Who Was Albrecht Dürer?

Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan
May 18 through September 12, 2010

As the paramount artist of the German Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) produced a diverse and vibrant group of paintings, prints, and drawings. He also served as an essential conduit between Italy and northern Europe, was an influential teacher and art theorist in his native Germany, and shaped modern notions of artistic creativity and originality. Dürer was born in Nuremberg, a major artistic and cultural center in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. His father, Albrecht Dürer the Elder, was a goldsmith in whose workshop Dürer honed his skills for the graphic arts by working in metal and mastering the burin, an engraving tool. Dürer, however, was determined to become a fine artist. In 1486, he began apprenticing under his neighbor Michael Wolgemut, a well-established local artist. During this time, Wolgemut produced exceptional woodcuts for the seminal Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493 by Dürer's godfather, Anton Koberger. This experience would have been formative for Dürer, who would go on to transform printmaking, raising it to an autonomous art form.

His apprenticeship over, Dürer traveled throughout the region. He went to Colmar in hopes of meeting Martin Schongauer, but the master printmaker died shortly before Dürer's arrival. Returning to Nuremberg, he married Agnes Frey in 1494 and later that same year departed for Italy. After his return to Nuremberg in 1495, he began gaining international recognition for his prints. The Apocalypse series (published 1498), the Large Passion (ca. 1497–1500), and the Life of the Virgin (1500–11) established Dürer as one of Europe's leading graphic artists.

Dürer was not only a renowned printmaker but also a painter. Among his most famous paintings are self-portraits, including the iconic work of 1500 now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, in which the artist—long haired and wearing a fur-trimmed coat—faces the viewer head-on. Dürer included, as he did in many of his works, a prominent monogram, a testament to the importance he placed on the artist as creator. This belief persisted throughout his career: according to his biographer Giorgio Vasari, Dürer brought legal action against Marcantonio Raimondi for falsifying Dürer's monogram.

Around the time Dürer was painting the Munich self-portrait, he met Italian artist Jacopo de' Barbari in Nuremberg and became fascinated by Babari's use of measurement to depict the ideal human figure. The Italian artist would not reveal his method, prompting Dürer to turn to sources such as the canon of proportions established by the first-century B.C. Roman architect Vitruvius. Dürer's efforts to integrate systems of measurement into his art culminated in the Morgan's remarkable drawing and print of Adam and Eve.

From 1505–07, Dürer resided in Italy for the second time. In Venice, he completed his major altarpiece, The Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506), a study for which is in the Morgan's collection. Now at the height of his career, Dürer had the attention of the most important leaders, theologians, philosophers, scholars, and artists in both Italy and northern Europe. In 1515, he became the official court artist to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and, later, to his successor, Charles V. He befriended such scholars as Desidarius Erasmus and Willibald Pirckheimer and had contact with leading Italian artists, including Giovanni Bellini and Raphael.

Dürer's final trip abroad was to the Netherlands. During this journey, from 1520–21, he completed a number of fine silverpoint drawings and saw gold objects from Mexico that impressed him deeply. Upon his return to Germany, Dürer published treatises on geometry (1525) and fortification (1527). He died in Nuremberg in 1528 at the age of 57. After this death, his wife Agnes and friend Pirckheimer published several of Dürer's finished manuscripts as the Four Books on Human Proportion.

For further reading:

Larry Silver and Jeffrey Chipps Smith, eds., The Essential Dürer, Philadelphia, 2010.

Giulia Bartrum, Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy: the Graphic Work of a Renaissance Artist, London, 2002.

Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, Chicago, 1993.

Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, rev. ed., Princeton, 2005.