Albrecht Durer
German Printmaker, Painter, Famous for Woodcuts and Self-Portraits.

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Self-Portrait (1498, Prado, Madrid)
By Albrecht Durer one of the most
influential Old Masters in Germany.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)


Youth and Training
Early Art
Visits Venice
Mature Paintings and Prints
Second Visit to Italy
Later Works: Altarpieces, Engravings, Woodprints (1508-26)

Self-Portrait with Fur Collar (c.1500)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

For a guide, see: Definition of Art.


The leading artist of the German Renaissance, Albrecht Durer ranks alongside Jan Van Eyck (c.1395-1441) and Roger Van der Weyden (1400-1464), as one of the greatest Northern Renaissance artists. He was an early pioneer of several arts media, including drawing. Also, along with Rembrandt and Goya, he is regarded as a supreme master of printmaking, being revered for his woodcuts, notably the Apocalypse series (1498), Passion cycle (c.1497-1500) and the Life of the Virgin (1500), as well as numerous works of engraving, notably The Knight, Death and the Detail (1513), St Jerome in His Study (1514), and Melancholia (1514). His paintings include religious art, mostly altarpiece art, portraiture and self-portraits, as well as scientific treatises and theological writings. Durer's main contribution to art was to create a synthesis between the aesthetics of the Italian Renaissance, and those of the Northern Renaissance. He was the last representative of German Gothic Art, and the first modern artist north of the Alps.

Detail from, Virgin And Child With
Saint Anne (c.1519)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

For the finest works, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever.

A Young Hare (1502) Albertina, Vienna.

For other important painters of
Renaissance in Germany, see:
Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528)
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538)
Hans Holbein The Younger (1497-1543)

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.

Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings.

Youth and Training

The Durer family originally came from Hungary where Albrecht's grandfather, and then his father, had practiced goldsmithing; after a stay in the Netherlands, his father settled in Nuremberg in 1455. Durer grew up in a family of somewhere between 14 and 17 siblings. His godfather, Anton Koberger was an established publisher who went on to own 24 printing presses and had offices in Germany and abroad. His most famous journal was the Nuremberg Chronicle which was published in 1493 and had hundreds of woodcut illustrations. It is thought that his godson may have designed some of these prints. The young Durer probably received his first training in his father's goldsmith workshop. If so, it was an excellent apprenticeship for his later development as a draughtsman and engraver. It was, in fact, his graphic work (especially his figure-drawing and sketching of animals and the countryside), rather than his paintings, that brought him international fame in his own lifetime. During the 16th century the whole of Europe copied his many drawings and prints. His earliest surviving drawing is a Self Portrait in silverpoint (1484, Albertina), which clearly demonstrates his technical precocity, and which no doubt influenced his decision in 1486 to become an apprentice of the Nuremberg painter Michael Wolgemut (1434-1519), a disciple of the artist Hans Pleydenwurff, who had been instrumental in bringing the style of the Netherlandish Renaissance to Germany. Wolgemut had a large workshop which produced, in particular, woodcuts for books and this was the area Durer trained in. The works which the young Durer created at this time, although more decorative, show the influence of the monumental style of his teacher (The Cemetery of St John, watercolour & gouache, 1489, Bremen Museum).


Early Art

In early 1490, when his apprenticeship finished, Durer left Nuremberg to extend his experience. He was away for four years, but in the absence of hard facts, we can only guess what the stages of his journey were. It has been suggested that he may have visited Colmar, famous as the home of Martin Schongauer (d.1491), and the region of Frankfurt am Mainz where, it seems, the mysterious but no less famous 'Master of the Housebook' was working. However, a study of documents and the style of the works of this period, in which the influence of Dutch painters like Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c.1465-95) and of Dirk Bouts (1415-75) is visible, makes it seem likely that Durer must have carried on to the Low Countries, there to study works in the tradition of Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) and Roger Van der Weyden (1400-1464).

In March 1492 Durer retraced his footsteps and paid a visit to Colmar. Martin Schongauer had died the previous year, but his three brothers met with Durer and introduced him to their fourth brother Georg, who lived in Basel. There, thanks to introductions from the famous publisher Anton Koberger, Durer gained access to humanist circles where he was made welcome and became friendly with Johannes Amerbach.

