The life and artwork of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer is reintroduced to a new generation.
By Sarah Bochicchio
For at least a century, two words have dominated discussions around Albrecht Dürer’s work: “modern” and “genius.” Dürer is often considered proto-modern in his approach to authenticity, art and celebrity—due to both the technical virtuosity of his work and his foresight in maintaining his market. At a time when ideas of “artistic genius” were still being formed, he was interested in understanding and promoting himself as an individual maker. He painted numerous, quite modern self-portraits, signed his engravings with his “AD” monogram, and even sued another artist who had been selling forgeries of his work (thus initiating the first trial concerning the copyright of visual art).
This Dürer-specific lexicon has entered essentially all public artistic conversations—academic, journalistic, curatorial. At the turn of the 20th century, the art critic Roger Fry called the artist, “one of the distinctively modern men of the Renaissance.” In his verbose and telling interpretation, Fry elaborated that the artist was “intensely, but not arrogantly, conscious of his own personality; accepting with a pleasant ease the universal admiration of his genius…careful of his fame as one who foresaw its immortality.” In 1993, at the end of the same century, Joseph Leo Koerner, an art history professor at Harvard University, contended that Dürer established the prototype for the romantic genius.
Even a passing glance at Dürer’s oeuvre confirms that the hype was duly earned—but sometimes, characterizing art with bold language (however accurate it may be) can smooth over the details. In other words, we can sometimes forget where it all began—and that genius never matures in isolation. Who was Albrecht Dürer before his renown? Who was he in relation to his artistic colleagues?
Co-organized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Musée Condé in Chantilly, “ALBRECHT DÜRER: Print and Renaissance” offers an opportunity to review more than 200 works by the artist. The curators note that, despite his renown, there has not been a major Dürer exhibition in France for more than 25 years. Part-corrective, part-homage, this exhibition unites two of the most significant Dürer collections in France, reintroducing the artist to a new generation and affirming his place at the epicenter of the Renaissance. “Print and Renaissance” visually demonstrates how the artist revolutionized aesthetics and printmaking in this period while considering the artists in his circle, the dialogues he maintained with them and the environmental factors that contributed to his success.
To start, Dürer was born in the right place at the right time. He was born in 1471 in Nuremberg, a wealthy, populated and important city for commerce, industry and scholarship. Nuremberg was also a major artistic center, particularly for the production of musical instruments, metalwork, clocks and printed books. Dürer came from two generations of goldsmiths, and the young artist’s first training took place within his father’s workshop. Among the 18 Dürer children, Albrecht was the most talented, followed by his brother, Hans. As an adolescent, Albrecht Dürer’s exceptional gifts as a draughtsman were already apparent; there is a much-published self-portrait by the artist at age 13 that shows off his light but exacting touch, his understanding of fabric, and his flair for self-presentation.
In 1486, when he was 15 years old, Dürer became an apprentice to Michael Wolgemut, a Nuremberg-based painter and printmaker known for his late Gothic style and book illustrations. While training with Wolgemut, the young Dürer studied woodcarving and copper engraving techniques and benefitted from Wolgemut’s collection of Italian art, of which Dürer made numerous copies. In the exhibition catalogue, the authors stress the profound impact of this period on Dürer’s long-term development as an artist, not least because of the accessibility of crucial contemporary iconography. When his apprenticeship ended, Dürer left Nuremberg, traveling to Colmar, Basel and the Low Countries to study in new workshops.
Dürer paused his European tour to return to Nuremberg in 1494, to marry Agnes Frey, the daughter of a coppersmith. He did not stay long, however, as there was an outbreak of the plague in his hometown. He set off for Venice, in what would turn out to be a hugely influential journey. He remained in Italy for almost a year where he met with well-known Italian artists, such as Gentile and Giovanni Bellini and spent time producing copies (scholars have noted, in particular, the influence of Mantegna, Antonio Pollaiuolo and Lorenzo di Credi). Most significantly, Dürer began exploring Italian artistic theories and mathematical formulas, partially because of his mutually influential friendship with the Venetian painter Jacopo de’ Barbari. For his entire life, Dürer would aspire to capture the ideal proportions and innate beauty of the human form.
Definitively settling in Nuremberg in 1495, Dürer opened his own workshop where he produced works infused with the techniques he had absorbed from his travels. Success soon followed; the next year, he received painting commissions from the Elector of Saxony. In 1498, he became famous throughout Europe for his woodcut series, The Apocalypse. Both designed and published by Dürer, it was his first major illustrated series—and a hugely ambitious project.
