Albrecht Dürer helped establish German art during the peak of the High Renaissance. A versatile and prolific artist, Dürer produced engravings, paintings, and theoretical writings that won him an international reputation while still in his youth. This article unpacks everything you need to know about the life and work of the artist widely considered one of Northern Europe’s most influential Old Masters.
10. Much Of What We Know About Albrecht Dürer Comes From The Man Himself
Thanks to his copious notes, journals, and publications, we have far more information about Dürer’s life than exists for most Renaissance artists. This is especially true for those from the northern countries. Included in his writings are details about the cost of his artwork, his network of clients, and his ideas about various techniques, styles, and methods.
In addition to these written records, Dürer also left another invaluable form of autobiographical work: his self-portraits. Though other artists had been known to depict themselves in their paintings, Dürer is widely credited as the first to produce a self-portrait in the modern sense of the word. He gazes straight out of the image, forming a direct connection with the viewer that forces us to contemplate the relationship between artist and audience.
Due to the fame he achieved during his own lifetime, Dürer is also one of the better-documented artists of the Renaissance. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, his work was being reviewed and documented by German biographers, such as Jakob Wimpfeling and Johann Cochlaus, and in the second edition of his ‘Lives of the Artists’, Giorgio Vasari lauded Dürer’s Prodigal Son as a masterpiece.
9. Dürer Came From An Exceptionally Artistic Family
Dürer came from a line of successful craftsmen: both his maternal grandfather and his father had worked in Nuremberg as goldsmiths, and several of his 17 siblings followed in their footsteps. At least two of his brothers were known to have completed their training in their father’s workshop. One ended up taking over the family business. His godfather, Anton Koberger, had also been a goldsmith but left the trade and eventually became Germany’s most successful publisher.
Albrecht showed artistic talents from a young age, producing a remarkable drawing of a young boy captioned ‘when I was a child’, the first of his self-portraits. After receiving a brief general education, he too learned the basics of metalwork and design from his father before taking on an apprenticeship in the workshop of Michael Wolgemut. Wolgemut was a prominent painter and printmaker renowned for his woodcut illustrations. Thousands of his illustrations adorned the pages of the books published by none other than Koberger. Dürer thus found himself at the heart of Germany’s thriving artistic community.
8. Dürer Learned From The Italian Masters
Dürer left Germany while still in his youth, crossing the Alps for Italy. The scenic landscapes that he witnessed on his journey would reappear in some of his later artwork. Even some of his watercolors that he made while traveling through the mountains survive.
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In Italy, Dürer studied the art of the Venetian school and visited other cities in the north, where he was exposed to some of the great work of the Early Renaissance. Dürer’s journal from this period records that he developed a particular admiration for Giovanni Bellini, and his contemporary drawings show the influence of other Italian artists, such as Lorenzo di Credi, Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Andrea Mantegna, making a copy of his Battle of the Sea Gods frieze.
One of the most significant lessons Dürer learned in Italy was that of perspective and proportion. During the Renaissance, sculptures and painters had begun to take these principles more seriously in their endeavor to capture reality, and as a result, artists started to study geometry and mathematics in order to understand how to construct different forms and shapes. Among the chief exponents of this approach was Dürer, who published several theoretical treatises on the subject, including Four Books on Measurement and Four Books on Human Proportion.
7. His Engravings Quickly Achieved International Success
Although he produced a number of impressive drawings and paintings during his early career, the work that catapulted Dürer into the spotlight was undoubtedly his engraving. During the first years of his workshop, he produced numerous successful woodcuts, prints made from blocks of wood engraved with an image or design. He learned the art of woodcutting under Wolgemut, but Dürer’s prints were of a superior quality to any that had been seen in Germany before, with their illustrations far more precise and clear.
It was a prolific period for Dürer, who published many important prints towards the end of the 15th century. These included a series of 16 engravings entitled Apocalypse, 11 images of biblical figures, depictions of the 14 stations of the cross, and a great polyptych for Frederick III of Saxony. The individual prints from these collections were published and sold separately, meaning that Dürer’s work began to circulate throughout Europe.
Dürer continued to produce impressive engravings into the seventeenth century, adding a great many more religious prints to his oeuvre. In 1515, he created his famous Rhinoceros. Of course, Dürer himself had never seen such a creature, but by using the written descriptions and sketches available to him, he managed to replicate the animals with a remarkable degree of accuracy. This iconic print became the standard image of the rhinoceros and was used in school books for centuries.
The very same year, Dürer was responsible for the first star charts to be printed in the western world. His charts became a symbol of the Renaissance, representing the expansion of human exploration, curiosity, and understanding.
