Albrecht Durer, a master Northern Renaissance artist
While the Renaissance in Italy was going strong in such cities as Florence, Rome, Venice and Milan, the 'rebirth' of knowledge, classics, and the arts was slowly seeping into the northern countries of Europe, specifically Germany and the Netherlands.
And, the most gifted and versatile German artist of the Northern Renaissance period was Albrecht Durer, a German painter, engraver, printmaker, mathematician and theorist born in and from Nuremberg, Germany, in the Franconia region of the country.
Nuremberg, Germany had grown to become one of the strongest artistic and commercial centers in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries and Durer made this city his permanent home, although he traveled extensively to Italy and the Netherlands during his lifetime.
Although, Durer was a gifted painter, draftsman, printer and writer, his greatest artistic impact was in the medium of printmaking. His masterpieces are engraved wood cuts and copper engravings and Durer revolutionized printmaking elevating it to the level of an independent art form. He expanded its tonal and dramatic range and provided imagery with a new conceptual foundation.
With the invention of the printing press in Germany around 1465, Durer was able to reach not just the German nobility with his work, but also the common man. Both literate and illiterate man could see and understand his prints and engravings. His appeal was to all men and women during the Northern Renaissance that flourished a bit after the Italian Renaissance.
Nuremberg continued to become a vibrant center of humanism and one of the first German cities to embrace the principles of the Reformation. Durer also had access to some of Europe's outstanding theologians and scholars especially Erasmus, Melanchton and Pirkheimer as Durer painted all their portraits.
Durer also embraced the principles of mathematics, perspective and ideal proportions and was an exacting painter using all three in his paintings. He authored Four Books of Human Proportion as well as an introductory manual of geometric theory for students. His was the first scientific treatment of perspective by a Northern European.
He also had a visual curiosity that extended to the whole of nature. He loved sketching and making prints of animals, people and natural landscapes. He also painted them in vivid watercolors.
He traveled to and visited Italy twice in his life, 1494-95 and again in 1505-07 and there he absorbed some of the great works of the Italian Renaissance and it was here he was greatly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci.
He also was influenced by the Venetian use of color and design in paintings and he began painting in Italy and then continued when back in Germany. He was able to incorporate Venetian breadth, light and color without sacrificing the precision of his drawings.
Durer became the official court artist of the Holy Roman Emperors, Maximilian I and his successor Charles V. Durer designed and helped execute a range of artistic projects for both men.
His talent, ambition and intellect earned him the attention and friendship of some of the most prominent people in German society. Hundreds of surviving drawings, letters and diary entries document his travels through Italy and the Netherlands 1520-21, and attesting to his scientific perspective and artistic judgment.
He painted several self-portraits, drawn, painted and printed that reveal a successful and self-assured master, eager to assert his creative genius and inherent nobility. He also became the first European landscape artist.
1471 - 1528
Albrecht Durer led an illustrious life of an artist and began his start at fifteen years of age by being apprenticed at the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, a principal painter in Nuremberg, Germany, of small works in late Gothic style. Durer learned painting, wood carving, and elementary copper engraving from Wolgemut and eventually, like other Renaissance greats, Durer's work surpassed his teacher.
In 1490, Durer took his Wanderjahr, or gap year as we call it today, that actually turned into four years of traveling around Germany and working with different artists to learn more of his trade. He arrived in Colmar, Germany in 1492 to work with Martin Schongauer, a painter-engraver, but discovered he had died. So, Durer worked with the family in his workshop and learned metal engraving.
He briefly returned to Nuremberg to marry Agnes Frey, an arranged marriage made by his parents, and this was to be his only marriage during his lifetime.
By 1494, he again left Nuremberg for Venice, Italy to learn painting techniques of the Venetian School of painting during northern Italy's Renaissance. Venice was also the printmaking capital of Italy, and Durer refined his printmaking skills also while here in Venice.
Durer returned to Nuremberg in 1495 and remained there for the next ten years mostly producing his notable prints during this time. He worked in establishing Germanic and northern forms of prints but was open to the influences of the Italian Renaissance also. His best works in this period were his wood block prints.
It was during these years that Durer developed his famous series of sixteen great designs for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, his masterpiece carving, which he began carving in 1498. His prints during this period were very religious in nature and subject.
From 1504-05 he carved his first seventeen of a set illustrating the life of the Virgin. Durer was greatly influenced by Jacopo de Barbari who came to Nuremberg from Venice in 1500. He influenced Durer with new developments in perspective, anatomy and proportion.
Durer's Adam and Eve (1504) engravings show this new perspective he worked on with Barbari.
In 1505, Durer returned for a second visit to Italy and began painting a series of tempura-painting on linen painting portraits and altarpieces. It was also during this time that he painted Adoration of the Virgin (also called Feast of Rose Garlands) which was eventually acquired by Emperor Rudolf II and taken to Prague, Czechoslovakia. He also painted the Virgin with the Goldfinch and Child and other smaller works.
In 1507, Durer returned to Nuremberg and remained in Germany until 1570. By now, Durer was famous for his prints and paintings all over Europe and very popular with the public. From 1507-11 are considered the painting years of Durer's life.
In 1511-14, Durer returned to and concentrated on engraving using both wood and copper. He engraved and printed his famous Melancolia (1514) during this time.