Comprised of 15 engravings, The Apocalypse depicts different scenes from the Book of Revelation, starting with the story of John on the Island of Patmos. The Book of Revelation was a popular subject in the Renaissance, appearing in woodcuts and illuminated books of hours—but Dürer’s version stood out for its innovative combination of German and Italian techniques. Dürer manipulated his woodcuts with an extreme precision that allowed him to narrate the story with all the drama and eloquence of great painting.
The Apocalypse was not only a tremendous artistic feat but a commercially brilliant one. One scholar has suggested that Dürer must have noticed “un extraordinaire potentiel commercial”—i.e., the extraordinary business potential—after experiencing how saturated Nuremberg’s market for painting already was. Because the print is, by nature, reproducible, Dürer was guaranteed an enormous and diverse audience that took him far beyond Nuremberg. He also had the foresight to select subjects that would appeal to his market. In other words, The Apocalypse was a hit.
By the time Dürer returned to Italy from 1505 to 1507, the Venetians warmly received him as a “signore.” Having achieved fame there from his prints, Dürer came on a commission from the German merchant community—to paint an altarpiece for their church, San Bartolommeo, on the Rialto. The resulting painting, Feast of the Rose Garlands, incorporates the softly expressive lines popular in Venetian painting. In a move that feels consistent with his personality, Dürer also included his own self-portrait in the upper right-hand corner of the painting, as if to declare his attachment to Italy.
Indeed, Dürer seemed to revel in the opportunity to travel around the country. From Venice, he traveled to Bologna to study perspective, and he even managed to see work by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael in Florence and Rome. His travel writings give charming insights into his personality and his desire to be well-liked by the Italians. Throughout, he continuously emphasized the social element of his visit, the praise he received, and his impressions of the Italians more broadly.
That said, as he described his experiences, he varied from delighting in the attention (“here, I am a prince”) to worrying about the “enemies” who would copy his work. He wrote to a friend:
“There are so many good fellows among the Italians who seek my company more and more every day—which is very gratifying to me—men of sense, and scholarly, good lute-players, and pipers, connoisseurs in painting, men of much noble sentiment and honest virtue, and they show me much honor and friendship. On the other hand, there are also amongst them the most faithless, lying, thievish rascals; such as I scarcely believed could exist on earth.”
Dürer only reluctantly returned to Nuremberg, complaining, “How I shall freeze after this sun! Here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite.” He remained at home for over a decade, except for a few brief sojourns, variously dedicating his time to painting and engravings. Hardly a parasite, Dürer was offered several significant commissions during this period, including from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, for paintings, portrait drawings, marginal decorations, as well as the famous Triumphal Arch. He also completed what have come to be known as his “Master Engravings”: Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in his Cel (1514) and Melancolia I (1514).
All three works were revolutionary engravings, but, among them, Saint Jerome in his Cel feels perhaps the most personal to Dürer. The artist depicted Saint Jerome in no fewer than seven engravings—perhaps because he seemed to exemplify the scholarly, humanist values of Nuremberg. In the engraving, Saint Jerome appears in his study, intently focused on the book in front of him. Totally absorbed by his scholarship, the saint emanates a quiet warmth. Around him, his study is orderly but lived-in; letters, shears, and a hat are tucked neatly against the wall; the cushions have been sat on and need to be fluffed again. Dürer here depicted the ideal contemplative life.
A few years later, in the summer of 1520, Dürer made another journey—this time, to the Netherlands. His wife accompanied him, and together they traveled to Antwerp, Mechelen, Brussels, Aachen and Cologne, in addition to other detours, to meet with Margaret of Austria and attend the coronation of Charles V, the new Holy Roman Emperor. His writings again offer wonderful insights into his time there—he recorded gifting various prints to his hosts (ex., “Have given Master Jacob two engraved ‘St. Jeromes.’”). As in Italy, he maintained a busy social calendar, meeting with various high-profile artists such as Quentin Matsys and Bernard van Orley. At this stage in his career, the journey seems to have represented something of a triumph for the artist, as he sought new connections and commissions—yet also served as a measure for how far he had come. Traveling as a mature artist, he witnessed the full extent of his acclaim and the recognition he received from his peers. Upon his return, Dürer devoted more and more time to his theoretical writings, penning works on the subjects—geometry, proportion—that had preoccupied him for so long.
When he died in 1528, Dürer had already left a monumental legacy—no other printmaker exerted the same level of influence on his contemporaries. Celebrated, rivaled, imitated, Dürer reached a level of personal acclaim that had enhanced the possibilities of printmaking itself. However we label him—as modern, as a genius—Dürer left an indelible mark on the history of visual culture, signaled in the form of two letters: AD.