Albrecht Dürer was a German artist in the northern Renaissance. He is best known for revolutionizing printmaking and elevating it to the level of an independent art form. His work combined the Northern gift for realism with the breakthroughs of the Italian Renaissance. I presented this report as I stood before “The Feast of the Rosary,” an oil painting that he completed in Venice in 1506, with my Art History Class in the Sternberg Palace in Prague.
Dürer was born in Nuremberg in 1471. Nuremberg was one of the strong artistic and commercial centers in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries and had links with Venice. Dürer apprenticed with his father, a goldsmith, who taught him how to draw. He made his first self-portrait, a drawing in silverpoint, in 1484 when he was 13. Then, when he was 15, he became apprentice to Michael Wolgemut, a local painter who made woodcut illustrations and the leading artist in Nuremberg at the time.
After completing his apprenticeship, Dürer took Wanderjahre, a German custom of taking a year off to travel, and learned skills from artists in other areas. In 1492, he travelled to Colmar to study under Martin Schongauer, the leading engraver of northern Europe, only to realize he had died the previous year, but Dürer was warmly welcomed by his family. Dürer travelled to Strasbourg in 1493 and created his first painted self-portrait in oil. When he returned to Nuremberg in 1494, he married Agnes Frey at age 23.
Dürer travelled to Italy in 1494, leaving his wife in Nuremberg, and made watercolor sketches as he travelled over the Alps. He went to Italy to study its more advanced artistic world, and created drawings and engravings closely linked to northern Italian artists. He then returned to Nuremberg in 1495 and opened a workshop, where he created work that integrated Italian influences and Northern forms. His best works of this time were woodcut prints that were larger, more finely cut, more complex, and more balanced in composition than all previous German woodcuts. By age 30, he had begun or completed his 3 most famous religious woodcut series: the Apocalypse, the Great Passion, and the Life of the Virgin.
Dürer then taught himself to use the burin, a steel cutting tool used for engraving, which was finely detailed and expensive. He engraved Madonnas, single figures from scripture or saints, some nude mythologies, and groups of ordinary people, sometimes satirically. He also engraved landscapes that focused on capturing atmosphere. Dürer’s prints made him famous throughout Europe within just a few years. When the Venetian artist Jacopo de’ Barbari visited Nuremberg in 1500, Dürer was inspired to experiment in perspective, anatomy, and proportion, which resulted in his famous engraving Adam and Eve.
In Italy in 1505, Dürer returned to painting and produced works in tempera on linen, like portraits and altarpieces. In Venice, he was commissioned by the emigrant German community for the church of San Bartolomeo to make an altarpiece known as the Feast of the Rosary, the Feast of Rose Garlands, Adoration of the Virgin, or in France, the Virgin of the Feast of the Rosary, which is the piece we stand in front of now. This oil painting, completed in 1506, shows portraits of members of Venice’s German community, but with a strong Italian influence. Its theme is connected to the particular worship the German citizens in Venice had toward Our Lady of the Rosary, a title of the Virgin Mary. In the painting, the Madonna places a garland of roses on the head of the emperor while her child places an identical one on the head of the pope and St. Dominic crowns a bishop. The rose garlands are a symbolic blessing. The left side of the painting shows representatives of the clergy and the right side shows representatives of secular power. There is a typical German Alpine landscape in the background, and the setting of the painting is Venetian. The man standing under the tree to the right is Dürer himself. This piece ushered in the Renaissance. It drew crowds from all over Europe and was considered one of the artistic highlights of Venice at the time. It was acquired by Emperor Rudolf II in 1606 and taken to Prague.
Upon his return to Nuremberg in 1507, Dürer created his 4 best works in painting: Adam and Eve, Virgin with the Iris, the altarpiece the Assumption of the Virgin, and the Adoration of the Trinity by all the Saints. From 1511-1514, he focused on engraving, both on wood and copper, including his 37 subjects of the Little Passion on wood and 15 on copper, and his 3 most famous copper works: the Knight and Death, Melancolia, and St. Jerome in His Study. Dürer then created tempera on linen portraits, engravings, experiments in etching on iron and zinc, and work for the Emperor Maximilian, his first major patron.
After Maximilian died, Dürer journeyed to the Netherlands with his wife to see the crowning of the new emperor, Charles V. There, he produced drawings in silverpoint, chalk, and charcoal. He also made excursions to various cities until he caught an undetermined illness that plagued him for the rest of his life. After he had secured his pension, he returned home in 1521.
In his final years in Nuremberg, Dürer made a series of religious pictures, but never finished a grand painting. He spent his time preparing his theoretical works on geometry, perspective, ideal proportion, and fortification. He also made some copper-engraved portraits for his treatise. He finished 2 books as his theoretical works during his life to teach his Northern colleagues about the South. He also showed sympathies to Martin Luther’s ideas and had contacts with various reformers. His later works show Protestant sympathies, and in his last years he evaluated and questioned the role of art in religion. Dürer died in 1528 in Nuremberg.
Albrecht Dürer’s printmaking left a legacy on succeeding generations and his prints were widespread to be experienced by contemporaries. His work in engraving left an intimidating effect on his German successors. He had little influence in Italy and his German successors were less successful in blending German and Italian styles. He was passionate about studying nature and creating art based on scientific observation. He also left a series of self-portraits as the first to be fascinated with his own image, because he had a high opinion of himself and of artists. He viewed the artist as a gentlemen-scholar.