Dürer is reckoned to be the greatest of all the German Renaissance painters. His huge output includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and copper engravings. During his lifetime copies of his woodcuts appeared all over Europe where they are still among the most popular prints from that era today.
Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg Germany in 1471. His father had left Hungary to work as a goldsmith in the city and he taught his son the trade up until he was 15. Two years earlier, the boy had painted a remarkable self-portrait, followed by a religious work which influenced his father to apprentice him to the painter and illustrator Michael Volgemut where he learned to make prints and design woodcuts in the German Gothic style. After Dürer had completed his training, he left at the age of 19 and followed the custom of travelling around as a journeyman to get some practical working experience.
Dürer first traveled to the Netherlands before moving on to Alsace in France, and then Basle in Switzerland which at that time was a centre of learning and the book trade. Most people know that printing began in China but it was never developed there for the simple reason that European writing was based on an alphabet composed of 26 letters and a limited number of abstract symbols. This simplifies the problems involved in developing techniques for the use of movable type whereas Chinese handwriting, with its vast number of ideograms requiring some 80,000 symbols, which lends itself very poorly to the requirements of typography.
It was in Basle that Dürer completed his first authenticated woodcut of ‘’St. Jerome Curing the Lion’’. He was the first man to translate the Bible into Latin from Greek in the 4th century AD, and this print shows him healing a sick lion while he lived as a hermit in the Syrian Desert. To create a print like this Durer would have first drawn the subject and then either copied the drawing onto a block of wood or glued the drawing itself to the surface. After that, he would have hired a skillful carver to cut the design out of the surface. The wood was then inked with a roller and now it would be ready to be pressed onto a large number of blank sheets and tuned into prints. * After 4 years away, Durer left Basle and returned home to an arranged marriage with Agnes Frey. She was the daughter of a merchant and this was a marriage of convenience. At that time in Germany, marriage was an essential condition before an artisan could open his own workshop. It was certainly no love match because Durer’s portraits of his wife lack any kind of warmth while he never mentions her with affection in his journals which still survive and are the reason we know so much about his life today. At any rate, this loveless couple had no children and Durer only stayed in the family home for 3 months before leaving his wife behind and travelling to Italy alone to further his artistic and intellectual pursuits. As he crossed the Alps into Northern Italy he often stopped to paint watercolours of the mountains and lakes, and the picturesque places in the Alpine valleys. Some of these works have survived and they show us accurate representations of real places which make them the first pure landscape studies in Western art.
When Durer came down from the Alps, he first traveled to Venice which had strong cultural and trading ties with his home town of Nuremberg. There, he became greatly influenced by the artist Mantegna’s classical themes and his precise, linear articulation of the human figure, and the bright colourful style of Venetian painting in general. He then moved across country to Florence, the home of the Renaissance, where he copied many of the works there, particularly those of Antonio Paulay-olo’s twisting studies of the human body in motion.
By the time Durer had returned home, he possessed many of the technical accomplishments that a northern artist could expect to acquire in the south and his drawings and paintings began immediately to show this influence. The most striking change in Durer himself was the Renaissance idea of the artist placing himself on a level with the highest in the land. This certainly appealed to the painter’s ego where, in a self-portrait of 1489 we see him as a handsome, fashionably-dressed young man, wearing rich clothes and jewelry, and looking more like a prince than an artist. He had noticed the cultural changes that were taking place in Italy where those artists who worked in the royal courts, dressed and acted accordingly. From this time on, he began to think of himself too as such a person in his dress and habits.
In 1498, Durer published a series of large woodcuts illustrating the Revelations of St. John. This became a great success for no one had ever before pictured the horrors of the Apocalypse with such power and imagination. Durer’s series express the terrifying prophesies of the nightmare of Doomsday, which people felt would come in their lifetime. His visions of the signs and omens preceding the end of the world show crowds of terrified people shrinking back from the demons and monsters that have been let loose from hell. To the artist and the public at large, representations of the Apocalypse were of topical interest because there were many who believed that demons like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would appear soon on earth and help to destroy the world; particularly at the change of the new century in the year 1500.
Durer’s hero in the Apocalypse series is the archangel Michael who appears as God’s champion against the Devil. In one of the prints, Michael is seen high in the sky struggling with the huge serpentine body of the Demon from Hell. The archangel stands over the beast’s gaping jaws and lifts a mighty spear with both hands to shove it down the throat of his mortal enemy. Around these two, angels are fighting as archers or swordsmen against the hordes of fiendish adversaries from the dark world. Beneath the heavenly battlefield the serene landscape below seems to reflect the idea that Heaven is looking after the world’s interests. This particular series of prints made Durer’s name famous throughout Europe. It wasn’t just the fact that his technical ability had made this so, it was more the fact that in these woodcuts he showed the intensity of feeling and imagination which proves the great artist in any field.
Although Durer had by now proved himself the master of the fantastic and visionary world of Gothic art he didn’t stop there for his sketches show that he also aimed to display the beauty of nature through copying it as realistically as he could. Many of his water colour studies have this truth-to-nature effect such as his paintings of animals, birds, plants and flowers, where he was adopting a more modern, Italian influenced classic approach. The same is true of other prints like ‘’Samson and the Lion’’, and etchings such as ‘’The Four Witches’’, which all have a distinct Italian Renaissance flavor. In fact, Durer’s stunning graphic works became so admired that they eventually influenced the art of the Italians who had started him off in the first place!
