpart to the coronation of the two highest representatives of the State and Church is the Coronation of the Virgin. Flying putti distribute rose garlands to the people gathered to the right and left of the throne. In preceding illustrations, such as a woodcut accompanying a written work about the Brotherhood of the Rosary written by the Dominican monk Jakob Sprenger (active from c. 1468 - c. 1494/1498), it was the faithful who brought rose garlands to the Madonna. Behind the pope, St. Dominic appears, dressed in his order's habit, and he is holding a white lily in his hand, the symbol of the virginity of Mary.
The execution of material details such as the crown meant for Mary, the brocade pluvial worn by the pope and other garments, and the depicted landscape are of such exquisiteness that it creates the impression that Durer had gone out of his way to convince every single one of his critics.
The numerous portraits in the retinues accompanying the central group document the clients' intentions to have a piece of artistic evidence created of the community of German Christians in Italy. Some of the portraits, probably members of the German colony in Venice, can be identified with absolute certainty. But there are also a number of invented portraits amongst them. The portrayal of the pope, the original version of which has been handed down in a drawn study, cannot however be definitely identified as a portrait of Julius II. The pope and emperor are depicted traditionally in keeping with the theory of the two powers, temporal and spiritual, who were the heads of the Civitas Dei, the Christian community. The coronation of the emperor, whose features Durer had previously only known from a drawing by the Augsburg master Hans Burgkmair (1473 - 1531), occupies a central position in the scene. Although Maximilian I was not yet emperor at the time the picture was created, he is already portrayed as such here. As Doris Kutschbach has recently expounded, this can be interpreted as a political intention, an appeal from the German merchants to the city of Venice not to block the emperor's coronation. This was because the French and Venetians were resisting Maximilian's plans to have the pope crown him emperor of Germany in Rome by forbidding him passage through their territories. The pope and emperor are joined by the various representatives of the ecclesiastical ranks, cardinals and bishops, priests and monks, and the secular ranks, knights and merchants, artists and craftsmen.
To the right of the picture, in front of a tree, the artist himself is depicted with a piece of paper in his hand. He is gazing directly at the observer. Dressed in a smart fur cloak with an alpine landscape behind him, he self-confidently identifies himself as the gentleman, which he was considered to be and treated as in Venice. The conspicuously displayed sheet in his hands bears the inscription "exegit quinque/mestri spado Albertus/Durer Germanus/. M.D.VI." (Albrecht Durer, A German, created this in the space of five months. 1506).
Next to Durer, away from the main events, stands a man who is still proving difficult to identify due to a lack of preliminary sketches. It has been thought that this is the humanist Konrad Peutinger (1465-1547), who was an imperial advisor, as he also acted as an intermediary between the emperor and artists. Much of the original effect of the transparent paints and illusionistic recording of materials has probably been lost, for when the painting was moved from Venice it was badly damaged and was overpainted in many places.
The painting also played an important role for Durer, as he had succeeded in disproving his opponents' opinions about his achievements in painting. Even the Doge Leonardo Loredano (1431-1521) and Antonius of Surianus, the patriarch of Venice (died 1508) came in person in order to view the picture. Observers were particularly impressed by the careful application of the paint and the choice and harmony of the color values.
Durer incorporated a variety of ideas in this picture. The gesture language of the hands is new, clarifying the dispute between Christ and the bad doctor standing directly next to him, and this is a method of depiction which is more frequently encountered in Italian pictures of debating doctors. This play of hands may have been inspired by Giovanni Bellini's painting Lamentation over the Dead Christ. The doctors seem to ignore Christ as they talk and look around just as much as they avoid visual contact with each other. Each of the figures has a different position of the head, and this produces a rhythmic overall image. Since the Middle Ages ugliness had been equated with wickedness. The exaggerated depiction reminds us that Durer may already have been familiar, in Florence, with the caricatures produced by Da Vinci, the famous Italian artist, architect and natural scientist. His treatise on painting, the Trattato della Pittura, contains a rule recommending the contrast of absolute beauty and extreme ugliness.
The reproduction of rhetorical gestures and the arrangement of the figures in the picture reveals the influences of northern Italian half length portraits such as those by Andrea Mantegna, and a Venetian compositional scheme which shows Christ in the center of the picture surrounded by a group of half length figures. Durer's signature appears on a bookmark sticking out of an open book, with the addition of "opus quinque dierum," a reference to the fact that the work was produced in the remarkably short time of five days.
A finely executed large sheet of paper that was later divided in the middle originally connected the two preliminary studies for the heads of the lute-playing angel in the Feast of the Rose Garlands and that of the twelve year-old Christ. These brush drawings with white highlights were produced by Durer on blue Venetian paper with white and black watercolors, and this gives the light and dark effects a particular impact. He had become familiar with the technique in Italy and perfected it to a degree that almost exceeded the ability of its inventor.
The Madonna with the Siskin was painted by Durer at the same time as the Feast of the Rose Garlands and Christ among the Doctors. It achieved considerable popularity due to its majestic type of composition and the shining colors which are interrelated with the picture's humanly natural and emotional values. The picture of the Madonna is part of the tradition of Giovanni Bellini's monumental paintings and, in terms of style, is directly connected to the Feast of the Rose Garlands. Mary, in Venetian costume and crowned by putti, is enthroned before a red curtain, to the side of which we can see out onto an alpine landscape.
In contrast to early depictions of the Madonna influenced by Schongauer, the group of figures is moved close to the front edge of the picture. The small St. John the Baptist, assisted by an angel who is holding the cross-shaped staff as a symbol of Christ's Passion, is offering Mary lily of the valley flowers, symbols of her virginity. Jesus, holding a pacifier in his right hand, is playfully balancing the siskin, a symbol of the sinful souls redeemed by Christ, on his elbow. The book on which Mary is leaning her arm is an allusion to the Mother of God as the "sedes sapientiae," the seat of eternal wisdom. The oak leaf crown above her head fits in with this subject. The piece of paper lying on the table bears Durer's monogram and the inscription: "Albert(us) durer germanus/faciebat post virginis/ partum 1506" (The German Albrecht Durer made this after the Virgin gave birth 1506).
In terms of style and color, it is clear that the Feast of the Rose Garlands, Christ among the Doctors and the Madonna with the Siskin were all created at about the same time. They document Durer's ability to combine Italian models with his own pictorial ideas.
