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Introduction to Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Diirer was the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance. He experimented in many media, and is as well-known for his delicate watercolors of animal and plant life as for the dramatic woodcuts and exquisite engravings on religious themes which brought him fame in his own time. His art is a blend of Northern and Southern traditions, profoundly influenced by the Venetian painting he saw during his visits to the city.
Durer was an independent man, proud of his appearance and very sure of his talent. Intelligent and cultured, he mixed with humanists and scholars, while his patrons included the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. A religious man throughout his life, in later years he became increasingly preoccupied with the advent of the Lutheran Reformation. He died in 1528 and was buried in his home town of Nuremberg.
Albrecht Durer was born on 21 May 1471, in the south German city of Nuremberg. His father, a goldsmith from Hungary, had married Barbara Holper, his master's daughter, who went on to bear him eighteen children, of which Albrecht was the third.
As a child, Durer attended a local Latin school, where he first met Willibald Pirckheimer, a young nobleman, who was to become a famous Humanist scholar and Dtirer's lifelong friend and correspondent. For three years after leaving school [hirer followed custom and studied the goldsmith's trade in his father's workshop. Already he displayed signs of his wondrous artistic talent. In the memoir he wrote shortly before his death, Darer recalled: 'My father took special pleasure in me, for he saw that I was eager to know how to do things and so he taught me the goldsmith's trade, and though I could do that work as neatly as you could wish, my heart was more for painting. I raised the whole question with my father, and he was far from happy about it, regretting all the time wasted, but just the same he gave in'. the Nuremberg painter Michael Wolgemut, master of the old late medieval style.
In 1490, at three years in Wolgemut's studio, Dtirer set off the traditional German 'bachelor's year', a pen of wandering from city to city when life could explored before settling down and accepti family responsibilities.
He travelled through much of what was the Holy Roman Empire, and after two arrived in Colmar in Alsace, now a Germs speaking part of France. There he had hoped meet Martin Schongauer, the greatest Germ engraver of the previous generatic Unfortunately, Schongauer had died only Mont before Durer's arrival. Nonetheless, he stay with the dead master's brother and no dot learned from him some of the technical secrets was later to use in his own work. Darer al worked for publishers in Basel and Strasboui designing woodcut illustrations for Bibles other books.
In 1493, his father arranged a marriage for hi with the daughter of a local coppersmith, a 8 named Agnes Frey. Darer sent home a marvello painted portrait of himself, then aged twenty two which is the first independent self-portrait painted only for the artist's personal satisfaction in the whole of European art. In it he appears a handsome if unusual looking youth, adorned in what today would be called fashionable, flamboyant clothes, proud of his long blond tresses and even prouder of his painterly skill. Darer returned to Nuremberg to be married in the spring of 1494. We know little of his wife's personality, though Pirckheimer complained in later years that she was 'nagging, shrewish, and greedy'.
Within months of his marriage Durer left his wife in Nuremberg and set off on his first journey to Italy, using money borrowed from Pirckheimer's family.
JOURNEY TO ITALY
There was plague in Nuremberg at the time and this may have been the young artist's motive for leaving the city. Whatever the reason, there can be little doubt that Durer was powerfully attracted by what he must have heard, during his earlier travels, of the feats of the new Italian masters of painting and drawing. German artists, he said, were 'unconscious as a wild, uncut tree', whereas the Italians had rediscovered two hundred years ago the art revered by the Greeks and Romans'.
There were no carriage facilities for long-distance travel at that time and the journey over the Alps on horseback must have been a perilous one. On his way Durer recorded his impression of the mountain scenery in a series of brilliant watercolors. In Pavia he visited Pirckheimer, who was completing his studies at the great university there, and through him Outer came to know of the work of the Italian Humanists, whose scientific curiosity and independence of mind appealed to him strongly.
The highlight of his journey was Venice. With his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his customary diligence, Durer set himself to learn all that contemporary Italian masters could teach him. He studied the science of perspective and the portrayal of the nude. He copied the works of Mantegna and other engravers, and argued over the various theories of art with the sociable circle of Venetian painters.
When he returned home the following year he brought with him the rudiments of the Italian Renaissance and the ambition to transplant them to his native northern soil. He made a living from his woodcuts and engravings, often single sheet designs which his wife and mother would hawk in the public markets and fairs, and which were carried all over Europe by the town's travelling merchants.
These were tumultuous years in central Europe. Many preachers foretold the world would end in the year 1500. These feelings of doom were brilliantly summed up in Durer's illus-tractions to The Apocalypse of St. John (1498), his first masterwork.
Although they were printed with a text at the famous press of his godfather, Anton Koberger, in Nuremberg, Darer insisted that his own name appear as the publisher. This was part of his lifelong campaign to raise the status of the artist in northern Europe and to secure recognition for his own genius. Two years later he painted another self-portrait, facing the viewer directly in a pose deliberately reminiscent of Christ .
The portrait displays the pride and self-consciousness of a man who was by then well aware of his own unique artistic destiny.
In the years that followed, Diirer slowly digested the lessons of his Italian journey and produced a remarkable variety of work. Some commissions for painting came in from burghers and aristocrats, including the powerful Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. But it was his woodcuts and increasingly his engravings on copperplate which spread his fame and earned him the independence he so desperately craved.
