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Albrecht Durer

( Originally Published 1932 )

GERMANY, in the sixteenth century, was feeling the effects of the cultural wave, known as the Humanistic Movement, which was sweeping over Europe and men's minds were becoming wholly absorbed in science, literature, art and travel. Men sought, in reviving the classics and exhuming masterpieces of art, to study the ideals and standards of ancient times and by this study to improve their own technique and acquire more perfect proportion. At all times, painting and engraving had been more the means of expression in Germany than literature, so it is not surprising to find that in Nuremberg, the chief center of the intellectual and artistic life in Germany, artists were recording, with brush or engraver, the laws and principles of art they had learned by their study and investigations. The first artist to give out his observations and theories in written form was Albrecht Durer, the greatest painter and engraver at Nuremberg.

We are told that Durer's father came to Nuremberg from Hungary and after working there some twelve years as a goldsmith under Hieryonymus Hopper, he married Hopper's daughter Barbara, by whom he had eighteen children. Albrecht was the third child and his father's favorite because of his diligence, first, in mastering the simple lessons in reading and writing and, later, in his father's shop learning the goldsmith's craft. But Albrecht had other notions. At the age of thirteen he made the drawing of himself which is in the Albertina, Vienna, on which he wrote, "I made this picture of myself by looking in the mirror, in 1484, when I was a child."

This picture shows us a slight, dreamy-eyed boy dressed in a large, loose garment, pointing with his index finger, most probably, at his own reflection in the mirror. This drawing, as well as the "Virgin and Child Enthroned", which he did the next year, shows a surprising feeling for space in his treatment of the loose folds of material in the garments and in the fine, sure lines of the drawing. He reveals at the same time the amazing depths of feeling and insight, the dreamy artistic nature so unusual in a boy of fourteen. No wonder he turned from the goldsmith's trade to paintingl His father was not in favor of it, and regretted the time lost while learning to be a goldsmith, but he finally gave in to the boy's wishes and apprenticed him to Michael Wolgemut, to serve him three years while learning the fundamentals of painting and engraving.

To quote from Durer's own writing,-"During that time God gave me diligence so that I learned well, but I had much to suffer from his lads."

Then, in 1490, Durer's father sent him off on the customary "Wanderjahre" for four years. Before leaving, however, he painted the Uffizi portrait of his father holding a rosary, on which appears for the first time that now well known monogram, an A enclosing a D. This painting deftly portrays his father whom he affectionately describes, in his diary, as a patient and gentle man at peace with all men and full of gratitude to God despite the many adversities and afflictions he had suffered. Durer set off on his wanderings, in 1490, first to Strassburg, where he studied for a time, then on to Augsburg and Colmar where, to his great disappointment, he learned that Martin Schongauer was dead. However, he spent much time in the workshop of his brother, Ludwig Schongauer, from whom he learned much.

Four years later his father sent for him, and Durer returned to Nuremberg to marry Agnes Frey and settle down in his father's home. It was not until after the latter's death in 1509 that he bought the now famous "Durer House". These early years Durer spent in making copies of engravings by Mantegna and others, studies of animal and still life. In fact, throughout his whole life, Durer devoted his time to a study of Nature. To quote him, ""The one test of an artist's conception is nature. Therefore, study her industriously, for truly art sticks fast in nature and he who can get it out has it."

He obtained some commissions to do portraits in oil, but he was not always busy and hence found time to make a series of 15 large woodcuts of the Apocalypse. The strength, vigor, energy and power, the onward rush, the furious sweep in these scenes is bewildering, almost overwhelming; yet they are most impressive in their dignity, refinement and infinite detail.

In 1504 he began a series of twelve scenes from the Passion, drawn on green paper and therefore now referred to as the "Green Passion". He also began a series of woodcuts representing the Life of the Virgin. The characters are clearly and in terestingly drawn and one can find in them strong resemblances to neighbors of Durer in Nuremberg. Later in the same year he went to Venice to paint the altar-piece which the Germans were going to erect in their Church in that city.

