Albert Durer As A Portrait Painter
( Originally Published 1907 )
A CITY of steep-roofed houses, adorned with gables and oriole windows, of noble G o t h i c churches, with carved portals and fretted towers, of arched bridges spanning the river which flows through the center of its busy life, of sculptured fountains standing in the market-places — the whole encompassed by massive walls set with towers and bastions of every style, and all the buildings climbing, roof upon roof, to the great fortified castle on the heights - this was Nuremberg, the home of Albert Dürer.
It was under the Emperor Maximilian that Nuremberg enjoyed the most flourishing period. She then had more land than any free town in the empire. Her commerce brought her intercourse with East, West and South. She had been among the first to establish printing presses, and was actively interested in the revival of learning. Her roll call of the famous men of the sixteenth century includes the mathematician and scientist Johannes Muller, the navigator Martin Behaim, Anthoni Koberger, the " prince of booksellers," Hans Sachs, the poet, and humanists like Conrad Celtes, Lazarus Spengler, and Willibald Pirkheimer. Nuremberg was one of the first towns to espouse the cause of Martin Luther, and was bold in matters of reform. Lastly Nuremberg was by no means behind in the love of luxury which fosters the arts and crafts. The houses of the rich were decorated within and without with the handiwork of skilled artisans. The churches were beautified with sculptured works by Adam Krafft, Peter Vischer and Veit Stoss. Painting came in likewise for a share of patronage. The art impulse which had hitherto centered in the Flemish cities, had now moved in this direction. The painters' workshops were busy places, with youthful apprentices lending their aid to fill the masters' orders.
In such surroundings Durer was trained for his life-work, and spent the most of his days. From first to last, he was a German of the Germans, and a N Nuremberg of the Nurembergers. Like all prophets, he was honoured more in other cities than in his own country, but he was steadily loyal to his native place. Though he might complain of her coldness, Nuremberg was always his first love. Our painter was born in 1471, and was apprenticed in boyhood to a goldsmith. Soon he found that he preferred painting, and at the age of fifteen he entered the service of Michael Wohlgemut. We can outline his biography in a series of self-made portraits.
First there is the eager boy of thirteen, making his first experiments alone in pencil, and delighted to discover himself. It is wonderful how the little amateur sketch puts the child before us, with his earnest face, and sensitive artist's mouth. What manner of man his father was, we may see from a portrait by the young art student, painted towards the close of his four years of apprenticeship. The elder Dürer is the man of arduous toil and anxiety, as his son has described him in a letter. The eyes and mouth are very expressive and very sad — yet gentle withal, with the sweet patient spirit he transmitted to Albert. The portrait is in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Our portrait of his mother is of much later date, a charcoal drawing of 1514, the year of her death. Her emaciated face is deeply furrowed with lines of thought and suffering, and the countenance is marked by great strength of character and refinement.
The portrait of Wohlgemut shows the master under whose influence Dürer's youth was passed. He is a man one would like to con-fide a son to, not because of his great gifts—he was far from being a genius but because he would inspire the respect and devotion of his pupils. His eyes are keen and genial, as of one who never lost touch with the interests of youth. The portrait was painted in 1516, when the old man was eighty-two, and had lived to see his pupil far surpass him.
At the close of his apprenticeship, Dürer started on a Wanderjahr of four years. It was a period of thought and observation, when the impressionable young mind was storing up material for his life-work. He comes back, a bit of a dandy as to clothes, but with face still guiltless of beard, as fresh and innocent as a maiden's. The portrait of 1493 is a milestone of this journey. A small crimson cap, ornamented with a tufted tassel, is set jauntily on the long hair; the shirt is fancifully strapped with ribbons, and he wears a blue mantle. Yet that his soul is above his finery we doubt not from the dreamy expression.
Five years pass: Dürer has married, has. set up a workshop of his own, and with a corps of apprentices, has been filling orders for altar-pieces. He is now a handsome man and is well aware of it. His long hair is carefully curled, and he wears a beard. With innocent vanity rather let us say with an artist's sense of his own good points — he paints the portrait of 1498 arrayed in his best —a striped cap, a mantle edged with broad bands of trimming and made with fancy sleeves. At about this point his orders for portraits begin to come in. Probably his very first was from a princely patron, the Elector Frederick, " the Wise," of Saxony, and others were from the Tucher family who were people of importance in Nuremberg. Carefully drawn, and no doubt faithful to the originals, the hard precision of these works is as different as possible from the insight and charm he showed in the subjects he cared for. Oswald Krel must have been a friend. At all events he was a most sympathetic subject. He was a young man of about Dürer's own age, wearing his hair like his, in long curls, and like him extremely thoughtful and serious. Darer painted his portrait with great distinction and charm. The only fault, if fault it be, is that the lines of reflection are so deep as to seem almost a scowl.