6. Dürer Was Also An Exceptional Painter
Having honed his drawing skills through the production of intricate woodblocks, Dürer was well equipped to create some of the most impressive paintings that would come out of sixteenth century Germany.
Working in this medium, Dürer produced portraits, landscapes and altarpieces which were met with high praise from his contemporaries. It was his devotional work that proved the most successful. The Adoration of the Magi, Adam and Eve and Assumption of the Virgin were all immediately acknowledged as masterpieces. Dürer integrated the lessons he had learned from the Italian masters with the German traditions he was steeped in at home, resulting in a profound and realistic style that moved his audience.
Despite the positive feedback his paintings received, Dürer was never as invested in them as in his engravings. Perhaps this was because prints could be reproduced and sold hundreds of times, making them far more profitable.
5. Dürer Formed Friendships With Several Artistic Legends
Once Dürer had established his own reputation as an independent master, he soon developed a network of communication with Europe’s other prominent artists. Among them were several of the painters whose work he had admired in Italy, such as Bellini, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Vasari states that Dürer and Raphael were in frequent correspondence, sending each other drawings and paintings as mementos of their friendship and mutual respect. Among the missives sent by Dürer was one of his famed self-portraits.
Dürer also found himself as part of an elite circle in Northern Europe. During his career he met with numerous prominent artists from Germany and the Low Countries, including Jan Provoost, Jean Mone, Bernard van Orley, Joachim Patinir and Gerard Horenbout. All of his contemporaries were impressed not only by Dürer’s artistic prowess but also by his reserved and respectful nature.
4. Dürer Was Sought Out By A Very Powerful Patron
The success of Dürer’s engravings and paintings led Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I to seek him out. From 1512, Dürer received regular commissions from the Emperor, who became his most profitable patron. Many of the pieces of art requested by Maximilian were made as propaganda to celebrate and glorify his accomplishments as leader. The Triumphal Arch, for instance, consisted of 192 separate woodblocks that came together to form a momentous and complex design that replicated the architectural structures built by ancient Roman Emperors following a victory.
As well as these bold public displays of power, wealth and worldliness, Maximilian also commissioned Dürer to create some more personal pieces. The artist created intricate illustrations for the margins of the Emperor’s Prayer-Book, for instance, and also painted several portraits of the leader.
3. Religion Played An Important Role In Dürer’s Life And Works
From both his art and his writings, it is easy to tell that faith was at the heart of Dürer’s life and work. His paintings and engravings show a reverence for Jesus, a knowledge of scripture, and a preoccupation with the religious upheaval of the time. It has often been observed that Dürer fashioned himself in the image of Christ in his famous self-portrait.
Scholars and historians have debated for years over Dürer’s precise religious leanings, with some suggesting that he was sympathetic to the new ideas of Martin Luther, while others maintain that he was a strict and unwavering member of the Catholic Church. There seems to be more evidence for the former view, since Dürer wrote in his private journal of his desire to create a portrait of Martin Luther, who ‘helped [him] to overcome so many difficulties’. Because of this, the Lutheran Church holds an annual memorial for Dürer on the 6th April, where he is remembered along with several other Renaissance artists thought to have supported the early Protestant movement.
2. Dürer Was A Collector
The patronage of Maximilian I afforded Dürer the opportunity to travel throughout Europe, visiting various Heads of States on the Emperor’s behalf and leaving them with a piece of art as a token of his friendship. One such embassy saw Dürer travel to Brussels to paint Christian II of Denmark. At the court, he experienced a whole host of exotic goods exhibited by the king as a display of his riches and power, including golden treasures from the Aztec kingdom. These excited Dürer’s interests as a collector, and while there he managed to acquire several items to add to his own cabinet of curiosities, including pieces of coral, fins of exotic fish, and even a weapon brought back from the East Indies.
1. Albrecht Dürer Left A Great Legacy
Dürer left one of the most powerful legacies of all the artists of the Northern European Renaissance, particularly in printing. Before advanced technologies began to allow visual information to be shared far and wide, engraving was a hugely important medium for the circulation of images. Dürer broke new ground in the area, demonstrating what meticulous art could be created in this way and upping the standards for engravers ever since. Painters also began to work more closely with printmakers, who could replicate and distribute their creations to a larger audience.
His paintings also left their mark on the world of art, encouraging later generations of Germans to incorporate some of the Italian style into their own work. His seminal self-portraits helped to establish the genre, and have often been cited as the inspiration for later portraitists. The painters of the Neoclassical movement, in particular, looked to Dürer’s masterpieces to recreate their uniquely intense atmosphere.