While there, he also painted the famous "Christ Among the Doctors in the Temple" and, in five days, "Christ on the Cross". Venice hailed him as a master and the Venetian Senate offered him a pension of 20o ducats if he would reside in Venice. But Durer, proud patriot that he was, refused and returned to live in Nuremberg,-not that he did not remind the Fathers of the City Council of what he had sacrificed in order to live in his native city!

After 1512 we notice that Durer devoted the greater part of his time to engravings and woodcuts. Drawings, evidently designs for pictures that were never painted, are so carefully and beautifully done that many have considered them finished pictures. Particularly is this true of the "Madonna in Chantilly" and the "Madonna in Basel". At this time he published a second edition of his Apocalypse, enlarged his series of woodcuts treating of the Life of the Virgin, and engraved on wood twelve large scenes from the Passion and a series of thirty-seven small scenes treating of the same subject.

We can appreciate the inventive genius of the man when we realize that he made so many Passion pictures, presenting the same scenes and yet each time offering an entirely new interpretation. When he had finished these he made seventeen engravings, on copper, of scenes from the Passion and in connection with them he wrote a book of poetry surprising in the dramatic force with which the climactic moments of Christ's sufferings are treated. And then in 1513, 1514, he produced those three engravings, "Knight, Death and the Devil", "Melancholia", and "St. Jerome in His Study", so perfect, so masterful, that had Durer painted or engraved not another picture these would have sufficed to make his fame secure.

The "St. Jerome in His Study" is a marvelous engraving. One is conscious of that quiet and peacefulness so conducive to meditation. The sun is streaming in through the window. St. Jerome sits absorbed in his work. The lion and the dog are dozing in the foreground. The whole atmosphere is one of contentment and peace. The more we look at this engraving the more we realize that it is by his faithful attention to minute detail that Durer attains this harmonious feeling; the knots in the wood in the ceiling, the writing material, the scissors on the wall behind the saint's desk, the shadow of the table on the floor. Any one seeing this print for the first time will probably wonder how it came to be that a lion could be so peaceful. The story goes that St. Jerome plucked the thorn from the paw of the lion, relieving the animal of his pain. He was immediately adopted by the ordinarily ferocious animal.

After this engraving, the Emperor commissioned him to make what turned out to be the largest woodcut known, "The Triumph of Maximillian". The first part, "The Triumphal Arch", is an immense thing engraved on ninety-two blocks and represents scenes from the Emperor's life. Durer also made marginal drawings for the Emperor's prayer-book. There were over forty of them, varied in subject, fanciful and delicate, showing the poetic nature of the artist. After the Emperor's death, Durer completed his portrait of him from a drawing he had already made. Then with his wife he went on a trip through the Netherlands, and from his sketches and writings we learn how keenly interested he was in people, cities, buildings, animals and any form of life. Upon his return he did a great many portraits, mostly in oil, and painted the two panels for the City Council entitled "The Four Apostles".

All during his life Durer had been collecting data for a treatise on the technical side of painting, and in 1525 he published "Teaching the Measurements with Rule and Compass". He was preparing another book for publication, "Human Proportions", when, after a strange illness which the doctors could not diagnose, he died suddenly on April 6, 1528.

Perhaps the best appreciation of Durer was from the lips of another illustrious man, Goethe: "In truth and nobility and even in beauty and grace, Durer, if one really knows him with heart and mind, is equalled by only the very greatest Italian masters."

Like Rembrandt, he was a many-sided genius and was as successful with the palette and brush as with the engraver. He draws his lines finely, firmly, deliberately, revealing at all times the intensity and sincerity of his convictions and his imaginative powers. The intense energy of his line, combined with its unique assurance, is remarkable. The tree blown by the wind in the "Agony in the Garden", marvelous for its rhythm and power, shows this intense energy. He was master of the "art of seeing Nature", as Reynolds says. He was able to portray Nature so as to appeal to human nature in its most elevated moods.

We have our Moderns, we have our Impressionists,-how puny they are compared to this great Teuton who expressed himself in every medium within the confines of "black and white". Not counting the wood-blocks, there are approximately one hundred and eight engravings, etchings and drypoints. It would be well-nigh impossible to find a bad plate in the entire portfolio. Can we say this for any other artist? I think not, no, not even of Rembrandt or whistler!

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