During these years on the move, Durer concentrated above all on graphic art: drawings and plans for woodcuts, combining the influences of Schongauer and the inventive freedom of the Master of the Housebook. The book illustration called St Jerome Caring for the Lion (1492), which appeared in an edition of St Jerome's letters, is the only documented print of the period, but Durer is acknowledged to be the illustrator of several other works, such as Bergmann von Olpe's Ship of Fools, and is known to have created designs for Amerbach's edition of the works of Terence, although few were actually used. Also from this time dates Durer's first painted Self-Portrait (1492, Louvre, Paris), a masterpiece of introspection.

NOTE: Painting in northern Germany during the late 15th century was exemplified by the work of the Cologne School, which reached a highpoint under Stefan Lochner (c.1410-51) during the middle of the century.

Visit to Venice

The year 1493 saw Durer in Strasbourg. In 1494 he returned to Nuremberg again, where he married Agnes, the daughter of the nobleman Hans Frey. It may have been an arranged marriage, his portraits of her lack any warmth and they never had any children. Shortly after his wedding, Durer travelled to Venice, a trip which had an altogether exceptional effect on the young husband. To most of Durer's contemporaries the living sources of art were still considered to be Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent, the Renaissance been viewed as an exclusively Italian movement, offering German artists merely a selection of decorative motifs taken from antiquity. But Durer saw in Italy a true renewal of aesthetics and creative thought, and he flung himself enthusiastically into a study of Venetian painting, copying Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506), Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98), Lorenzo di Credi (1458-1537), and Vittore Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/6), and gradually assimilating the new Renaissance idiom, particularly in the fields of linear perspective and the treatment of female nudes.

While his interest was being aroused in artistic theory, he also displayed a strong curiosity about nature, a feature that influenced a good deal of his work. For instance, during his return to Germany, he produced several examples of landscape painting, reproducing views of the countryside he passed through, such as: the Wehlschpirg (1495, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum), Pond in the Woods (1495, British Museum) and View of Arco (1495, Louvre). (Note: See also the Danube School of landscape painting which Durer must have known about, which had just begun (c.1490) in the Danube valley of south Germany.) This watercolour painting, which is striking in its modernity, consistency, and expressive use of colours, may be contrasted, with his more usual traditional approach to nature resulting in studies such as The Crab (c.1495, Rotterdam, B.V.B.), A Young Hare (1502, Albertina, Vienna) and Great Piece of Turf (1503, Albertina, Vienna).

Mature Paintings and Prints

By 1495 Durer was back in Nuremberg, and, thanks to financial support from Frederick the Wise, a period of intense activity now began. By the age of 30 (1501), Durer had completed most of his three most famous woodcuts (Apocalypse, Passion Cycle and Life of the Virgin) and had mastered the use of the burin to make engravings, producing such notable works as Nemesis (1502), The Sea Monster (1498) and Saint Eustace (1501). On the stylistic level, he succeeded in achieving a fusion between the lessons he had learned in Italy and those of his training in the German-Flemish tradition. In addition, from the iconographical viewpoint, he revealed an ecclesiastic taste, producing humanist portraits and works on numerous biblical themes, as well as philosophical allegories, genre scenes, and works of nature.

As well as an outstanding series of engravings, including the cycle of the Apocalypse which stands out as one of the wonderful creations of German art, he executed a dozen paintings in 1500. A polyptych altarpiece, commissioned by Frederick the Wise, was planned by Durer but actually carried out by his assistants (The Seven Sorrrows, 1496, Dresden, and the Mater Dolorosa, 1496, Alte Pinakothek, Munich); a second, now known as the Altarpiece of Wittenberg (1496-7, Dresden), was entirely his own work. For the Virgin Adoring the Child, Durer borrowed from Flemish nativities, while the precision of the modelling, the still life in the foreground and the simplified architectural perspective of the background indicate Francesco Squarcione or Mantegna. The composition as a whole, with its precise drawing and muted tones, has an atmosphere of solemn piety that is close to the Pieta paintings of Giovanni Bellini. The side-panels (St Anthony and St Sebastian), which were painted later (c.1504), are stylistically more open, while their realism, and the flesh of the putti, contrast with the spirituality of the central panel.