By the beginning of 1507, Durer had probably already returned to Nuremberg. He was in a good financial position after his successful time in Venice, was able to pay off his debts to Pirckheimer and, from the heirs of the astronomer Bernhard Walter (c. 1430-1504) he bought the building by the Tiergartner Gate that was to gain fame as Durer's house.
The lack of theoretical treatises on the nature of painting caused Durer, from 1508 onwards, to direct his attention to writing a book on painting which was given the interim title of "speis der maler knaben," but we only know of its planning from a few scattered notes. It was intended to be a textbook for his assistants and apprentices, and in addition to Durer's own knowledge about geometry, perspective and color also provided advice on personal hygiene, morals and human problems.
During the ensuing years, the Feast of the Rose Garlands, Durer's first major painted work, was followed by further masterpieces.
Shortly after his return from Italy, Durer was commissioned to create a painting of the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand for his patron, the Elector Frederick the Wise. The work was meant for the chamber of relics in the Wittenberg castle chapel which housed a large collection of relics, including those of the 10,000 Christian martyrs. Durer had already dealt with the theme in an earlier woodcut which was based on the same preliminary studies as the painting. In the preparatory drawing, Durer still planned the picture to have a horizontal format. However, the choice of a vertical format, presumably a requirement on the part of the client, meant that in the end the composition and arrangement of the figures once more coincided with those of the woodcut. As in the painting of the first man and woman, Durer added the word "alemanus" to his name: Albrecht Durer the German. Numerous horrendous scenes of the martyrdom of the 10,000 Christian warriors and their leader Achatius on Mount Ararat are visible amidst a steep rocky landscape. The action develops horizontally in stepped picture strips. In addition to the powerful blue, the main colors are brown, red and green tones. The artist has depicted himself in the center of the picture, gazing out at the observer. He is deep in conversation with the humanist Konrad Celtis, who was held in equally high esteem by the Elector. In the sense of platonic love in accordance with the notions of the Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), they are intently watching the martyrs' sufferings. Their dark clothing distinguishes them from the rest of the event which is depicted in shining colors. While Durer has been considered to be dressed in mourning in honor of the dead man, the robes of his companion have been interpreted as those of the professor of poetics at the University of Vienna. The little scene is interpreted as a recommendation for the soul of the dead humanist to the 10,000 martyrs. The panel fulfills two functions. On the one hand, it is a devotional picture relating to the relics belonging to the Elector, and on the other hand, it is a memorial picture commemorating dead humanist. There had been relations between the client, painter and humanist for some years, so that the Elector must have been aware of the double meaning of the picture. The painting was held in high esteem by Frederick the Wise and his nephew and successor Johann Frederick of Saxony (1503 - 1554). The latter is even supposed to have asked for it during his imprisonment in Brussels.
At the same time as the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, Durer was working on an extensive altar for the wealthy Frankfurt cloth merchant Jacob Heller (c. 1460-1522), another important client who had heard of Durer's outstanding achievement in the Feast of the Rose Garlands in Venice. He commissioned Durer to produce a winged altar in three sections, meant to be dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, for the Dominican church in Frankfurt am Main. Nine existing letters document the difficult relationship between client and artist. The central altar picture was intended to be a new iconographical form of picture combining the Coronation of the Virgin with the Assumption, and the side wings were to depict scenes of martyrdom, donor portraits and standing saints. The central panel was completed by 1509. Matthias Grunewald (c. 1460/1480-1528) painted two additional outer side panels with standing saints in grisaille. As copies of the central panel and wings from Durer's workshop prove, the Heller Altar was, together with the Paumgartner Altar, one of Durer's most extensive altarpieces. In 1729 the central panel, a pale reflection of which is provided by a copy dating from 1614, was destroyed in a fire in the Munich residence. Eighteen preliminary studies, brush drawings on green, blue or gray primed paper which Durer produced for this work influenced by Italian models, survived and convey an impression of what must have been a magnificent painting.
It was probably in 1508 that Durer was commissioned to produce another altar painting, the Adoration of the Trinity, by Matthaus Landauer (died 1515), a Nuremberg metal dealer. The picture was intended for the Chapel of All Saints in the home that Landauer had founded for old craftsmen who had become impoverished through no fault of their own, and it was completed in 1511. Durer designed the picture and frame as an artistic and iconographical whole. In keeping with Italian models, he chose a single panel, the relatively small size of which also differs from large altarpieces. At the request of the client, the work was carried out in a particularly lavish manner: the gold-colored sections were executed with real gold. A carved frame with Christ sitting in judgment and Mary and St. John in prayer opens up the view, in the manner of an eschatological prelude, of a heavenly vision comprising a gathering of all the saints around a depiction of the Holy Trinity. This vision heralds what is awaiting each individual after the Last Judgment in the City of God. In the earthly zone, an extensive river landscape, impossible to identify beyond doubt, is also a symbol of the real world.
All three altarpieces produced at the same time, after Durer's second Italian journey, testify to his innovative approach to tradition and the influences of Italy. While the Heller Altar merged two different iconographical types in one, the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand had an unusual double purpose as a devotional and memorial picture. The Landauer Altar, finally, differed from the earlier ones in the choice of a single panel picture and in the format and composition of traditional altar forms.
Durer had never entirely abandoned his study of ideal human proportions during his second Italian journey, as is shown by various drawings. His efforts left their mark on the two pictures of Adam and Eve created in 1507. The two pictures, independent and nonetheless related to each other, were derived from preparatory studies and a copper engraving dating from 1504. The symbolical accessories are reduced to a minimum, and the recording of the nude figures and modeling of the bodies are at the fore. By using separate panels, Durer created a new pictorial type for this theme which was frequently imitated. In his depiction of the first human couple, Durer presumably was influenced by a wall painting by Masolino at the entrance to the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The pictures have motifs in common such as the Tree of Knowledge on the fight edge of the picture. Durer worked his knowledge of Venetian sculpture into the figure of Adam. After they were completed, the two panels came into the possession of Bishop Johann V of Breslau.
In 1511, Durer returned to an increased study of printed graphics. Interactions between his paintings and graphics at this time as well as the experiences Durer had gained on his second Italian journey are apparent in large-scale woodcuts such as the Holy Trinity and sheets from the Life of the Virgin. It is significant that Durer turned to making series of woodcuts, such as the Small Passion and the Great Passion, the Life of the Virgin which Durer published in 1511 in book form with poetry by the Benedictine monk Benedictus Chelidonius, and a new edition of the Apocalypse. In total, he produced nearly 90 woodcuts, some of which were very large in size, and these must have been very influential and ensured that the artist enjoyed a certain degree of financial independence from then on. At this time, Durer's woodcuts were already on display everywhere as models in workshops. Therefore, it is surely no coincidence that Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1558) also started to carve his drawings in wood at this time. The printed graphics Durer produced after his second Italian journey are distinguished by a novel use of the "clair-obscur" technique which had already been initiated in drawings such as the sheets of the Green Passion. In the Small Passion and Engraved Passion, Durer succeeded in achieving an unprecedented dramatic effect by what was a novel use of light and dark effects in printed graphics.
