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Summary Article: Dürer, Albrecht from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(äl'brĕkht dür'ər), 1471–1528, German painter, engraver, and theoretician, most influential artist of the German school, b. Nuremberg.

Early Life and Work

The son of a goldsmith, Dürer was an apprentice, first in his father's workshop and later until 1490 in the studio of the painter Wolgemut. After his bachelor journey, which took him to Colmar, Basel, and Strasbourg, and a trip to Italy in 1494, he established himself permanently in Nuremberg. Through these travels he gained a firsthand acquaintance with the art of Schongauer, the foremost Northern engraver of this time, and while in Italy he was drawn to the art of Mantegna and Bellini. Together with a keen sense of observation for realistic details, Dürer developed a rational system of perspective and bodily proportions, but was also able to create visions of fantasy, such as his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A series of large woodcuts of the Apocalypse was issued in 1498.

Later Life and Work

After 1500 Dürer became more interested in art theory, and his engravings reveal a meticulousness of craftsmanship, with a great richness of detail. Two woodcut cycles of the Passion of Christ and a Life of the Virgin appeared in the first decade of the 16th cent. Dürer made a second trip to Italy in 1505, staying in Venice for nearly two years. His sensitive perception of the natural world is shown in a number of drawings and watercolors of plants and animals and in a remarkable series of Alpine landscapes executed in the course of his journey to Italy.

A friend of some of the leading contemporary humanists, Dürer expressed his humanistic inclinations in such engravings as Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), St. Jerome in his Cell, and Melencolia I (both: 1514). The artist's investigation of the ideal proportions of the human body culminated in the Fall of Man (1514). For the Emperor Maximilian I, Dürer was the designer of more decorative projects, including a mammoth woodcut known as the Triumphal Arch, a Triumphal Procession, and a small prayer book. As a theoretician, Dürer composed a treatise on human proportions, a work on applied geometry, and a treatise on fortifications.

Converted (c.1519) to the cause of Protestantism, he reflected the doctrines of Luther in some of his later works, such as a woodcut of the Last Supper (1523) and drawings of saints for an unexecuted altarpiece. In 1520 Dürer went to the Netherlands, where he was received as a recognized master—the first German artist to achieve substantial renown beyond the borders of his native country. In the second decade of the 16th cent. he concentrated more on the translation of lighting and tonal effects into the graphic medium.

Paintings

Dürer's Portrait of His Father (1490) in Florence, and his Self-Portrait (1493) in the Louvre are his earliest known paintings. He signed most of his work and made penetrating self-portraits throughout his life, revealing a consciousness of his individuality that was unusual in German art before his time. Among Dürer's several important altarpieces are the Paumgärtner Altar (1502–4) in Munich and the Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506) and the Adoration of the Trinity (1511) in Vienna. The Heller Altar, finished in 1509, was destroyed by fire in the 18th cent.

Achievement

Dürer's principal accomplishments were the elevation of graphic art into the realm of fine art, the evolution of the profession of artist above that of other artisans in Northern Europe, and a highly original realization of a unique artistic vision. In addition, he defined his figures, particularly in mythological scenes, with a superb sense of proportion. An equally talented draftsman and painter, he executed a vast number of woodcuts and engravings throughout his career, achieving as a graphic artist an unsurpassed technical mastery and expressive power. His work has influenced generations of printmakers and draftsmen.

Bibliography
  • See the catalog of his prints and drawings by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1971).
  • graphics ed. by C. Talbot (1971).
  • biographies by E. Panofsky (4th ed. 1955, repr. 1971) and M. Brion (1960).
  • studies by C. White (1971), H. Lüdecke (1972), and W. Koschatzy (1974). See also W. L. Strauss, ed., The Complete Drawings of Albrecht Dürer (1975).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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