When the Black Plague hit Nuremberg around 1520-21, Durer and his wife left the city and traveled to the Netherlands where he was received as a great artistic master. He wanted to be present at the coronation of Emperor Charles V.
After a year in the Netherlands he returned to Nuremberg, and worked on a series of religious pictures but produced little art at the end of his life. He died a natural death in 1528.
The Reformation in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenburg castle church doors, split Europe in two. Nuremberg, Germany adopted Protestantism, which Durer converted to, and the city continued as a major trading center between east and west. The specific religion it adopted was Lutheranism and Nuremberg became a rich, beautiful, and cosmopolitan city. It oozed humanist ideals and learning from Italy.
Although, he painted, Durer's drawings, wood cutting and printing remain his primary media throughout his career. He was the first major artists to emphasize them and it is the reason why Durer was considered the first and greatest of the Northern Renaissance artists. He never lost his northern individuality and his obsession with line. HIs fame from his engravings caused Italian artists to look to Durer for engraving ideas.
Durer has been called 'the Leonardo of the North' by art historians for his scientific investigations though they were limited by da Vinci's standards and genius.
His engraving of Adam & Eve (1504) is one of the first he printed in color. Both figures are based on antique sculptures and are constructed according to the rules of proportion. Every detail of the print has meaning. The branch Adam holds has been interpreted to refer to the Tree of Life. And the animals represent the humours in their original harmony according to art historians. Durer applied the color on the engraving according to Italianate and classical themes.
Durer's great imagination and mastery of technique, richness of learning all combined to reach a peak in three great single copper plates completed around 1513-14:
- The Knight, Death and the devil
- St. Jerome
- Melancolia I
Great detail in these prints brought together harmonious compositions. The Knight is an allegory of the Christian warrior fighting the devil and Death. St. Jerome is a great Christian Scholar and Melancholia is a meditation on the process of creation full of allusions.
Durer's wood cut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is his greatest print and themasterpiece of his lifetime. The subject for this print comes from the Bible's Book of Revelation. The Lamb has opened the first four seals of the prophecy of the Last Judgment that there rode forth four horsemen, one after the other.
- the first rider came with a bow on a white horse riding out to conquer
- the second rider came with a great sword on a red horse to unleash destruction
- the third rider came with a pair of scales on a black horse to symbolize justice
- the fourth rider came on a pale horse symbolizing death and Hell following him, riding to kill in famine and pestilence.
Disregarding the mass of humanity under their hooves, all four horsemen stare out into the distance forming a chain across the sheet and contribute to a sense of movement. We can almost hear the thunder of their movement across the page, and this had never been expressed before or since in a mere woodcut.
The thunder of movement is reinforced by the contrast of light and dark and the linear agitation of the fluttering saddle, clothes and other garments. The absence of color in this wood cut signals its great technical accomplishment and precision.
The Apocalypse appeared first in 1498 in a German and Latin edition of the Bible. It was riveting because the prophecy at that time was that the world would come to an end in the year 1500 and it was generally believed by most people living in Europe. Many in Germany and areas where Protestantism took hold believed the Pope as not Christ's representative on earth but the anti-Christ of the Book of Revelation in the Bible.
However, Durer's engraving is not one of complete doom as the angels staying the four winds represent the elect which are ordinary people with whom the reader can identify. Here Durer's use of woodcut brings his technique to a remarkable pitch.
Durer's paintings are not considered as great as his engravings, but I don't always agree with that analysis. His paintings are clearly from the northern perspective and not always fully Italianate, although he certainly included the Italian perspective partly in his paintings. Most of his paintings were completed during one of his two trips to Italy where he worked with some of the greatest Venetian painters and artists.
His greatest painting years are considered from about 1507-11 and Durer is considered the first greatest Northern Renaissance artist. He was able to incorporate Venetian breadth of light and color without sacrificing the precision of his lines and of his drawings. He always maintained his individual talent in painting his works.
He painted the Adoration of the Magi in 1504. His starting point on this painting is northern style and on this he grafted Italianate gesture, grouping and color. He then turned his figures into his own independent style. The Virgin is painted distinctly northern in her features and proportions.
In his Adoration of the Trinity 1511, Durer achieves a more through blend with a magnificent synthesis of the northern and southern visions. Here, he includes da Vinci's influence in his painting of his huge crowd of individuals. The influence of Venetian color and design can be seen in this painting.
His greatest masterpiece painting are The Four Apostles, which actually was never completed. These two great panels are considered his greatest painted work. The majestic figures were intended as the wings of an altarpiece of the Italian type.
Since Nuremberg reformed religiously and became Lutheran during the time Durer painted this the saints have been interpreted as personifications of the four temperaments: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. All the while, the inscriptions spell out Durer's message to the faithful of the new Lutheran religion: "Hold fast to the Word and distrust false prophets."
The apostles monumental yet individual grandeur along with northern specificity is combined with the Italian tradition of figure drawing in these panels.
Because of the variety of his talents, and his workshop located in Nuremberg, Germany, Durer will always be remembered as the master of the Northern Renaissance, having ushered it in with his wood and copper engravings and Renaissance style paintings. His exactitude in his engravings are marveled even today by modern artists.
© 2014 Suzette Walker