The printed graphics for Emperor Maximilian I
"When a person dies, there is nothing to follow him apart from his work. If one does not create a memorial to oneself during one's lifetime, one will not be remembered after one's death, and such a person will be forgotten even as the bell tolls." (Maximilian I)
The years between 1512 and 1517 were shaped by commissions for Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) and Durer's activities as a graphic artist.
Several imperial commissions were prompted by rhe portraits of the German emperors, Charlemagne and Sigismund, who were portrayed in a manner which hovered between religious and secular iconography. The Nuremberg city council had commissioned Durer to create these idealized, larger than life-size portraits, which were intended for the "Heilrumskammer" in the Schoppersche House by the marketplace and were presumably used as doors for the wall cupboard in which the "regalia" were kept. Charlemagne (724-814) was the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He was canonized as early as 1165. Emperor Sigismund (1361-1437), in contrast, had brought the imperial insignia away from the Hussites, from Karlstein Castle in Bohemia, via Hungary to Nuremberg, and for that reason had played an important part in the history of the city. While the portrait of Charlemagne was a work of the imagination, though following a type of depiction that was common in the 15th century, the portrait of Sigismund was based on a model. In comparison to other portraits by Durer, the pictures appear wooden. However, with the depicted state treasures and imperial jewels, objects from the "Heiltumskammer" in which they were mounted, they represented an ideal, if not an artificial, image of princely splendor. Due to the strangeness of the two panels in Durer's works, it has been assumed that they were based on the two older panels in the "Heiltumskammer." For example, the hands of Emperor Sigismund, the blocky self-containedness of the figure and its bent posture may derive from the panel by a Nuremberg master dating from rhe period around 1430. When the Reformation came to Nuremberg in 1526, the panels lost their significance as sacred objects and were removed from the
"Heiltumskammer" to the town hall as a result of a council decree dating from 6 October of that year.
In a letter written by Lazarus Spengler (1479-1534), the Nuremberg town clerk, on 30 November 1513, we can read of Maximilian I's admiration of the panels, in particular of the portrait of Charlemagne, whose beard was reminiscent of depictions of God the Father, and that the emperor intended to commission a range of works from Durer. The emperor had recognized the opportunities that printed graphics provided for propaganda. During the following years, he endeavored to leave everlasting memorials to himself in the form of printed works and pieces of art. Amongst other things, he planned 33 books, seven of which were actually published. The literary fame the emperor wanted to achieve in this manner was to be spurred on by the embellishments provided by the staff of artists he commissioned. Apart from Durer, who was in overall charge of the work on the series of woodcuts for the Triumph of the Emperor, numerous artists were involved in the projects, including Durer's two students Hans Schaufelin (c. 1480/1485-1538/1540) and Hans Burgkmair, Albrecht Altdorfer and Maximilian I's court painter Jorg Kolderer (died 1540). However, the emperor's attitude to paying his staff left much to be desired. In a letter dated July 1515 and addressed to the imperial envoy in Nuremberg, Christoph Kress (1484-1535), Durer complained that he had been in the service of the emperor for three years without pay and that he was "therefore asking his imperial majesty to pay him the hundred florins." In a reply dared 6 September, Emperor Maximilian granted an annual pension, but it was rarely paid by the city council.
In addition to his collaboration on the Gate of Honor and the Triumphal Procession, Durer also delivered two painted portraits to the emperor during these years, together with designs for a set of silver armor and 56 border illustrations for a prayer book which were used as preliminary drawings for the woodcut. The larger than life-size bronze statue of Albrecht von Habsburg (c. 1298 - 1358), which was created for the cycle of sculptures in Maximilian's sepulcher in Innsbruck by the Landshut sculptor Hans Leinberger (c. 1480/ 1485- after 1530), was also derived from a design created by Durer.
The emperor was advised by a staff of court literati and historians when planning his triumphal and apotheotic printed works. The overall composition of the Gate of Honor, an important component of the glorious printed graphics, was created in close collaboration with the court writer and astronomer Johannes Stabius (died 1522). This printed triumphal arch was used formally to glorify the life and deeds of the emperor and his ancestors, and its type derives from classical triumphal arches and the narrative scenes in reliefs running along them, such as those on Trajan's Column in Rome. It combines classical ideas with contemporary forms. In its structure and architecture it is reminiscent of magnificent Renaissance palaces. Other artists apart from Durer working on the monumental work, which was finished in 1515, were Wolf Traut (1480-1520), Hans Springinklee (c. 1495-1540), Peter Flotner (1490/1495-1546) and Jorg Kolderer. Durer was in charge of the design and the overall direction of the project. He enriched the architecture designed by Jorg Kolderer by adding the figural ornamentation. The 190 woodcuts of the Gate of Honor, produced by the wood block carver Hieronymus Andreae and finally pieced together, created an overall surface of almost ten square meters. Honorary ceremonies could be held beneath such a monumental scene. A high print run of 700 copies was meant to ensure that this gigantic woodcut work carried the emperor's fame to the far corners of his empire.
The Triumphal Procession, a series of 130 annotated woodcuts derived from the model of classical, imperial Roman triumphal processions, completed the Gate of Honor. Together they formed the Triumph with which the emperor intended to set a memorial to himself. When Maximilian died in 1519, many of the woodcuts and accompanying inscriptions and banderoles were not yet finished. Not until 1526 did Archduke Ferdinand (1503-1564), a grandson of Maximilian Is, posthumously publish the work.
The years of 1513 to 1514 can be called the high point in Durer's work in printed graphics. These were the years during which three copper engravings were created, Knight, Death and the Devil, Melencolia I and St. Jerome in his Study. They are remarkable in having the same format and, due to their technical perfection, are considered the most masterly engravings in all Durer's creative work. It is believed that the engravings of St. Jerome in his Study and Melencolia I were created as antithetical pendants, as Durer handed them out in pairs on his journey to the Netherlands. Despite the lack of references by Durer, the contextual connection between the three sheets was considered to be the thematic trio of the moral, theological and intellectual Virtues in scholastic teachings. Knight, Death and the Devil, for example, represents Christian, moral steadfastness, St. Jerome in his Study religious contemplation and Melencolia I the intellectual investigation of the divine order.
