The biography of Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528)

Albrecht Dürer (May 21, 1471 – April 6, 1528) was a German painter and mathematician, printmaker, draughtsman and art theorist, generally regarded as the greatest German Renaissance artist. He was born as the third son of the Hungarian goldsmith who had between fourteen and eighteen children. His father was a successful goldsmith, who in 1455 had moved to Nuremberg from Ajtós in Hungary. The German name "Dürer" is derived from the Hungarian, "Ajtósi". After a few years of school, Dürer started to learn the basics of goldsmithing and drawing from his father. But he showed such a precocious talent in drawing that he started as an apprentice to Michael Wolgemut at the age of fifteen in 1486. Wolgemut was the leading artist in Nuremberg at the time. Nuremberg was a prosperous city, a centre for publishing and many luxury trades. It had strong links with Italy, especially Venice.

Very soon after his return to Nuremberg, on July 7, 1494, at the age of 23, Dürer was married to Agnes Frey. She was the daughter of a prominent brass worker in the city. The nature of his relationship with his wife is unclear, but it would not seem to have been a love match, and his portraits of her lack warmth. They had no children.

Dürer lost both of his parents. His father died in 1502 and his mother died in 1513. Dürer died in Nuremberg at the age of 56, leaving an estate valued at 6,874 florins - a considerable sum. His large house, where his workshop was located, and where his widow lived until her death in 1537, remains a prominent Nuremberg landmark. It is now a museum.

Dürer is best known as one of the greatest creators of old master prints, along with Rembrandt and Goya. Living in Nuremberg, half-way between the Netherlands and Italy, he found inspiration in the work of painters of both the major European artistic centres of his time. But rather than simply imitating what others were doing, Duerer was very much an innovator. He is the first artist who is known to have painted a self-portrait.

Dürer published over 350 woodcuts and engravings which appeared with his famous AD monogram. At least 60 of his oil paintings have survived and these 60 may well represent most of his major works. There are a thousand of his drawings and watercolours. He carefully saved these works on paper, sometimes inscribing them with his monogram, the year and even a few words of explanation about the subject-matter. These informal drawings are highly revealing about Duerer's interests and techniques.

His prints were often executed in series, including the Apocalypse (1498) and his two series on the passion of Christ, the Great Passion (1498–1510) and the Little Passion (1510–1511). Dürer's best known individual engravings include Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in his Study (1514) and Melencolia I (1514). His most iconic images are his woodcuts of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497–1498) from the Apocalypse series, the "Rhinoceros", and numerous self-portraits in oils. Duerer drew several self-portraits. These include an unusually frank one of him in the nude. His first painted self-portrait (now in the Louvre) was painted in Strasbourg. He painted a number of religious works in oils and made many brilliant watercolours and drawings, which are now perhaps his best known works. His work reflected the apocalyptic spirit of his time, when famine, plague, and social and religious upheaval were common. He was sympathetic to the reform work of Martin Luther.

After marrying Agnes Frey in 1494, he left for Italy. During first visit to Italy Dürer made watercolour sketches as he traveled over the Alps. These are the first pure landscape studies known in Western art. In Italy, he went to Venice to study its more advanced artistic world. Dürer had learned how to make prints in dry point and design woodcuts in the German style, based on the works of Martin Schongauer and the Housebook Master. Dürer probably visited Padua and Mantua on this trip also.

On his return to Nuremberg in 1495, Dürer opened his own workshop. Over the next five years his style increasingly integrated Italian influences into underlying Northern forms. His best works in the first years of the workshop were his woodcut prints, mostly religious, but including secular scenes such as, The Mens Bath-house. His famous series of sixteen great designs for the Apocalypse are dated 1498. He made the first seven scenes of the Great Passion in the same year, and a little later, a series of eleven on the Holy Family and saints.

Around 1503–1505 he produced the first seventeen of a set illustrating the life of the Virgin. He was soon producing some spectacular and original images, notably, Nemesis (1502), The Sea Monster (1498), and Saint Eustace, with a highly detailed landscape background and beautiful animals. He made a number of Madonnas, single religious figures, and small scenes with comic peasant figures. A series of extant drawings show Dürer's experiments in human proportion, leading to the famous engraving of, Adam and Eve (1504). This is the only existing engraving signed with his full name.