In the late summer of 1505 Darer headed south once again. He had received a commission to paint an altarpiece for the wealthy association of German merchants in Venice. This time he settled in the great island city for more than a year. By then his engravings were well-known in Italy and tributes flowed from other artists as well as from such eminent men as the Doge and Patriarch of Venice, both of whom visited his studio. Durer was determined to show the Venetians that he was not only a clever draughtsman but also a master of colour and paint equal to the enigmatic Giorgione, whose haunting images were then causing a tremendous stir. It was, however, the aged Giovanni Bellini, the grand master of the previous generation, whose work Durer most admired. When the 80-year-old Bellini visited Diirer in his studio and praised his work, it was a proud moment for the young German artist, then 35 years of age.
Darer enjoyed Venetian life, the company of other artists, the food and wine and the beauty of the city. Most of all he enjoyed the respect accorded by the Italians to their artists, in sharp contrast to the penny-pinching ways of the German burghers. 'How I shall shiver for the sun,' he wrote, contemplating his return, 'Here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite'. However, when Venice offered him two hundred ducats to remain in its service for a year, he refused, and returned home in January 1507.
Back in Nuremberg, there were only few opportunities for any of the large-scale public commissions with which his Italian rivals made their reputations. Increasingly he abandoned painting and concentrated on graphic work. His popularity grew and in 1509 he was at last able to purchase outright the house his family had rented g for some years. After 1512 he was favored by the Holy Roman 41 Emperor Maximilian I. Darer decorated a prayer book for him, and collaborated on the creation of the Triumphal Arch, an enormous composition in the shape of an arch, made up of hundreds of separate woodcuts. In-1513 Diirer was made an honorary citizen of the Great Council of Nuremberg, an unprecedented honour for an artist working north of the Alps, and in 1515 the Emperor granted him an annuity of one hundred florins for the rest of his life.
Despite this public success, these were difficult years for Darer. Though his income was relatively high, his expenses quickly offset it. He spent and loaned money freely, filling his house with strange and precious objects of all kinds. His mother's death in 1514 affected him deeply, and he underwent an artistic and spiritual crisis which is reflected in his engraving Melencolia He was still obsessed with the grandeur of the Italian achievements and in particular with the ideals of beauty and harmony which always seemed to elude him.
In 1517 Martin Luther made his first great attack on corruption in the Church, thus beginning the upheaval in European religious life that came to be known as the Reformation. Diirer read avidly Luther's writings which were passed to him by Reformers such as Philip Melanchthon, a Humanist scholar who, like Diirer himself, tried to bridge the gap between the new learning from Italy and the new piety from Germany. Luther's teachings appear to have brought Durer some relief from his inner turmoil.
When Emperor Maximilian I died in 1519, the Nuremberg Council stopped Diirer's life pension, prompting his lengthy journey to the Netherlands to meet the new Emperor and petition for the renewal of his annuity. He left Nuremberg in 1520, accompanied by his wife and maidservant. With him he took engravings and woodcuts, with which he was able to pay his way throughout his trip. He kept a detailed journal in which he recorded all his expenses and everything he saw or heard, as well as sketchbooks which he filled with drawings. Everywhere he was received by the rich and mighty and feted as the greatest German artist of his time. For Darer it was the fulfillment of his longstanding dream of raising the public status of the artist.
Along his route Direr made it his business to see the notable works of art and the important artists in each town. He made a difficult excursion to Zeeland in the wild north of the country to see and draw a whale that had been beached there, but by the time he arrived the creature had already returned to the sea. While in Zeeland, he caught some kind of fever which was to weaken him for much of the rest of his life. In Aachen he witnessed the coronation of the new Emperor, Charles V, and when the court moved to Köln his annuity was confirmed. He painted many portraits and sold many prints but so indulged his love of collecting including such objects as tortoise-shells, parrots, coral, conch shells and ivory - that overall he made a financial loss on the trip.
Darer was in Antwerp when news arrived of Luther's arrest. He and his wife hurried home, possibly in fear of attack by pro-Catholic elements in Antwerp. They arrived in Nuremberg in August 1521, to find the city in turmoil. Friends and pupils of Darer's had been banished for heretical ideas. In the surrounding countryside discontent was mounting which would eventually explode in the Peasants' War of 1525. Darer, though careful to remain on the right side of the authorities, nonetheless expressed some sympathy for the new movements.
In his last great painting, The Four Apostles, his deep religious feeling was perfectly combined with his love of Venetian art. He made a gift of the painting to the Council of Nuremberg in 1526, carefully inscribing it with this warning: 'All worldly rulers in these dangerous times should pay heed lest they follow' human misguidance instead of the word of God. For God will have nothing added to his word nor taken away from it.'
A TIME FOR WRITING
Darer concentrated much of his strength in his last years on his writings. He published works on proportion, perspective, and fortification and composed his family chronicle and his memoirs. He also started, but did not live to finish, a work of advice for young artists. His old friend Pirckheimer lamented his deteriorating condition: 'He was withered like a bundle of straw and could never be a happy man or mingle with people'. On 6 April 1528, at the age of 57, in his home city of Nuremberg, Darer died of the fever he had first contracted in Zeeland. He was mourned by Melanchthon who described him as a 'wise man whose artistic talents, eminent as they were, were still.