Mankind at the center
New forms of portraits
"Awch behelt daz gemell dy gestalt der menschen nach jrem sterben." (Also, the painting retains the appearance of people after they have died; Durer in his speis der maler knaben)
The years from 1507 to 1514 had unfolded almost exclusively against a background of masterpieces in printed graphics with both religious and secular themes which Durer brought to a climax in terms of content and form. As early as the time of his second visit to Italy, Durer had become well-known as a portrait painter due to the portraits in the Feast of the Rose Garlands. However, ten years after his Italian journey, his portrait style changed once more, leading to new portrait types both in painting and in printed graphics, a field in which portraits had not been produced before Durer.
In the years of 1518 and 1519, numerous painted and printed portraits were commissioned and created. Most official portraits of this period are a result of his involvement in the Imperial Diet in Augsburg in 1518. In 1509, Durer had been elected to the Nuremberg town council. He traveled to Augsburg to represent the city of Nuremberg together with the Nuremberg councilor Kaspar Nutzel (1471-1529) and the town clerk Lazarus Spengler. Emperor Maximilian I was also drawn by Durer in his chambers in the bishop's palace. This portrait sketch was used as a base for two painted portraits and a large format woodcut, which, though they differ in technique, are not significantly different in terms of the method of depiction. The woodcut was repeatedly colored or given gold highlights and, refined in this way, was meant for members of the higher social circles. The magnificent dress consists of a brocade cloak and the chain denoting Maximilian I as the Grand Master, since his marriage to Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482), of the Burgundian order of the Knights of the Golden Fleece. It shows the emperor to be a wealthy scholar. The term "divus" in the inscription, meaning divine, is a sign that the woodcut was created directly after the emperor's death in 1519, as this title was not given to the Roman emperors that Maximilian emulated until after their deaths.
Starting with the woodcut which depicts Maximilian and combines the portrait with an obvious inscription, Durer developed new types of portraits using printed graphics. Building on the printed portraits that were created on the occasion of the Imperial Diet in Augsburg and which were thoroughly prepared in drawings, Durer created numerous portraits of spiritual and secular leaders as well as contemporary humanists during the following years. The printed graphics were normally immediately preceded by charcoal or silver point drawings. The method of depiction, combined with an inscribed plaque of a classical type, was suggested by epitaphs on Late Roman graves. The busts of the portrayed people were depicted above a plaque, and this gave them a monument-like distance at a time when they were still alive. The inscriptions beneath the pictures combined classical and Christian bodies of thought and were obviously related to the depicted person, as is shown by the copper engraving portraying Willibald Pirckheimer. Durer's students continued using this form of engraved portrait that the master had developed.
The portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545) dates from 1519. The copper engraving, which is known as the Small Cardinal because of its small format, was preceded by a drawing which Durer created during his stay in Augsburg for the Imperial Diet. At that time, Albrecht had just been named a cardinal. He was one of the most powerful representatives of the Church in the Roman Catholic world. When he was elected archbishop of Mainz in 1514, the Curia in Rome was provided with an opportunity to grant an indulgence throughout the empire. When Albrecht of Brandenburg was applying to be made a cardinal in 1517, he had to pay a tax of 50,000 florins to the Roman Curia, and to do so took out a loan with the Fugger bankers. Half of the resulting debts could, with the permission of the papal Curia, be paid off using income earned from the Sermon of St. Peter indulgence. The granting and promotion of the sale of indulgences, and the methods of some preachers that were connected with them, finally led to Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, so that one could say that the cardinal played an indirect role in bringing about the Reformation. Apart from his significance in the history of religion, Albrecht of Brandenburg was one of the most important princely patrons in Germany next to Emperor Maximilian I and Elector Frederick the Wise. His interest in art and desire to create the right public image are manifested in a copper engraving created in 1525 by Lukas Cranach (1472-1553), showing him as St. Jerome in his Study in imitation of Durer's copper engraving of 1514.
The copper plate portrait produced by Durer was used by the cardinal as the frontispiece in his Hallescbes Heiltumsbuch, published in 1520. This proves the high propagandist status such graphic portraits could achieve when ordered in high print runs.
The inscription beneath the picture confirms that the portrayed man was 29 years old when the work was created, and this emphasizes his official religious and political status. In 1520 Durer sent 200 copies and the original copper plates to the cardinal. There is a later portrait of the cardinal dated 1522 and preceded by a silver point drawing. As before, Durer sent his client 500 copies and the original copper plate.
Durer was a great supporter of the Reformation which had begun when Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg in 1517. There is a letter dating from 1520 in which Durer openly admits to his admiration of Martin Luther. Although both had taken part in the Imperial Diet in Augsburg, the artist and reformer did not meet. In his letter to Georg Spalatin (1484-1545), the court chaplain and secretary to the Protestant duke Frederick the Wise, Durer expressed his hopes that he would meet Luther, who he would also have been honored to portray: "and if God helps me to meet Dr. Martin Luther, I will portray him with skill and engrave him in copper so that the Christian man who has helped me leave great troubles behind shall have a lasting memorial. And I would ask Your Honor, wherever Dr. Martin is doing something new that is German, to tell me about it in teturn for my gratitude."
Official portraits commissioned for public reasons contrast with portraits that were created for private reasons. The latter stand out due to their perceptible emotional immediacy and merciless naturalism, such as the famous charcoal Portrait of the Artist's Mother created in about 1514. The inscription reveals that Durer drew the old woman two months before her death, aged 63: "1514 an oculy Dz ist albrecht Durers/mutter dy was alt 63 Jor," and after his mother's death he added in ink that she had died on a Tuesday in the Week of the Cross at two o' clock at night: "vnd ist verschiden/im 1514 Jor - am erchtag vor der crewtzwochen/um zwey genacht." Durer wrote in detail in his commemorative book about her long illness and death, which shattered him. Twelve years earlier in this same book he had also recorded the death of his father. Comparing it with Durer's first painted portrait of his mother dating from 1490 makes it clear how the intervening time had affected both the portrayed woman and Durer's artistic development. Durer recorded her features meticulously in the charcoal drawing and included a degree of human expressiveness and heartfelt sympathy that was previously unknown in portrait art. Here for the first time, the face of a careworn old woman upon whom life has left its mark, who gave birth to 18 children of whom only three survived and who had experienced "great poverty, derision, contempt, mocking words, fears and great offensiveness," is not shown in the traditional sense as equating ugliness with evil and death. Although Durer produced the drawing as a private work, the picture continued to have an effect in works where his students depicted unattractive, old women. The self-portraits and portraits of close family members and friends that Durer drew and painted at various points in his life are linked to a point in the text of his planned treatise on painting in which he stated that portrait art had a particular role to play: "Awch behelt daz gemell dy gestalt der menschen nach jrem sterben" (The art of painting... preserves the image of people after their death).
