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Albrecht Durer: German Painter

Updated on May 4, 2019
John Welford profile image

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

Albrecht Dürer

He was born in Nuremberg, Bavaria, in 1471, which is where he opened a workshop in 1494. Nuremberg was the centre of Dürer’s activity throughout his life.

He made two visits to Italy, the first at the end of his apprenticeship and the second some ten years later. He spent his time in Northern Italy, particularly Venice, where he became influenced by the work of Giovanni Bellini.

Apart from his Italian visits and a long journey to the Netherlands, he spent the whole of his life not far from his home base.

Dürer’s work combined German tradition and Italian influences, the proportion of each varying throughout his life. From Italy he learned to appreciate correct three-dimensional perspective and, above all, a feeling for the weight and bulk of the human figure.

However, after his second visit to Italy, Italian impressions threatened to swamp Dürer’s natural vision. Fortunately, he was able to avoid the danger and assimilate creatively the lessons he had learned.

Dürer excelled in portraiture, in which he remained comparatively free of Italian influence and which formed the bulk of his painting during his later years. His penetrating psychological insight, combined with a warm humanity, stamp his portraits with a modern spirit.

Dürer worked in one of the leading cultural centres of Germany and was always in the limelight. He learned the art of engraving at an early stage, which enabled him to produce prints of many of his works. These were widely distributed and meant that his influence was felt in the Netherlands, France, Spain, and even Italy itself.

Albrecht Dürer died in 1528 at the age of 57.


Self-Portrait

This dates from 1498 and is one of several self-portraits that Dürer painted during his early years as an artist. The emphasis is on elegance and refinement in both features and dress.

Self-Portrait
Self-Portrait

Adam and Eve

These panels were probably completed shortly after Dürer’s second visit to Italy in 1507 and are strongly Italianate. They can be seen in the Prado Gallery, Madrid.

The figures were probably not done directly from nature but reflect Dürer’s search for the ideal classical human figure. Indeed, when Dürer made engravings of the same subject he used ancient statues of Apollo and Venus as his models.

His attempt to endue nude figures with ideal proportions and appearance may be thought to have given them a certain artificiality, which certainly seems to be the case with the way Adam is holding an apple twig, complete with ripe apple, between forefinger and thumb – surely the weight of the apple would have made that impossible?

(Not only that, but there is the age-old question of whether Adam and Eve would have had navels!)

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve

Madonna of the Rose Garlands

This is an altar panel in which Dürer sought to rival the Venetians in his use of colour. The composition and the central figures, especially the Virgin, Child and angels, are Italianate and betray the influence of Leonardo as well as Bellini.

Madonna of the Rose Garlands
Madonna of the Rose Garlands

The Four Apostles

This work dates from around 1526 and was Dürer’s last major work, being a gift to his native city of Nuremberg, painted on two panels.

This work, which has reminiscences of Bellini, shows how fully Dürer had assimilated the Italian influences and adapted them to his own style.

Each of the four heads has been endowed with a highly individualized character with different expressions. This has given rise to suggestions that the apostles are also depictions of the “four temperaments” – phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic.


The Four Apostles
The Four Apostles

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    • Bede le Venerable profile image

      Bede 

      13 months ago from Minnesota

      It’s a good overview, John. While I’m not a huge admirer of Durer’s work, I can appreciate his extreme virtuosity. I saw an exhibition of his woodcuts some years ago and was impressed with the intricacy. The museum had several of the wooden blocks on display as well, though I’m doubtful that Durer executed the incising of the wood.

      It’s interesting how much Italian art influenced him, yet he retained his Germanic style. If you’ve read Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, Durer also influenced Italian artists, particularly Pontormo. However, Vasari criticizes Pontormo for losing his natural sweetness by following Durer too closely.

    • John Welford profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      13 months ago from Barlestone, Leicestershire

      Thanks for your kind comments. Durer's best-known work - which I did not mention in the article - is his engraving of "praying hands", which has been reprinted millions of times and often adorns the walls of devoted Christians across the world.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 

      13 months ago from Pacific Northwest

      I had not hear of this painter although I may have far in the past when I took art history. I am amazed at his self-portrait with all its detail.

      I was struck by your comment in the Adam and Eve segment about the question of them having navels. I think I can see why people would wonder. Kind of like the chicken and the egg question.

      I have been reading about Vincent van Gogh lately. The book Lust for Life, a book about his life shows how artists were always going to different countries to paint and interact with other artists.

      I am interested in art although I am not really an artist in the painting drawing area. I've taken classes but I write so much that I've never pursued those outside of class. I really enjoyed art history and love to visit art museums.

      I am enjoying your work here on HP.

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