Albrecht Durer.
The Leonardo of the North

 Albrecht Durer was the first Northern artist to be directly influenced by first-hand contact with the Italian Renaissance. He was born in Nuremberg on 21st May 1471, one of at least fourteen children. His father was a goldsmith and his godfather was a printer and publisher, the young artist learned the basics of drawing and woodcutting from these two men.

 He became proficient in painting, printmaking, engraving and mathematics, he was also a theorist, a prolific writer on perspective and the proportions of the human body. 

 He is regarded as the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance, a true all-rounder, the equal of the artistic giants from Italy.

 At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to Michel Wolgemut, the leading Nuremberg painter of his day. Wolgemut ran a large workshop producing many works of art and woodcuts for books.

 Durer traveled throughout Western Germany learning his trade from masters in Strasberg, Colmar and Basel, perfecting his techniques in the German tradition of the times.

 On 7th July 1494 at the age of 23 and on his return to Nuremberg, he married Agnes Frey, a marriage arranged in his absence.

 Nuremberg was a prosperous and independent city with close trading relationships with Italy. Between 1494 and 1495 the artist made his first trip to Venice. He made watercolour sketches as he travelled over the Alps - and what brilliant images they are -  these are the first pure landscapes ever produced in Western Art. 

Alpine Landscape, c. 1495.

Ashmolean Museum. Oxford.  (s)

 You can almost taste the coldness in the fresh, blue Alpine air.

Self-Portrait. 1500 (s)

This is also known as, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar or, (Self-Portrait in a Wig).

Personal Opinion:-

 This self-portrait displays the arrogance and confidence of an artist at the height of his powers. The God-like pose with the right hand raised (as if in blessing) and the ringlets of the hair always remind me of The Salvator Mundi painting of 1513, (attributed to Leonardo da Vinci). In 1500 the full frontal pose was associated with images of Christ, (portraits were usually in profile).

 Perhaps Durer saw himself, not as the saviour of the world, but as the saviour and creator of art!   

Woodcut, 1497, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. British Museum, London. (s) 

Woodcut, 1498, St Michael's fight against the Dragon.   Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe. (s)

 Durer also produced many famous engravings. His Adam and Eve of 1504 was produced the year before his second trip to Italy, and in many ways attempts to utilise some of Durer's new Italian learning of harmony and beauty. The results are not entirely convincing but certainly the artist was proud enough of his work, he signed it with his full name in Latin. ('Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg made this engraving in 1504'). He left for Italy in 1505, he was famous, many of his engravings were being copied, even so the artist was keen to absorb more from the art of the Italians.

 When the artist returned from Venice to Nuremberg in the spring of 1507 he had a new, more natural view of the human form. This can be shown by comparing his oil paintings of Adam and Eve with his engraving of 1504.

Adam and Eve, Engraving, 1504, Allen Art Museum. Ohio. (s)

Adam and Eve, Oil panels, 1507, Prado Madrid. (s)

 The engraving of 1504 attempts to present idealised depictions of the human form. The figures of Adam and Eve are inspired by classical monuments, Eve in particular is very statuesque, her feet firmly set on solid ground. Adam is based on the pose of the Appolo Belvedere, a marble sculpture from Classical Antiquity. The artist has created a masterpiece that required many preparatory drawings and measurements. The cat and the mouse live side by side in harmony with the elk and cow in the Garden of Eden. The garden disappears into the dark background of the work allowing the clear outline of the figures to show in contrast to the shade of the forest.   

 The oil panels of 1507 display the influences of Italian art. They show Eve as a more complex character, see how she positively dances to take the forbidden fruit from the serpent coiled on the tree of knowledge. Adam displays an air of bewilderment, unsure of the consequences of the actions unfolding before him, he receives the apple and becomes a willing party to the first sin. 

 It must be remembered that these two works were made using two totally different techniques and any comparisons must take this into account. 

Knight, Death and the Devil. 1513. (s)

Melencolia 1. 1514. (s)

Note the figure of the Devil, (represented as a hairy goat), and Death, who looms in the background holding an hourglass. The Knight in full armour rides through this menacing landscape. Resolute he represents a Christianity that is superior to the perils of the supernatural. The Knight on his horse are based on the equestrian statues of Renaissance Italy. 

 It has been recorded that Durer's general character displayed an unhappy seriousness and Melencolia 1 could show the artist, frustrated by his lack of inspiration, dejected and bored by his slow progress.

 The two engravings shown above form part of a famous trinity of engravings by Durer, the third is St Jerome in his cell. 

The influence of Italian art is apparent in the Adoration of the Magi (above). The contrasts of reds, greens and blues are a delight while the perspective of the buildings fixes the figures firmly into the landscape. The lessons from Italy are incorporated into the Renaissance of the North.

 From 1512, Maximilian 1, Holy Roman Emperor, was the artist's major patron. He received several commissions from Maximilian including a vast woodcut, The Triumphal Arch, he also painted many portraits of the Emperor including one shortly before Maximilian's death in 1519.

 In his latter years Durer worked on several projects with religious themes but because of his failing health many of these projects failed to materialise. Albrecht Durer died in his native Nuremberg in 1528 at the age of 56.