It is uncertain whether the death of his mother, which Durer describes so movingly in his commemorative book, led to the graphic prints depicting Mary which link up with the series of woodcuts showing the Life of the Virgin; while they present the Mother of God in accordance with iconographical tradition as a figure we can appeal to, in the sense of "compassio," (compassion with Christ), they appear more human, natural and emotional than the earlier woodcuts. The copper engraving dating from 1520 showing the Madonna and Child is a good example of an almost genre-like approach to the theme. The body position of the sleeping Christ Child, however, also reminds us that this is a reference to Christ's Passion.
In contrast to the public portraits commissioned by the upper classes and aristocracy, which were of a more official nature, Durer used portraits of his close family for other purposes. His wife Agnes, for example, was his model for the painting of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne. Together with Mary and the Christ Child she forms an acute-angled triangular composition. The painting was preceded by a detailed individual study of St. Anne. Anne, a mature matron, appears pensive in her knowledge about Christ's Passion. She is consolingly placing her hand on the shoulder of Mary, who is praying to the sleeping Christ Child. Christ is bedded on the right edge of Anne's headscarf, a premonition of his Passion. It is not by chance that the position of his body and the cloth showing beneath his body remind us of pieta scenes. The picture is tightly framed and the group of figures is moved right into the foreground, so that the observer is being directly appealed to express their sympathy for Christ's sufferings in their worship. The human, emotional and natural conception of the individual figures, dressed in contemporary garments, heightens this intention.
The results of free vision
The journey to the Netherlands
"And when I was led to table, the people were standing on both sides just as if a great lord was being brought in..." (Durer in his journal recording his journey to the Netherlands)
The outward reason for Durer's journey to the Netherlands was secular in nature.
Emperor Maximilian I died on 12 January 1519, and he had promised Durer an annual pension of 100 florins to be paid by the Nuremberg town council.
In order for this payment to continue, it had to be ratified by Duke Charles of Burgundy, the grandson of Maximilian I, who had been chosen as the new emperor of Germany; for this reason, accompanied on this occasion by his wife Agnes and maid Susanna, he traveled to the Netherlands. As the Bamberg bishop Georg III Schenk of Limburg (1502 - 1522) had given him traveling license and letter of recommendation, Durer got through all the border controls without a problem. Durer had paid for the license with a picture of the Madonna, since lost, and two of his large books of woodcuts. After he had taken part in a pilgrimage to Vierzehnheiligen in Franconia, he traveled by boat via Bamberg, Frankfurt and Cologne to Antwerp, where he stayed for a year with the innkeeper Jobst Planckfeldt. From there he traveled to Bruges, Ghent, Mecheln, Brussels, Aachen and Cologne. During his one year stay in Antwerp, Durer, who was already an internationally renowned artist, was received like a lord and showered with invitations and presents wherever he went. He stayed in Mecheln on several occasions with the imperial governess of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria. In 1520 he witnessed the imperial coronation of Charles V in Aachen, whom he also met in Mecheln. After producing a charcoal drawing, he portrayed the Danish king Christian II, who paid him a princely sum and whose beauty and manliness Durer admired.
Durer met many of the great minds of the age, became acquainted with Erasmus of Rotterdam for the first time, sketched Sebastian Brant and met important foreign government representatives and merchants. He became acquainted with the most important artists of his age such as Jan Gossaert, the Mecheln court painter Barend van Orley and the Antwerp stained glass artist Dirck Vellert, in whose art the influence of Durer's printed graphics immediately showed itself. Durer became friends with Lucas van Leyden, the "kleine mannlein" (small man), who from then onwards adopted Durer's style. He was invited to the wedding of the respected landscape painter Joachim Patinir, the "gut landschafft mahler" (good landscape painter), and the well-known painter Jan Provost traveled specially from Bruges in order to meet him.
But Durer did not only meet the most famous living artists: he also studied the most famous artists of the past. He viewed Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, the "alabaser Marienbild, das Michelangelo von Rohm gemacht" (the alabaster Madonna which Michelangelo of Rome made), and was filled with enthusiasm for the old Dutch painting of artists such as Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and their portrait paintings influenced his late style in this genre. His host Jan Provost showed him the most famous paintings of the city, the Death of Mary by Hugo van der Goes and Jan van Eyck's Madonna with Canon van der Paele. He got to know Jan van Eyck's Wedding of Arnolfini when staying with the governess of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria. In the Ghent cathedral of St. Bavo he admired Jan and Hubert van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, "a most exquisite, very understandable painting." In Cologne he viewed the panel by "Master Steffan," which earlier researchers have identified as Stefan Lochner's main altar in Cologne Cathedral. Here too his annual pension was ratified by the emperor. Durer had brought numerous printed graphics with him which he handed out as gifts or sold. His journey only lasted about a year, and despite this numerous drawings and several paintings show how intensively he worked during this time. Only one page still remains of the original manuscript of his journal: a tailor's sketch for Dutch ladies' coats. We are familiar with the text from two slightly diverging copies dating from the late 16th or early 17th centuries.
In this journal, Durer recorded his business income and expenditure in detail. The costs of food and lodging are also mentioned there, as are exchange values, such as when Durer exchanged prints for an art object in which he was particularly interested. His handing out of gifts is also recorded with the precision of a bookkeeper. In addition to this primary function of bookkeeping, however, the journal also reveals Durer's attentiveness to people that he encountered on his journey, and interest in the curious and rare objects and natural phenomena that he recorded in numerous drawings and sketches. We can read here of the Mexican treasures exhibited in Brussels Castle and of the sudden storm and distress that Durer experienced on Zeeland. Within the entire sober report, there is only one point where the tone becomes emotional, and this is when he heard of Luther's unexpected death which he lamented at length. This entry in the journal once more clearly shows Durer's positive attitude to the Reformation and the respect he had for Martin Luther.
