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Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

( Originally Published 1955 )

German painter, engraver, and woodcut artist. He was born in Nuremberg and began the study of art with his father, a goldsmith who had been trained in the Netherlands. When he was fifteen he was apprenticed for three years to the painter and printmaker Michael Wolgemut. Then, as was the custom with young artists of the time, he set out on a tour of the world to broaden himself by contact with the artists and monuments of other lands. He traveled for four years, visiting Colmar, Basel and Strasbourg, and after returning briefly to Nuremberg in 1494 left almost immediately for Venice. Many delightful drawings record this first journey to Italy. Back in Germany in 1495 he stayed for ten exceedingly active years in Nuremberg, producing a great quantity of paintings, as well as engravings on copper and on wood. His style in these works of his early maturity shows the influence of the German artists Martin Schongauer and the so-called Housebook Master. He reflects Mantegna too, and lacopo de' Barbari, who had worked for a few years in Nuremberg. Durer went to Italy a second time in 1505, and was then met with great respect and adulation, his reputation having preceded him across the Alps. In 1520 and 1521 he traveled in the Netherlands for a year, and a diary and expense account as well as a number of fine drawings help us to follow him on this journey.

Durer must be regarded not only as the greatest German artist but as one of the great figures of the Renaissance and Reformation period. His salient characteristics were originality and intense vitality; in his work there is a vigor of conception and execution that often approaches rude force. A series of fascinating self-portraits bear witness, moreover, to his self-awareness and his pride. His experiences in Italy and the cultivated circle of writers and thinkers in which he moved at home led him to adopt the humanistic attitudes of the Renaissance and to assume the position of importance accorded to artists at the great courts of learning in Florence and other Italian centers. Durer's extraordinary intellectual and artistic gifts found less expression in his paintings than in his prints. Many of his extant painted works have suffered severe damage, but it is clear from them that his color often lacks subtlety and harmony and that he indulged a tendency to overstatement. His portraits are by far his most attractive paintings, but he also produced many religious works, including the Heller altarpiece (for which he made numerous splendid drawings), the Paumgartner altar, and the panels showing the four apostles (now in the Pinakothek at Munich).

Durer's graphic works illustrate to the full his originality and striking imagination. His famous series of woodcuts include the Apocalypse, the Large Passion, and the exquisite Life of the Virgin. Among his single engraved plates are many that have always been considered masterpieces of the art: the Dream of the ~Doctor; the Large Fortune; St. Eustace; St. Jerome; Knight, Death and the Devil; and the mysterious and wonderful Melencolia.

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