Between 1505 and 1507, Dürer once again traveled to Italy. In Venice he met the great master Giovanni Bellini and other artists. In Italy, he returned to painting, at first producing a series of works executed in tempera on linen. These include portraits and altarpieces, notably, the Paumgartner altarpiece and the Adoration of the Magi. In early 1506, he returned to Venice and stayed there until the spring of 1507. By this time Dürer's engravings had attained great popularity and were being copied. In Venice he was given a valuable commission from the emigrant German community for the church of San Bartolomeo.

Back in Nuremberg in 1507, he began a second period of great productivity in which he created such works as an altarpiece (1508-1509, destroyed by fire in 1729) for the Dominican church in Frankfurt; an Adoration of the Trinity panel (1508-1511, Art History Museum, Vienna); portraits; and many prints, including two editions of the Passion, woodcuts for Triumphal Arch for Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and a series of engravings that included The Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), and Melancholia I (1514). Through the linear technique of engraving, Dürer was able to create tones of varying darkness and he used them to describe three-dimensional form.

The first five years, 1507–1511, are pre-eminently the painting years of his life. He worked with a vast number of preliminary drawings and studies and produced what have been accounted his four best works in painting, Adam and Eve (1507), Virgin with the Iris (1508), the altarpiece the Assumption of the Virgin (1509), and the Adoration of the Trinity by all the Saints (1511). During this period he also completed the two woodcut series, the Great Passion and the Life of the Virgin, both published in 1511 together with a second edition of the Apocalypse series.

He complained that painting did not make enough money to justify the time spent, when compared to his prints, and from 1511 to 1514 concentrated on printmaking, in woodcut, and especially, engraving. The major works he produced in this period were the thirty-seven woodcut subjects of the Little Passion, published first in 1511, and a set of fifteen small engravings on the same theme in 1512. In 1513 and 1514 he created his three most famous engravings, The Knight, Death, and the Devil, the enigmatic and much analyzed Melencolia I, and St. Jerome in his Study (both 1514). In 'Melencolia I' appears a fourth-order magic square which is believed to be the first seen in European art.

He remained in Germany until 1520. His reputation had spread throughout Europe. He was on friendly terms and in communication with most of the major artists of Europe, and exchanged drawings with Raphael. In the years leading to 1520 he produced a wide range of works, including portraits in tempera on linen in 1516, engravings on many subjects, a few experiments in etching on plates of iron, and parts of the Triumphal Arch and the Triumphs of Maximilian. He also drew a portrait of the Emperor Maximilian, shortly before his death, in 1519.

In the summer of 1520 Dürer made his fourth and last major journey. He sought to renew the Imperial pension Maximilian had given him, to secure new patronage following the death of Maximilian, and to avoid an outbreak of sickness in Nuremberg. With his wife and her maid he set out in July for the Netherlands in order to be present at the coronation of the new emperor, Charles V. Dürer had received an annual stipend from Maximilian, and he was anxious to meet with Charles to have it continued. His audience with Charles proved successful. Besides going to Aachen, he made excursions to Cologne, Nijmegen, ’s-Hertogenbosch, Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Zeeland. In Brussels he saw the Aztec treasure that Hernán Cortés had sent home to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V following the fall of Mexico. He returned home to Nuremberg in July 1521, where he remained until his death on April 6, 1528. Back in Nuremberg, Dürer began work on a series of religious pictures. His last monumental works are two large panels, depicting the Four Apostles (1526, Alte Pinakothek), presented originally as his gift to the city of Nuremberg.

It is clear from his writings that Dürer was highly sympathetic to Martin Luther, and he may have been influential in the City Council declaring for Luther in 1525. However, he died before religious divisions had hardened into different churches, and may well have regarded himself as a reform-minded Catholic to the end. He is commemorated on the calendar of the Lutheran Church with other artists on April 6. The crater Dürer on Mercury was named in his honor.