A 93 year-old man whom Durer had met in Antwerp was the model for St. Jerome. The journal informs us of his fee, three pennies. The posture and gestures of the old man are considerably more natural in the head studies than they are in the painting. The brush drawing in the Albertina, which depicts the old man at a moment of mental concentration, is in its sweeping lines and plastic modeling a high point recording a physiognomy full of character. Wolffin even considered the brush drawing to be the start of a new stylistic phase in Durer's work.
The portrait of the Danzig merchant Bernhard von Reesen is one of the few painted portraits remaining from the journey that demonstrate the influence Dutch portrait art had on Durer. Here the picture is not framed so tightly as in his portrait drawings and the hands are visible in the picture. In this type of portrait, Durer was imitating contemporary Dutch artists such as Jan Gossaert or Quentin Massys (1465/66-1530).
In addition to numerous portraits, pictures of animals, costume studies and vedutas testify to Durer's continuing interest in anything unusual. He also collected "Naturalia" and "Artificialia," in other words, the products of nature and art: a parrot, the shell of a fish, horns and claws, a tortoise shell, Chinese porcelain, expensive textiles and furs. His hosts reinforced his passion for collecting by giving him valuable presents. His landlord Jobst Planckfelt, for example, gave him an "Indian nut" and the Portuguese ambassador Joao Brandao gave him "cloth from Calcutta..., a green jug with mirabelles,..., and a branch from a cedar tree."
Durer's particular interest in local costumes is documented in several drawings that were produced in Nuremberg and Venice. During his journey to the
Netherlands, he created colorful studies of curious Estonian and Latvian female costumes which, apart from the historical and artistic aspects, also demonstrate Durer's interest in ethnology. In Brussels town hall, Durer very much admired the gold which Hernando Cortes (1485 -1547) had extorted from the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II (c. 1466-1520) in Mexico. He wrote enthusiastically - quite in contrast to the normally dry style of his journal - about a golden sun and a silver moon as well as two chambers full of armor and curious objects: "all the days of my life I have not seen anything that brought as much pleasure to my heart as these objects."
By the end of the journey, the artist had made a loss where financial matters are concerned; he wrote that: "I have not been paid for the majority of my work... In all my deeds, provisions, sales and other dealings I have been at a disadvantage in the Netherlands." He had, however, achieved his actual goal, which was for his annual pension to be ratified. In addition, he had gained deep impressions in all areas of life and was no longer a receiver, but much more of a giver of knowledge, a celebrated and admired artist who was capable of entering into direct interchanges with his artistic colleagues. The Flemish and Dutch artists celebrated Durer as a prince of painters. In addition, he was courted by diplomats, princes and scholars. The municipal authorities of Antwerp had even proposed to him that he remain in the city. But after he had portrayed King Christian of Denmark in 1521 in Brussels, Durer, his wife and maid started on their homeward journey, via Leuven, Julich, Aachen and Cologne, one year after he had left Nuremberg. The journal ends here.
Then truly, art is present in nature
The last years of his life
Then truly, art is present in nature, and whoever can rip it out has got it; Durer in his Four Books on Human Proportions.
At the beginning of August 1521, Durer, his wife and maid returned to Nuremberg. The works created during the following final years must be considered as part of the same group of works as those pieces created during the journey to the Netherlands. Durer brought some drawings back from the journey which are thought to have been preliminary studies for religious paintings. They include studies for a Great Crucifixion and for a Madonna and Saints, a monumental altar-piece which, according to Winzinger, "would probably even have put the Feast of the Rose Garlands in the shade." The latter painting, however, was never produced. An individual study still exists in the form of St. Apollonia. It appears in other preparatory studies together with her attributes, a pair of pliers and a tooth. In late summer, on 11 August 1521, the Nuremberg council decided to commission Durer to produce the designs for a program of frescoes for the council chamber with a mythological and allegorical theme. The frescoes were produced by Durer's students Georg Pencz (c. 1500 - 1550) and Hans Springinklee. In addition to the Calumny of Apelles, the chamber already contained the Triumphal Chariot of Emperor Maximilian I, which had been transferred from the woodcuts to the wall. The original decorations were destroyed during the Second World War.
During the following years, Durer once more worked on a series of engraved portraits and continued to develop new types of pictures. For example, in the Large Cardinal dating from 1526, which is a second copperplate portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, the subject appears in profile and his shoulders are slightly slanted, giving him a more three-dimensional appearance. Durer also managed to develop new forms in his painted portraits, a large number of which have survived from this period. The manner so typical of the Netherlands of letting the subject's hands appear in the picture is now abandoned, in favor of pure bust portraits. Portraits such as those of the two Nuremberg patricians Hieronymus Holzschuher (1469-1529) and Jakob Muffel (1471-1526) are examples of this type of portrait which is also characterized by the illusionistic reproduction of material details. There is one point in Durer's Four Books on Human Proportions, in which he claims that it is necessary to execute all the elements in a portrait in the most thorough detail, which almost reads like a commentary on them: "That the very smallest things are made skillfully and in the best manner, and these things should also be done in the work in the purest and most diligent way possible, not omitting as much as a vein..." Despite the small format, the position of the two portrayed people in the pictures gives them a monumental appearance. The torso and shoulders serve as a base for the character heads.
The year of 1526 was another highly important one in Durer's creative work, for in addition to his theoretical written works and engraved portraits, he also produced one of his major late works. The Four Apostles, in their role as Reformation professions of faith, are a new pictorial creation. Durer was a very pious person who repeatedly reflected on his faith. An ardent admirer of Luther's, he joined the so-called "Soldatitas Staupitziana" which had gathered around the Augustinian monk Johann von Staupitz (c. 1428 - 1524). Staupitz belonged to the same order as Luther and was the great reformer's pastor in Wittenberg as well as his predecessor in the chair of biblical theology at Wittenberg University. Durer, Pirckheimer and other reform-minded individuals were dismayed by the fanatical and sectarian behavior of some groups. These were the circumstances under which the two panels with the figures of the Apostles were created, and together with the accompanying biblical texts they denounced the excesses of the Reformation, which had also been criticized by Luther. Examples of these excesses were the Peasants' War which broke out in 1524 and the trial, in 1525, of the three "ungodly painters," Durer's student George Pencz, Barthel (1502-1540) and his brother Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550). In 1525 the city of Nuremberg joined the Reformation: the form of church services was altered, the abolition of annual memorial services for the dead was demanded and the monasteries were dissolved. This was the context within which Durer offered, in a letter dated 6 October 1526, to present them with a gift of two panels, each containing two standing figures of saints, to be housed in the upper regimental chamber of the Nuremberg town hall. Durer received a hundred florins as an "honorary gift," his wife a further twelve.