In 1504 the humanistic Italian elements in Durer’s work were strengthened and inspired when he met the painter and graphic artist Jacopo de’ Barbari, who was seeking a geometric solution to the rendering of human proportions. Proportion lay at the root of Renaissance aesthetics: if man was the measure of all things then physically perfect man was the measure of all beauty. Therefore, man’s proportions must be reducible to mathematical terms and agree with those abstract perfections, the square, the circle, and the Golden Mean. In essence, this was the search for a template of ideal beauty. Durer grappled with this idea, particularly in his engraving of ‘’Adam and Eve’’, where he thought that he could bring the mystery of human beauty to an intellectually calculated mathematical form. In fact, he believed that he had found the secret in this engraving of the first two human beings in the Garden of Eden, and he was so proud of the fact that this is the only work where he signed his full name in Latin.
A year after the publication of his Adam and Eve, Durer returned to Venice. Although he was welcomed by the more prominent artists like Giovanni Bellini, he wasn’t welcome among many of the lesser artists who were frankly jealous of the eminence that he, as a foreign outsider, had achieved in Italy. Durer was warned by his friends never to travel alone through the unfamiliar streets of the city and also to watch what he eat or drank in case he was poisoned. Nevertheless, Durer must have liked something about this dangerous place because he stayed there for the next two years where his portraits reflect the soft and sweet type favoured by Bellini. Although this man was regarded as the leading painter in Venice he paid Durer the great compliment of asking him to paint his portrait – instead of the other way round.
Durer was always to consider Italy to be his artistic and spiritual home which we can see in the words of his last letter before he left Italy for good. He wrote ‘’Oh, how cold I will be away from the sun; here I am considered as a gentleman, but at home I am seen as a lowly parasite. This shows how bitterly he felt the cultural and social contrast of his position as an artist in Italy as opposed to that at home where artists were considered as labourers in Nuremberg’s rigid social hierarchy, and where painters were looked down upon because they worked with their hands. This was in total contrast to the position of artists in Italy where they were regarded with respect, appreciation and admiration.
On his return to Germany in 1507, Dürer began to intensify the learned side of his personality by studying geometry, mathematics, Latin and humanist literature, and by seeking the company of scholars rather than his fellow artists. This change in his way of life was directly inspired by the likes of the great painter and polymath Leonardo da Vinci, the first classicist artist Andrea Mantegna, and the scholar and painter Giovanni Bellini. Although it was common enough in Italy for artists to be also scholars in a multitude of disciplines, where they were respected and consulted about their learning, this sort of behaviour was unheard of in Germany. Durer found that, in spite of his intellectual knowledge and his artistic skills, when it came to works of art he still had to argue and bargain with his rich clients who assumed that, because they were rich and had a position in life, they knew more about art than him.
It was only when the Holy Roman emperor Maximillian 1 asked Durer to become his court painter in 1512, that the artist’s status rose and he began to get the respect that he felt was his due as an intellectual painter. Maximillian believed in the importance of art as a means of self-glorification and also as a medium for propaganda purposes. He set Durer to work on a number of huge wooden panegyrics which showed how great, wonderful and magnificent the emperor was and weren’t the people lucky that they had such a man to guide, protect and chastise them when needed. These kind of ego-trip art projects were truly anathema to Durer who hated them and who had to strain and adapt his creative imagination to that of his client’s mentality which was frankly alien to him.
Durer had realised a long time ago that painting did not make enough money to justify the time spent on it – compared to his prints. This was why he began to concentrate on making more of them from woodcuts and engravings like his famous ‘’Melancholia’’, where a gloomy-looking philosopher sits in a chair pondering the mysteries of the world. In the summer of 1518, Durer went to work in Augsburg where he met and sketched the great reformer Martin Luther, who had by now circulated his Ninety-five Theses’ which denounced (among other things) the sale of papal indulgences. He was the man who started the Reformation in Europe and one of the cultural consequences of this, was that it decimated the representation of religious art in Northern Europe. Dürer was to become one of Luther’s most devoted followers.
In 1519 the emperor Maximillian died and Dürer, for the first time ever, took his wife with him on a trip through to the Netherlands for the coronation of the emperor’s successor, Charles V. Durer was anxious to secure his post as painter to the new ruler and this is the only reason he dragged his wife along, for the position required that the holder could prove that he was a married man, and still betrothed to the same wife. He needn’t have worried because on the journey through Holland he was honoured and feted wherever he went. Through the prints of his paintings and drawings his reputation had grown to where he was considered as the best contemporary artist in Germany. So much so that when he arrived at the coronation in Aachen, the ruler was only too pleased to see him and confirm his previous standing.
When Durer left the emperor he made his way to Antwerp via Cologne, and stayed there until the summer of 1521. His sketchbook of the Netherlands journey contains a large number of detailed and realistic drawings of the people, buildings and the landscape of the Lowlands. It was while he was on one of these sketching trips to Zeeland, to see a whale that had been washed up dead on the beach, that Durer caught a disease which was eventually to kill him.
When he returned home to Nuremberg his health was already beginning to decline from this illness and he devoted his last years mainly to theoretical and scientific writings and a few illustrations. Just before he died he presented a painting of the Four Apostles to his native city – as a memorial to himself. Like most notable Italian artists, Durer saw himself as a sort of ‘Artist-Prince’, and his many self-portraits all say the same thing. Durer always strikes me as being too much in love with himself, and a bit of a ‘cold-fish’ emotionally but you can’t deny his genius for realistic line drawing and his promotion of the woodblock print as a form of art which spread around the world and which we see every day in the form of the modern poster.