Along with these altarpieces, Durer painted his Frederick the Wise (1496, Berlin-Dahlem). In this work, every decorative element is abandoned in favour of a psychological focus, formal bareness being the only way of expressing the inner tension of the sitter. In comparison with this masterly work, the later Portrait of Oswalt Krell (1499, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) shows a certain regression. Meanwhile Durer painted several other portraits (including those of Katharina Furlegerin and his Father), which we know only through copies, as well as the Hailer Madonna (c.1497, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) in the manner of Giovanni Bellini's Madonnas.

Five years on from his Self-Portrait in the Louvre, he returned to the genre with the Self-Portrait (1498) now hanging in the Prado, and it is possible to see in the haughty bearing and the careful arrangement of posture and decor, the distance covered by the young draughtsman, who already, at the age of 27, was beginning to be hailed as the greatest artist of his generation. The Self-Portrait with Fur Collar painted two years later (1500, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) is much more disturbing. Here, Durer depicts himself as a sort of Christ risen from the darkness, with long golden hair that provoked sarcasm in Venice falling symmetrically over his shoulders. Was he associating his genius as an artist with the divine creative genius, was it a proclamation of faith in the monumentality of the Renaissance, or was it an affirmation of his own glory? The problem remains unsolved. The last work of his triumphant youthful period is a Lamentation (1500, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Still characterized by the austere gravity of his former teacher Michael Wolgemut, this work transcends its archaic elements by opening up, above the body of the dead Christ and the other figures, the ideal view of a cosmic Jerusalem.

Second Visit to Italy

Throughout this period, and especially after 1500, Durer's interest in the scientific theory of art was growing. His first visit to Italy had shown him that true art was impossible without theoretical knowledge; the meeting with Jacopo de' Barbari (active 1497-1516) and his discovery, in 1503, of Leonardo's drawings re-confirmed this for him. Thus it was in this state of mind that he painted the famous Paumgartner Altarpiece (1502-4, Alte Pin, Munich). The central panel bears a Nativity arranged in the conventional Gothic way, but, for the first time, Durer introduced a rigorous scheme of perspective. Accordingly, the severe side-panels, portraits of Lucas and Stephan Paumgarmer as St George and St Eustace, are the result of careful studies of proportion.

More remarkable is The Adoration of the Magi (1504, Uffizi Gallery, Florence), whose perspective and proportions are executed with matchless precision, the direction of the point of flight being set diagonally, in a way that closely anticipates later Baroque art. As a result of his ingenious arrangement of contrasts, together with the natural dialogue between the figures and their surroundings, Durer surpasses the mystical warmth that infused the 1500 Lamentation and the Paumgartner Altarpiece, and arrives at a synthesis of irresistible clarity that reminds one of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

In the Autumn of 1505 Durer returned to Venice, partly to escape the plague which had broken out in Nuremberg, but also because he felt an urgent need to improve his colour technique in what was, after all, the greatest city of fine art painting, or as the Venetians called it, colorito. As it was, his stature as a master draughtsman and engraver had preceded him, and he was received with honour in both cultural and political circles. However, the city's painters - with the exception of the great Giovanni Bellini - were noticeably jealous, even hostile.

The years 1506-1510 were a period of intense focus by Durer on fine art painting. He began by flinging himself into his first Venetian commission: the Rosenkranzfest (The Feast of the Rose Garlands) (1506, Narodni Galerie, Prague) for the church of the German quarter, a work which is undoubtedly a major landmark in his career. The composition broadly derives from the traditional type of Sacra Conversazione favoured by Bellini, but for its solemn and meditative aspects Durer substituted an atmosphere of effervescence, arranged around the central pyramid - Virgin, Pope and Emperor - and exquisitively balanced by the delicate landscape that opens out in the background. It is not the structure so much as the colour that gives the painting its supreme sense of order. With its subtle luminous touches, it succeeds in fusing the profound spirit and colour of the Venetian Renaissance, with the lyricism of International Gothic German painters of the 15th century.

Aside from this masterpiece, other works deserve attention: The Virgin of the Siskin (1506, Berlin-Dahlem), which illustrates the importance Durer attached to the problem of colour; Christ among the Doctors (1506, Lugano, Thyssen Collection), a contrast between the youthful beauty of Christ and the aged nature of the doctors; the unfinished Young Venetian Woman (1505, K.M. Vienna), whose delicacy and tonal warmth recalls Carpaccio; and finally, Portrait of a Woman (c.1507, Berlin-Dahlem), delicately modelled against a blue background.

