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Albrecht Dürer

(1471—1528) German engraver and painter

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(b Nuremberg, 21 May 1471; d Nuremberg, 6 Apr. 1528).

German printmaker, painter, draughtsman, and writer, the greatest figure of Renaissance art in northern Europe. He was the son of a goldsmith, Albrecht Dürer the Elder, who trained him in his profession. Both his grandfathers had also been goldsmiths, but from an early age Dürer had intellectual ambitions that reached far beyond the confines of the medieval craftsman's workshop. His godfather was Anton Koberger, Nuremberg's leading publisher, whose books were sent all over Europe, and his best friend from childhood was Willibald Pirckheimer, a lawyer and classical scholar who had the best private library in Germany. In 1486, aged 15, Dürer left his father's workshop to study with Michael Wolgemut, the leading local painter. By this time he had already shown remarkable talent as a draughtsman, as is seen in his exquisite silverpoint self-portrait dated 1484 (Albertina, Vienna). (This is the earliest of several memorable self-portraits by Dürer; he was the first artist to produce a series of them at various stages of his life rather than one or two isolated examples, and they show his lofty conception of the artist's profession as well as his pride in his appearance—in addition to drawings there are three highly finished paintings in which he presents himself as a beautifully dressed and immaculately groomed gentleman, or even as a Christlike figure, rather than as a humble craftsman.) Wolgemut was a prolific book illustrator as well as a painter and Dürer must have learned the technique of woodcut from him. After completing his apprenticeship he spent the years 1490–4 travelling and gaining experience of the world. In 1492 he visited Colmar, hoping to meet Martin Schongauer, the most illustrious German painter and engraver of the day. He arrived too late, as Schongauer had recently died, but the master's brothers furnished Dürer with introductions that gained him work as a book illustrator in Basle (a major publishing centre), where he remained for over a year in 1492–3. After visiting Strasbourg, he returned to Nuremberg in 1494 and in the same year made an arranged marriage to the daughter of a local coppersmith. The union was childless and evidently unhappy (his wife had none of his intellectual interests), but it lasted until Dürer's death. A few months after the wedding he left his bride behind to make a study visit to north Italy, mainly Venice.

After his return to Nuremberg in spring 1495, Dürer quickly established himself as the city's leading artist. Although he was also active as a painter, his reputation was made mainly as a printmaker, his first great success being a series of fifteen woodcuts of the Apocalypse, published in book form in 1498 with German and Latin text. Most of his woodcuts were on traditional religious subjects, but they were much more ambitious than the work of his predecessors—large in size, elaborate in technique, vivid in imagery, and rich in human feeling, marking the highest development of the technique before it was virtually superseded by line engraving. These early works tend to have crowded compositions and emphatic emotions, but Dürer became much more classical and restrained, as he learned to reconcile his native love of precise detail with Italian ideals of grandeur and harmony. In 1505–7 he made a second visit to Italy, again staying mainly in Venice. This time he was something of a celebrity, not the promising youngster of his first trip, and he painted a major altarpiece for the German church of S. Bartolommeo, Venice (Feast of the Rose Garlands, 1506, NG, Prague). In richness of colour it was intended to compete with Venetian artists on their own ground or, in Dürer's words, ‘to silence those who said that I was good as an engraver but did not know how to handle the colours in painting’. Some of the local artists were evidently jealous of Dürer (he even said that he feared being poisoned by them), but he was warmly treated by Giovanni Bellini, for whom he had great admiration.


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