Albrecht Durer, 1471-1528

Albrecht Durer was born in Nuremberg and was apprenticed to his father who was a goldsmith. He was then apprenticed for three years to the painter, Michael Wolgemut. He traveled for 18 months and on his return intensified the learned side of his art and personality. In 1512 he became court painter to the Emperor Maximilian. Dürer was so great an artist, so searching and all-encompassing a thinker, that he was almost a Renaissance in his own right Ń and his work was admired by contemporaries in the North and South alike. The 16th century saw the emergence of a new type of patron, not the grand aristocrat but the bourgeois, eager to purchase pictures in the newly developed medium of woodcut printing. The new century also brought an interest in Humanism and science, and a market for books, many of which were illustrated with woodcuts. The accuracy and inner perception of DürerŐs art represent one aspect of German portraiture; another is seen in the work of that master of the court portrait, Holbein.

Impressive though others may be, the great German artist of the Northern Renaissance is Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). We know his life better than the lives of other artists of his time: we have, for instance, his letters and those of his friends. Dürer traveled, and found, he says, more appreciation abroad than at home. The Italian influence on his art was of a particularly Venetian strain, through the great Bellini, who, by the time Dürer met him, was an old man. Dürer was exceptionally learned, and the only Northern artist who fully absorbed the sophisticated Italian dialogue between scientific theory and art, producing his own treatise on proportion in 1528. But although we know so much about his doings, it is not easy to fathom his thinking.

Dürer seems to have united a large measure of self-esteem with a deep sense of human unfulfillment. There is an undercurrent of exigency in all he does, as if work was a surrogate for happiness. He had an arranged marriage, and friends considered his wife, Agnes, to be mean and bad-tempered, though what their real marital relations were, nobody can tell. For all his apparent openness, Dürer is a reserved man, and perhaps it is this rather sad reserve that makes his work so moving.

He returned home in July, 1521, where he worked unremittingly until his death. His works in woodcut were primarily the Apocalypse (1498), the Great Passion (1498-1510) and the Little Passion (1509-11), the Life of the Virgin (1502-11), and single prints, such as the MenŐs Bathhouse (1497). The Apocalypse was the first book to be entirely the work of an artist. Durer was his own artist, printer and publisher.

"I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men."
Ń Dürer, Four Books on Human Proportions, 1528