On a technical as well as aesthetic level, Durer's second stay in Venice was extremely important. Having discovered the independent power of colour and his own power of expression, Durer tried to put into practice a theory of colour, while at the same time, with the help of Euclid, Vitruvius and many studies of the human anatomy, seeking to improve his scientific and mathematical understanding of Italian Renaissance art. The culmination of his studies is the Adam and Eve (1507, Prado, Madrid), which, in its supreme harmony, can be considered Durer's synthesis of the ideal beauty.


Later Works (Altarpieces, Wood Prints, Engravings) (1508-26)

On his return to Nuremberg, Durer executed an altarpiece known as the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (1508, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), after which he painted an Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511, K.M. Vienna). Both these works are composed according to the multiplication of figures and, notably in the Holy Trinity, on the spherical Copernican idea of space, which gives them a sort of visionary character which anticipates Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538), Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569), and later masters of Baroque painting. However, they don't represent a notable stage in Durer's evolution. In fact, as soon as he left behind the influential climate of Venice, he showed a tendency to revert to the graphic style of his earlier career, and his colour lost some of its brightness and subtlety. As it was, after 1510, he focused on wood prints and engraving, complaining that paintings did not earn enough money to justify the time spent. It is unlikely that Durer made any of the wood blocks for his prints himself, this would probably have been left to a skilled woodcutter. Durer either drew his design directly onto the block or glued a paper drawing onto the block for the craftsman to use. In his engraving, he produced versions of the Passion, the Life of the Virgin, and then his masterpieces, The Knight, Death and the Detail (1513), St Jerome in His Study (1514), and Melancholia (1514).

Having been adopted in 1512 by a new patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who appointed him official court artist, Durer was assigned frequent diplomatic missions by the Council of Nuremberg. In 1518, he was present at the Diet of Augsburg where he completed a series of portraits such as Maximilian I (1519, K.M. Vienna). The religious picture St Anne, the Virgin and Child (1519, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is the outstanding work of this period, in which few paintings were produced. Marked by a delicate composition in soft white tones, it signals a further move towards the Mannerism already visible in the decorative style of St Philip and St James (1516, Uffizi, Florence).

In 1520, after the death of his patron, Durer travelled to the court of Charles V, Maximilian's successor as Emperor, in order to drum up business. He took a large stock of prints with him, and kept accurate records on who he sold the prints to and for how much. He stayed in the Netherlands for almost a year, meeting Erasmus (1469-1536), the greatest scholar of the Northern Renaissance, as well as the painters Quentin Massys (1466-1530), Joachim Patenier (d.1524), Lucas van Leyden and Van Orley. He also studied works by a number of Flemish masters such as - Van Eyck in Ghent, and Hugo Van der Goes in Brussels. However, his creative activity was gradually slowing down. In July 1521 he returned home, after catching an undetermined illness which was to afflict him and the rate of his work for the rest of his life.

In his Vision of a Dream (1525, watercolour, K.M. Vienna) the human race is depicted as being swept away by a second Flood. His final monumental work, the Four Apostles (1526, A.P Munich), a commission he received for Nuremberg's town hall, is a sort of testament. The four figures portray man, his ages and humours: on the left-hand shutter, John, young and sanguine, together with a phlegmatic Peter, stooping with age; on the right-hand shutter, the fiery Mark, with the imperturbable Paul.


Durer began a number of theoretical treatises around 1512-13, which he finished during the last years of his life. They include: Treatise on Measurement (1525), Treatise on Fortifications (1527), and the four books on the Proportions of the Human Body, published six months after his death. Compared in importance with Luther's Bible, these books were designed as part of an encyclopedia of art, to be called Food for Apprentice Painters.

One of Germany's most acclaimed painters, Durer died in Nuremberg in 1528 at the relatively young age of 56. His main artistic legacy was in the area of printmaking, and he went on to inspire other artists in this area like his pupil Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545), as well as Titian (1477-1576), Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538), and Parmigianino (1503-40).

Many of Durer's works can be seen in the Alte Pinakothek Museum, Munich, and in the best art museums around the world.

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