Towards the end of 15th century marked emergence of a renowned German painter, Albrecht Durer. He was born in the city of Nuremberg, the center of artistic excellence and achievements in Europe during the 15th-16th century. Aside from painting, he had also done exceptional works in writing, printmaking and engraving.
Albrecht Durer’s discovery of “master prints” served instrumental in gaining popularity across Europe, which eventually made him become the best artist of Northern Europe Renaissance. He had contributed a lot of the development of printmaking in Germany through his superior quality wood cuts. Today, Albrecht is best known for Melancholia I, Christ among the Doctors, Lamentation for Christ and Study of Praying Hands.
Born on May 21, 1471, Albrecht Durer was the third child of a renowned goldsmith and a housewife. He was raised in a Franconian suburb of Nuremberg together with a large family of 14 to 18 siblings. According to historical records, Albrecht’s father was named as “Ajtosi” which is Hungarian in origin and it means door in English. His father acquired this surname when he was still staying in a Hungarian town, Gyula before he moved to Nuremberg in 1455.
The Ajtosi family name was then changed to Durer, its German counterpart, to match the local dialect spoken in Nuremberg. Albrecht grew up in a family of goldsmiths; in fact, his grandfather Anton Koberger was a successful one but decided to quit his job to focus on printing and publishing. The Durer clan had a successful printing-press company by the time Albrecht was born in 1471. It was also the same printing press that published the Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493 consisting of almost 2,000 illustrations, making it one-of-a-kind during that time.
During his childhood years it is believed the Albrecht was apprenticed to his father and Michael Wolgemut. Through these workshops, he was able to develop his skills in woodcutting and printmaking although it was with Michael Wolgemut that Albrecht had attained his early success specifically at the age of 20. Wolgemut was the most famous painter of his time and it was very fortunate of Albrecht to have learned and absorbed his master’s drawing techniques, principles and styles. As a result, he was became a part of many major publications in Nuremberg with specialization in illustration and making woodcuts.
Having been a nomadic artist from 1490 to 1494, Albrecht potentially had several stints with various artists and one of which was Martin Schongauer. The said master was a famous engraver from Northern Europe for which Albrecht was apprenticed to until 1492. After this one, he might have been to Netherlands and Frankfurt until he moved to Strasbourg to study sculpture in 1493. It was also when he would have met Nikolaus Gerhaert, a famous German sculptor.
Prior to his so-called Wanderjahre, he would have dated Agnes Frey, whose father was a renowned brass worker in Nuremberg. The two decided to get married on July 7, 1494 in the said city and Albrecht was only 23 years old at that time. Unfortunately, the couple did not have any children.
Albrecht went to Italy alone perhaps to avoid the risks of getting exposed to the plague that raged Nuremberg in 1494. As he was on his way he made drawings of the Alps Mountain showing his deep interest in sketching landscapes of real-world places.
Off he went immediately to Venice to have a close observation and study of the city’s artistic and creative outputs. His two-time visit to Italy left a huge impact on his overall creative process and ability. He was particularly amazed by the works and influence of Giovanni Bellini on his students that he believed Bellini was the best Venetian artist.
Aside from Giovanni Bellini, other painters like Mantegna, Antonio Pallaiuolo and Lorenzo di Credi have had influences on Albrecht’s drawing styles. He must have absorbed Pollaiuolo’s principles on proportions of the human body that he was also able to create his own estimations of human proportions. In fact, he published his own book on the said subject matter entitled Four Books on Human Proportion in 1528.
Albrecht began writing the said book in 1512 and finished it by 1523. It consisted of give illustrations of male and female figures. The way he constructed the figures and its body parts would have been based on the principles and observations of Vitruvius. Another highlight of this series is the essays of the author on aesthetics and on an artist’s creative process. He believed that an artist has to build a handful of visual experiences in order to motivate and inspire themselves to imagine and draw beautiful and realistic figures.
