Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was a German theorist, painter and printmaker considered by many to be the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance. Durer’s prolific prints helped him achieve great success and fame throughout Europe in his lifetime and he helped revolutionize woodcutting techniques and introduced landscapes into European art.
Born in 1471 in the Imperial Free City of Nuremberg, Durer’s life is well documented by several sources as he became famous by his mid-twenties and wrote autobiographically. Raised by a father who was a successful goldsmith, Durer was taught goldsmithing but showed such promise in drawing that he began to apprentice at age 15 with Michael Wolgemut, a prominent painter and printmaker in Nuremberg. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, he followed the German custom of Wanderjahre, or gap years, and spent the next four years learning from artists in other areas of Northern Europe.
When Durer returned to Nuremberg in 1494 he married Agnes Frey due to an arrangement that had been made during his travels. Shortly after the marriage Durer left for Italy alone and as he travelled south he made watercolour sketches of his surroundings, resulting in the first pure landscapes in Western art. Durer studied with the best Venetian artists who had a profound influence on him and his style.
Durer returned to Nuremberg in 1495 and opened his own workshop, where his style combined Italian influence with Northern forms. He created many amazing woodcuts during this period and taught himself to make engravings, the most notable of which is the masterpiece the Prodigal Son, which was highly praised for its German style and quality. Prints were both affordable and portable and soon Durer was famous in art centres throughout Europe. Durer’s fame grew and he travelled to Italy again, living in Venice from 1505-1507 where he received a commission to paint the church of San Bartolomeo, which had a large emigrant German community. By the time Durer returned to Nuremberg, his reputation was well-known throughout Europe and he was on friendly terms with Bellini, Raphael and Leonardo.
In 1504 Durer created a copper engraving entitled Adam and Eve and followed it with an oil-on-oil painting in 1507, which would become the first full scale German nude painting, displaying the influence that his two trips to Italy had on his portrayal of the human form. The next few years would be filled with creating woodcuts, engravings and paintings, although he did not paint anything from 1513-1516, due to the fact that paintings did not earn him as much as his woodcuts and engravings did. In 1514 he created the engraving Meloncolia I, an allegorical composition that has more often been the subject of modern interpretation than any other print. There are many elements in the print that suggest a depressive or melancholy state: unused tools, the hourglass running out and the empty scale.
Emperor Maximilian was Durer’s major patron from 1512 until his death in 1520, and Durer travelled to the Netherlands from 1520-1521 in order to find favour with the new emperor, Charles V. Durer documented the trip and his efforts to sell his prints on the way, providing very rare information on the monetary value of prints at that time.
Durer was friends with many German scholars and was himself a theorist; he published two books during his lifetime, one on geometry and the other on the human form, and one more posthumously. Durer wrote his books in the German language instead of in Latin, using the vernacular to explain ideas in his native tongue and helped to contribute to language much as Martin Luther had done with his translation of the Bible. Durer professed to be Roman Catholic, but many of his writings imply that he was sympathetic to Martin Luther and his radical ideas.
Declining health, possible from malaria, affected his rate of production and Durer died at the age of 56. He left behind a large house and small fortune due in large part to his engravings; the house in now a museum and prominent landmark in Nuremberg.
Durer had a huge influence on his contemporaries and generations to come, having made great strides in printmaking and uniquely blending Northern and Italian art to create his style. Although he has never fallen from favour in the art world, he experienced renewed interest in the Durer Renaissance of 1570-1630, in the early 19th century and during the period of German Nationalism from 1870-1945.