Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Albrecht Durer

Celebrated painter and engraver, b. May 21, 1471; d. April 6, 1528

Click to enlarge

Dürer, ALBRECHT.—celebrated painter and engraver, b. at Nuremberg, Germany, May 21, 1471; d. there, April 6, 1528. Dürer left his native city, then famous for its commerce, learning, and art, but three times in his life. His first journey was undertaken after he had completed his apprenticeships both to his father, a goldsmith, and to the painter and engraver Wohlgemut; on this occasion he travelled through Germany and visited at Colmar and Basle the family of the recently deceased Schongauer; in 1505-07 he spent some time in Venice; in 1520-1521 he went to the Netherlands, visiting especially Antwerp.

FIRST PERIOD: TO 1505.—After the earliest works of his youth (portraits, Madonnas, coats-of-arms, landscape-sketches) he set up in 1494 a studio of his own. In the same year he married Agnes Frey but they had no children. Among his Nuremberg friends the learned humanist Willibald Pirkheimer held the first place. Besides great advancement in learning, Dürer owed to Pirkheimer the happiness of a lifelong friendship and the acquaintance with classical antiquity which he occasionally drew upon in his work. Dürer’s art, however, with its sources in the German Middle Ages, remained essentially German; the influence of the art of Italy and the Netherlands was merely supplementary. In his own country there were few chances for mural paintings; but the demand for altar-pieces and portraits was all the greater. His woodcuts were eagerly sought after by the general public, his engravings on copper by connoisseurs. Among his fine compositions are: the Baumgartner altar-painting, the central panel of which represents the Adoration of the Christ Child, the wings, the donors as Sts. George and Eustachius the “Lamentation of Christ”, in which the pathos is noteworthy; and the remarkable picture of himself (1500). These are preserved in the Old Pinakothek in Munich. The portrait of himself just mentioned is greatly idealized as is also that of a lady of the Fürleger family. On the other hand, in the portraits of his father and mother realism predominates. But here, as in the “Prodigal Son” and in his drawings, Dürer seeks to elevate his naturalism by sweet simplicity, depth of feeling, and grandeur of conception. The “Adoration of the Magi” in the Uffizi at Florence will bear comparison, at least for German taste, with the masterpieces of Italy and the Netherlands. Dürer’s woodcuts have a quality entirely their own; though without coloring, they yet produced the effect of color. The “Apocalypse” (15 cuts) is distinguished by its daring fancy and grandeur of conception. The most striking of the series are: the “Four Riders”, the “Angels of the Euphrates”, the “Battle of the Angels with the Dragon”. To the same period belong, for the most part, the powerful “Larger Passion” (7, later 12, cuts) as well as the beautiful “Life of the Virgin” (16, later 20, cuts), in which the scenes from the life of the Holy Family in Egypt have all the sweetness of a charming idyll. Mention should be made of the so-called “Green Passion” in the Albertina Museum at Vienna, a series of twelve drawings with the pen on green paper, also of the “Smaller Passion” of a later date in 37 woodcuts, and of the 17 copperplate engravings on the same subject. For the fifth time the artist came back to the Passion of Christ eight years before his death; a few sketches are to be found in the Uffizi at Florence and in the Albertina at Vienna. Wood and copperplate engraving were brought to great perfection by Dürer; the latter, and etching as well, by his own work; the former by his directions to the wood-engravers who carried out his designs.

SECOND PERIOD: 1505 TO 1520.—In the “Festival of the Rosary“, painted in Venice for German merchants residing there, he competes, not unsuccessfully, with the Italian colorists, though it may be said that color was not his strong point. The painting (Abbey of Strahow, Prague) is damaged, but a good copy is preserved in the Imperial Museum at Vienna. An oil-painting of the same period, “Christ on the Cross”, and other works that followed, e.g. “Adam and Eve” (Madrid and Florence), show that Dürer’s trip to Italy and the acquaintance made there with Giovanni Bellini were not without profit to his art; but Dürer’s nationality and the independence of his genius are always evident. Another work much admired was the so-called Heller altar-piece, destroyed at Munich in 1674 by fire. Valuable studies for this picture and an indistinct copy are still extant. One of the finestexamples of German art is the “Adoration of the Trinity” or “All Saints” (1511). Placed beside the “Disputa” of Raphael or the Sistine paintings of Michelangelo produced in the same year, it would not suffer from the comparison. God the Father sits upon a throne and holds forth the Cross with the Crucified; above both of them, in the form of a dove, the Holy Ghost hovers. About them the saints of heaven in two companies with the Mother of God and John the Baptist at their head kneel in adoration. In the upper part of the picture, above the blessed hosts, choirs of angels surround the Holy Trinity; in the lower part, the Church Militant, led by the powerful figures of a pope and an emperor, takes part in the adoration. As an idealization of the world this multitude stands above the clouds. At the very bottom and to one side, as though left behind, is seen the humble figure of the painter. This work deserves no less praise for its perfection of finish than for its sublimity of conception. The frame, carved in renaissance style from drawings by Dürer, is still preserved at Nuremberg. In the same year, 1511, Dürer produced the “Virgin with the Pear”, one of the finest of his Madonnas. In the years 1513-14 he executed three great copper-plate engravings; these may, perhaps, be looked upon as ideal representations of a fearless knight, an unsatisfied searcher for knowledge, and a saint happy in God and are called: “The Knight with Death and the Devil“; “Melancholia”; “St. Jerome in his Study”. To these must be added various paintings, e.g. of Charlemagne, Sigismund, and Albrecht of Brandenburg; further, the marginal drawings, displaying great fancy and humor, made for Maximilian‘s “Prayer Book”, and the “Triumphal Arch of Maximilian” belong to the same time. Later, Dürer worked also on the “Triumph of Maximilian“, and produced (1522) the large “Triumphal Car”, for the emperor.

THIRD PERIOD: 1520 TO 1528.—Admirable sketches for “St. Jerome with the Skull”, lately discovered by Anton Weber in Lisbon, give ample proof of the artist’s diligence during his stay in the Netherlands. The striking head of the saint is very like the “Head of an Old Man” in the Albertina. After his return to Nuremberg, Dürer painted a noteworthy “Head of Christ” and portraits of Pirkheimer, Erasmus, and Holzschuher. His last work of importance (1526) was the “Four Apostles“, Peter with John, and Paul with Mark; these paintings, which are now in Munich, are much admired for the individuality of character expressed by the figures and the fine treatment of the drapery. From the inscription under these pictures, despite the fact that Peter is represented as holding the keys of heaven, and from other circumstances that prove little, some have wished to infer that towards the end of his life Dürer became attached to the doctrines of Luther. But even the Protestants van Eye, A. W. Becker, C. Kinkel, and others, do not share in this opinion, and M. Thausing, the great Dürer scholar, has now rejected it. No doubt many well-disposed persons of the time saw the necessity for ecclesiastical reform and hoped that it would be hastened by Luther’s stand. But they were deceived and acknowledged it, as Pirkheimer did for himself and his friend: “I confess that in the beginning I believed in Luther, like our Albert of blessed memory … but as anyone can see, the situation has become worse.”

In the years 1525-27, Dürer wrote three books: on geometry, the proportions of the human figure, and the art of fortification.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!