In 1495, Albrecht returned to his birth town to open his own studio. Although his works in that studio mainly involved woodcut illustrations and prints one can see in the drawings the Italian influences that he absorbed while traveling throughout Italy and then integrated it into Northern European art and form.
As a premier printmaker, Albrecht’s woodcuts was unlike any other in Germany showing how deep his knowledge, experience and skills in printmaking. He had so much brilliance in him that he was able to come up with his own and unique technique that made him successful in the field. He either sketched his designs onto the block of woods directly or attached a tracing paper to the woodblock. One prime example of his work is the Apocalypse. He begun working on this series in 1498 where he made an engraving of St. Michael Fighting the Dragon and this was followed by a series of devoted images such as the Great Passion, Holy Family and Saints, Seven Sorrows Polyptych, and Life of the Virgin. Each set was published and sold individually.
Around 1500’s, Albrecht had undergone training in engraving in which he used burin as the block material. He produced the Nemesis (The Great Fortune) in 1502 which was popular for its design and form true to Germanic quality and style. This allegorical engraving is truly classical and humanist in nature. It the sphere on which the goddess stands upon and her slightly protruding belly suggest good fortune, and the wings symbolize victory while the sophisticated cup suggests leadership and generosity.
Before Albrecht was set to return to Italy for the second time, he had met Jacopo de’ Babari first in 1500 when the Venetian artist paid him a visit to Nuremberg. According to Albrecht, he learned a lot from Barbari in terms of perspective, human proportion and anatomy, however the painter was somehow reluctant in expounding on the lessons he would profess to Albrecht. So, he became eager to study on his own later on, which developed to the execution of yet another engraving entitled Adam and Eve in 1504.
From 1502 to 1508, Albrecht had been painting and engraving illustrations such as the Praying Hands (1508), Young Hare (1502) and Great Piece of Turf (1503).
In Nuremburg, Maximilian I was one of the reasons why Albrecht kept going back to the said city than find a new home in Italy or Netherlands. He was his major art patron for whom he had painted the Triumphal Arch which was a series of publications beginning in 1512. This work consisted of 192 woodblocks and Albrecht was the head designer alongside his assistants Johannes Stabius, Hieronymous Andreae and Jorg Kolderer.
As the Triumphal Arch was a series, it was succeeded by The Triumphal Procession. Albrecht used pen for most of his works for Maximilian similar to how he designed the printed Prayer Book of the emperor. Aside from printmaking, he also worked as a court painter but was cut shortly when the emperor died in 1519.
In 1520, Albrecht went to Netherlands and this was his last journey. He was there together with his wide and a maid to renew the financial support that his former art patron, Maxilian, had awarded him. Another reason was to lure the patronage of Charles V so he also attended the coronation of the incoming emperor that time. The ceremonies were held at Aachen so Albrecht and company had to traverse Rhine, Cologne and to Antwerp to get to the venue. There he was able to see the works of Stefan Lochner, Jan Van Eyck, Zeeland and Michelangelo.
After his travels in Netherlands, he was summoned by Christian II of Denmark to go to Brussels and work for him as a court artist. Albrecht painted the King some portraits, where he also had the rare chance to see the Aztec treasure that conquerer Hernan Cortes had shipped to Charles V. While traveling throughout Northern Europe and Italy, he made sure to find some things like animal horns, weapons, corals, other artifacts to add to his collection at home.
Despite Albrecht’s old age, he still continued practicing his craft most of which depicted religious themes in them. The Sacra Conversazione was a fine art work he executed anywhere between 1521 and 1528. However, due to old age, his level of productivity reduced significantly that he was only able to paint smaller portraits of certain religious figures and a couple of panels.
Before his death in 1528, Albrecht mainly focused on finishing his Four Books on Human Proportion and other theoretical studies. He died on April 6, 1528 at the age of 56 leaving his estate, including the workshop, to his wife who died 11 years after his death.