The panels are in keeping with the familiar tradition for the interior furnishings of town halls, intended to portray the city's exercise of power and jurisdiction, but they go beyond this in their demand for reformation and Durer's individual intention for them to be a warning. The work's title, The Four Apostles, is not strictly accurate as St. Mark the Evangelist was not an apostle. The monumental conception and coloring of the four standing saints shows the influence of the altar paintings by Giovanni Bellini. They are standing opposite each other in pairs in two panels, similar to vertical altar wings, and are identifiable solely by the iconographical, traditional depiction of the apostles and their attributes. On the left, St. John the Evangelist and St. Peter with the key are gazing with concentration at a book, and in the right panel St. Paul with the book and sword and St. Mark with the scroll are both gazing at the observer. The four men are standing firmly on the ground, and this is a reference to their steadfastness as teachers of the New Testament. The heavy cloaks support the monumental character of the figures. The sandals on their feet are an allusion to a point in the Gospel of St. Mark (Mark 6, 7-9) in which Christ sent them out in pairs to fight unclean spirits. They were supposed to wear sandals to carry out this task. The choice of saints was no accident in the context of a profession of faith in the Reformation: St. John was the Evangelist and apostle Luther regarded most highly, though his theology had developed from the writings of St. Paul.
There are inscriptions along the bottom edge of the picture, which are to be interpreted as warnings to the observer. The words are addressed to those who deny Christ, false prophets and sects who have contaminated the belief in reform. The biblical texts were written by the Nuremberg master calligrapher and artists' biographer Johann Neudorffer (1497-1553). They match Luther's translation of 1522, and a suitable passage is selected for each apostle. St. Peter, for example, is railing against false prophets (2 Peter 2, 1-3), St. John against those who deny the incarnation of Christ (1 John 4, 1-3), St. Paul, who is gazing warningly at the observer, against high-minded and unholy behavior (2 Timothy 3, 1-7), and St. Mark, finally, against scribes (Mark 12, 38-40).
The inscriptions, reinforce the importance of the work as evidence of Reformation attitudes. At the same time they represented a warning to the town council of Nuremberg to continue on its present line with respect to matters of faith, regardless of sectarians, fanatics or false prophets. Subordinate to this is the link between the four religious messengers and the four human humors, as Johann Neudorffer reported in his
"Information about artists and artistic matters" in 1546. This was an arrangement dating back to medieval teachings about the humors; St. John was the sanguine, St. Mark the choleric, St. Paul the melancholic and St. Peter the phlegmatic man. However, the reference to the four humors was also an indication that the harmony of the soul could be destroyed if any one humor stood out; thus, the picture is also urging the observer to display "Temperantia," restraining one's own temperament in keeping with the intentions of the picture. The ages of man and four seasons were also linked to the four humors. St. Peter is an old man and represents winter, St. Mark is at his prime representing summer, St. John, who seems older in Durer's picture, is a young man representing spring and St. Paul represents autumn. The panels were preceded by drawn studies which researchers have categorized in various ways, including as possible portrait studies. In the context of the religious and political meaning of the work, the Four Apostles represent something like the four new Fathers of the Church; St. Paul and St. Mark, the earliest witnesses and members of the early Christian community, are following St. John and St. Peter as the preachers of the gospel and, therefore, stand behind them in a figurative sense.
Both the Four Apostles, the drawing for a painting of the Madonna and Saints, and a Bearing of the Cross carried out in grisaille suggest that Durer's religious painting was on the threshold of a new stylistic stage which would combine simple forms with a powerful expression of the contents. Altogether, relatively few works were created during the last seven years of his life, but they stand out due to the exceptional way in which they were depicted and their innovative power. Durer's death on 6 April 1528, probably as a result of the illness contracted in the Netherlands, prevented him from proceeding with this new approach.
During his final years Durer endeavored to support practice with theory. He had already prepared the first two volumes of his treatise on proportions before his journey to the Netherlands, and he continued working on them after his return. Due to the numerous geometrical drawings and illustrations needed to serve his didactic purposes, and the necessary study of classical sources, the completion of the work on proportions was delayed. Since his first stay in Venice, Durer had worked on the theory of the ideal human proportions. Durer linked the depiction of body types with differing proportions to the teaching of the four humors, and as such was the first to indicate the connection between build and character. The first volume dealt with basic geometrical terms such as the point and line, the second dealt with surfaces and bodies, and the third and fourth volumes were dedicated to both the ideal depiction of bodies and the construction of columns, letters and sundials. In the appendix, the reader, artist and craftsman can find a short treatise on perspective and instructions for the use of drawing equipment. The treatise on proportions was published posthumously by Willibald Pirckheimer and Durer's wife Agnes.
Durer is dead - long live Durer
Durer revivals from the 16th to the 20th centuries
There is probably no other artist in German art history who has remained as celebrated and venerated, right to the present day, as Albrecht Durer.
When Durer was 30 years old, he was already being described as a second "Apelles" by the Nuremberg theologian and legal scholar Jacob Wimpheling (1450-1528) in his Epithoma rerum Germanicarum, which was published in 1505, and equated with "Parrhasius"; these were two famous classical artists from the fourth century before Christ. While Parrhasius was known for his use of proportions and the deceptive realism of his pictures, Apelles became famous as the portrait painter at the court of Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.). The illusionism in Durer's method of painting, however, is also a reference to the competition between Parrhasius and the famous painter Zeuxis (active c. 424-421), which is described by the classical writer Pliny: Zeuxis painted grapes that were so realistic that birds tried to eat them, but Parrhasius painted an illusionistic curtain that his colleague tried to remove. Durer continued with these games. The humanist Christoph Scheurl wrote in an account that Durer's dog had tried to greet the image of his master in the Self-Portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe, able to reach it as it had been put to one side to dry. The comparison of Durer to the classical artists shows the degree to which both his printed graphics and paintings came to be highly valued shortly after 1500. On his second Italian journey, which took him to Venice and Bologna, Durer was also greeted and celebrated as a new Apelles. Evidence of this contemporary high regard is Giulio Campagnola's (1482-1515) portrait of Durer in the fresco of the Marriage of the Virgin in the Scuola del Carmine in Padua. It depicts Durer in the crowd of spectators, as a smartly dressed gentleman.
