Dürer, Albrecht

(1471-1528)
   Albrecht Dürer stands out from among the Northern artists of his era not only for his mastery but also for the fact that he viewed art as much more than a manual craft and for his own self-image as innovator. While little documentation exists to reconstruct the careers of many of his contemporaries, Dürer left written records of his activities, including a diary and letters. Dürer was the son of a Hungarian goldsmith after whom he was named and who settled in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1455. After receiving training from his father, Dürer entered the studio of Michael Wolgemut (1486) to complete his studies. The
   Self-Portrait in silverpoint he created two years earlier, at the age of 13 (Vienna, Albertina), demonstrates that he was a child prodigy. This would be the first among several self-portraits, each presenting the artist in a novel manner. In the 1493 self-portrait in the Louvre, Paris, Dürer presented himself as the bridegroom, the eryngium flower in his right hand then considered an aphrodisiac. The tasseled headdress Dürer wears refers to the customary binding of tassels by bride and groom to express fidelity. The prickly eryngium, a symbol of Christ's Passion, coupled with the inscription above that states that Dürer's affairs are ordained on high, asserts a divine source for his artistic genius. The 1500 self-portrait (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) goes a step further as Dürer presents himself as a frontal Christ-like figure to denote that art comes from the hand of a creator. His art philosophy parallels that of Leonardo da Vinci, who also likened the creative genius of artists to that of God, the creator of the universe. With this, Dürer paved the way for the humanistic world of the Renaissance to enter the North.
   In 1492, Dürer set out to Colmar to work with the engraver Martin Schongauer. By the time he arrived, Schongauer was dead, so Dürer instead worked with the engraver's brother Georg in Basel. There he received a number of commissions for engravings, a field in which he greatly excelled. Among the works he executed were the woodcut frontispiece for the Epistolae Beati Hieronymi (published in 1492 by Nicolaus Kesler), which shows a St. Jerome and his lion, and illustrations for an unpublished edition of the comedies of Terence (Basel, Kupferstichkabinett; some question the attribution to Dürer).
   In 1494, Dürer returned to Nuremberg to marry Agnes Frey, the daughter of a respected coppersmith—a union arranged by his father. Through his childhood friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, he became acquainted with the city's leading humanists who came to respect not only his artistic but also intellectual abilities. To perfect his skills, Dürer began drawing from Andrea Mantegna's mythological engravings. One of these drawings, the Death of Orpheus (1494; Hamburg, Kunsthalle) shows the artist's desire to surpass the Italian master by adding greater contrasts of light and dark, movement, and drama than in the original work. A trip to Venice in 1494 provided further opportunities to study the works of the Italians. The result was a richness of texture and tonality never before seen in prints. Examples include Dürer's Hercules at the Crossroads (c. 1497-1498) and Four Witches (c. 1497), both works exhibiting classicized figures with convincing details of anatomy and areas darkened with heavy crosshatchings to enhance their nude forms. Dürer's famed woodcuts of the Apocalypse (1497-1498) are a tour de force of dramatic intensity and action.
   By 1496, Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, was granting commissions to Dürer, including the Dresden Altarpiece (c. 1496; Dresden, Kunstsammlungen), a work depicting the Madonna adoring the sleeping Christ Child in a three-quarter format, flanked by architecture, and set against a landscape in the manner of Giovanni Bellini. He also painted for the Elector the Adoration of the Magi (1504), a work inspired by Leonardo's (1481; both Florence, Uffizi) of the same subject. Dürer took a second trip to Italy in 1505-1507, where he informed his friend Pirckheimer in a letter that he was taking lessons in one-point linear perspective. In Venice he painted the RozenkranzMadonna (1505-1506; Prague; National Gallery) for the Church of San Bartolomeo, commissioned by the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the association of German merchants in Venice. While there, he had the opportunity to meet Giovanni Bellini, who by now was very old, as Dürer's letters to Pirckheimer reveal.
   Of the paintings Dürer created after his Italian trip, the Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1508-1511; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) is the most impressive. Painted for the chapel in an almshouse in Nuremberg founded by Matthew Landauer, from whom Dürer received the commission, the work borrows from St. Augustine's City of God where individuals from all ranks of society, here Landauer included, come together to adore the Trinity. Dürer also began work on a theoretical treatise on art soon after his return from Italy, a work he completed in 1523. He also entered in the service of Emperor Maximilian I. Dürer's last major painting commission was the Four Apostles (1526; Munich, Alte Pinakothek) for the town council of Nuremberg. The last of his years the artist devoted to his writing efforts. In 1525, he published The Teaching of Measurements with Rule and Compass and, in 1527, he issued an essay on The Art of Fortification while also working on his Four Books on Human Proportions. Pirckheimer had this last text published in 1528, after Dürer's death.
   Dürer's influence on art was vast. Not only did he influence German masters but also Flemish, French, Spanish, and Italian artists.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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