Marcantonio Raimondi first got to know Albrecht Durer's printed graphics in St. Mark's Square in Venice, and was so overcome with enthusiasm that he added Durer's monogram to his own engraved copies; this led to the first copyright trial in Western art history. In order to protect himself from forgeries, Durer prefaced his books of the Life of the Virgin and the Apocalypse with a firm warning to the robbers and thieves of other people's work that they would have to reckon with the necessary sanctions. Even before 1500, painters, engravers and ceramists were already imitating Durer's engravings because of their compositions and the finely executed "natural" background landscapes. At the beginning of the 16th century, a large range of Durer graphics found their way into French illuminated manuscripts, where mainly Parisian illustrators produced scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Passion.
Shortly before 1600, the demand for Durer's prints was so high that the market was flooded with a range of engravings and other copies. This copying continued almost without interruption until the 18th century. The plates passed from hand to hand, and the engravings and other copies were frequently used to illustrate prayer and devotional books.
Shortly after Durer's death, a positive personality cult flared up. After two days, the famous lock of hair was cut off and treated as a relic worthy of reverence by various artists and collectors - from Hans Baldung Grien (1484/85-1515), via Goethe's friend Heinrich Husgen (1745-1847), who published the first list of Durer's printed graphics, to the Nazarene artist Eduard Steinle (1810 - 1886) - before being brought to the Vienna Academy in a silver "reliquary" in 1873. Three days after his funeral, the grave was opened in order to make plaster casts of his face and hands. Until the 17th century, the death mask was owned by the Dutch painter Frederik van Valckenborch (1570-1623), who collected Durer's works and was an ardent admirer of him. They were presumably destroyed in 1729 when the palace in Munich, where they had been part of the collections of the Bavarian Duke Maximilian I, burnt down.
The imitation of the graphic and painted works of Durer continued through the following centuries. As early as the late 15th century, starting with the invention and availability of printed graphics, a private circle of collectors and admirers of the young Durer's art had formed. The functional changes in graphics and the high print runs that were introduced by Durer increased the interest of collectors even further. Printed graphics were increasingly being seen as an artistic genre equal to that of painting. This created considerable demand which also explains the copying and imitation, directly upon publication, of Durer's prints both north and south of the Alps. There were imitators, copyists and forgers at work in almost every sphere of Durer's printed graphics and paintings. Durer's extensive studies of animals and plants, for instance, were widely imitated in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Two artists in particular, both working at the court of Rudolph II, stand out as a result of their "imitatio" of Durer; they were Hans Hofmann and Georg Hoefnagel (1542-1600), who drew numerous nature studies, now and then based on the same work. They even forged his monogram, examples of which can be seen in the studies imitating Durer's hare and the Wing of a Roller. Towards the end of the 16th century and during the 17th century, the rising demand for works by Durer even led to numerous of his secular and religious works being turned into sculptural works. In the mid-17th century, anonymous artists incorporated his copperplate portraits into portrait medals, and engravings such as the Prodigal Son and individual sheets from the Engraved Passion were imitated in relief form using materials such as ivory and wood.
The inflationary imitation of Durer towards the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries was also linked to Emperor Rudolph II's (1552 - 1612) fanatical enthusiasm for Durer, and he endeavored to collect his works in the way others collected religious objects and relics. The emperor worshipped Durer in an almost religious sense, culminating with the procession-like transfer of the Feast of the Rose Garlands from Venice to Prague. Every respected art chamber and courtly collection owned prints by Durer. By 1600, the aristocratic collecting mania had created some extensive and high-quality collections, the most outstanding being those of the Bavarian Duke Maximilian I and Emperor Rudolph II.
Albrecht Durer is born, the third of eighteen children born to the goldsmith Albrecht Durer the Elder (c. 1427-1502) and Barbara Holper (c. 1451-1514).
First surviving work: Self-Portrait at 13.
Apprenticed as a goldsmith in his father's workshop.
Durer starts as an apprentice in the workshop of the Nuremberg painter and entrepreneur, Michael Wolgemut.
He completes his apprenticeship toward the end of the year.
Durer leaves on his journeyman travels. It is not known where he went during the first two years.
Visits the brothers of Martin Schongauer in Colmar. Travels on to Basle, and works there as a graphic artist for woodcuts.
Period in Strasbourg.
In the spring, working as a journeyman in Strasbourg. Returns to Nuremberg on 18 May (shortly after Whitsun) and marries Agnes Frey. In the autumn, travels to Venice via Innsbruck.
In late spring, returns to Nuremberg via Trent, Lake Garda and the Brenner Pass.
Initial work as a copper engraver.
Publication of the Apocalypse, some sheets from the Great Passion and other single-leaf prints.
Meeting with Jacopo de Barbari in Nuremberg. He encourages Durer to study proportions.
First woodcuts from the Life of the Virgin. Durer dated the copper engravings from 1503 onwards.
Copper engraving of Adam and Eve.
Second Italian journey. Commission in 1505 to paint the Feast of the Rose Garlands.
Completion of the Feast of the Rose Garlands. Journey to Bologna.
Upon his return to Venice, travels back to Nuremberg via Augsburg.
Works on the Heller Altar and completes the painting of The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand.
Purchase of the house by the Tiergartner Gate. Completion of the Heller Altar.
Publication of the book editions of the Great and Small Passions, the Life of the Virgin and the second edition of the Apocalypse. Working on the Adoration of the Trinity.
Emperor Maximilian I stays in Nuremberg. Durer starts work on the Gate of Honor.
The master engravings of the Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), St. Jerome in his Study and Melencolia I (1514) are created.
During a stay in Nuremberg, Emperor Maximilian I grants Durer an annual pension of 100 florins.
Journey to Bamberg. Visits Bishop Georg III of Limburg.
Present at the Imperial Diet in Augsburg as a member of the delegation from the city of Nuremberg.
Death of Emperor Maximilian I in Wels. The Nuremberg council refuses to continue paying Durer's annual pension without written confirmation from Emperor Charles V.
Journey to the Netherlands. Durer writes his journal about the journey to the Netherlands.
The city of Nuremberg pays Durer a fee of 100 florins for his designs for wall paintings in the council chamber.
Publication of the treatise on perspective, Manual of Measurement.
Durer donates the Four Apostles to the town council of Nuremberg as a memorial to himself.
Publication of the treatise on fortifications.
Durer dies in Nuremberg. His major theoretical work, the Four Books on Human Proportions, is published posthumously.
© 2007 A. E.
Albrecht Durer Art
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