In 1500 comes the most famous and beautiful of all Dürer's portraits of himself, if not the most famous of all his subjects. He has attained the full mastery of himself, and of his powers. The face looks directly out of the picture, the large calm eyes meeting ours, with an expression of deep thoughtfulness.
The face would seem too long and narrow but for the long curls which frame it, arranged with careful symmetry, and falling to the shoulders. The high noble brow, and the faultless regularity of features, the grave gentleness of the mouth are not unworthy the Christ ideal which Dürer unquestionably had in mind in assuming the pose. The hand, too, is beautiful and strong, with long slender artist's fingers. In the Passion series of woodcuts designed some ten years later we distinctly see that Dürer is his own Christ model.
The next group of Dürer's portraits was during his visit in Venice in 1505, when he astonished artists and connoisseurs with the minuteness and precision of his craftsmanship. In the prevailing Venetian fashion, he introduced portraits of real persons into religious compositions. The Emperor Maximilian kneels in the foreground of the Feast of Rose Garlands receiving a crown from the Ma-donna, while the Pope Julius II on the other side is similarly favoured by the Christ-child. In the rear, Dürer and his friend Pirkheimer are among the bystanders. Of independent portraits, the Young Man in the Vienna Gallery is of interest, as showing how the Venetian influence led the painter into a softening of the outlines of the face.
A pleasant episode of Dürer's Venetian visit was his friendship with the older painter Giovanni Bellini. The story is told that the Venetian begged of the German one of the brushes with which he drew hairs. Dürer at once produced several ordinary brushes like those Bellini himself used. " No," said the other, " I mean the brushes with which you draw several hairs with one stroke." Where-upon, the painter, taking one of the brushes, drew before the eyes of his astonished friend, the long wavy tresses of a woman. The marvellous delicacy of Dürer's hair painting is indeed without a parallel. The Venetian Lorenzo Lotto was an imitator of his method, but the only painter with whom we could justly compare him is Leonardo da Vinci.
Returning to Nuremberg, Dürer took the house which still bears his name. It was in the years now following that he enjoyed the patronage of the Emperor Maximilian. His largest commission was the series of woodcuts forming the " Triumphal Arch." There were ninety-three blocks devoted to the glorification of the sovereign, and the subjects include portraits of various royalties. Dürer's relations with the emperor were of the pleasantest, and it appears that the painter was something of a courtier. One day when the emperor was trying to make a sketch to show his idea, the crayon broke in his fingers, when Dürer, taking the charcoal, easily finished the drawing. Maximilian, annoyed at his own clumsiness, asked how this was. " I should not like your Majesty to be able to draw as well as I," was the reply. " It is my province to draw, and yours to rule." It was in 1518, when the emperor was holding the Diet at Augsburg, that Dürer, sent from Nuremberg as a commissioner, obtained a portrait sitting from Maximilian. In the Albertina collection, at Vienna, we may see the precious little original charcoal sketch, a few delicate lines suggesting with much subtlety the strong characteristics of the face: the large hooked nose, the unbeautiful mouth, and the long oddly moulded chin. The features are somewhat softened in the finished portraits, of which there are two, one in oils in the Vienna Gallery, and one in water colours in the Ger-manic Museum at Nuremberg. There are be-sides two large woodcuts from the same study.
It was also at the Diet at Augsburg that Darer took the portrait of Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg. From the original charcoal sketch (now in the Albertina) the artist made a splendid engraving. The face is in profile so that the heavy features are somewhat re-fined, and the expression of the eyes is full of thought. The engraved portraits by Dürer are indeed as interesting in their own way as his -painted works. Among the subjects is the Elector Frederick, greatly increased in avoirdupois since the portrait of twenty-five years before. Here again, however, Dürer succeeded in imparting dignity to a difficult subject. In the same way he made his friend Pirkheimer a noble and interesting head, in spite of the thick' neck and double chin which could so easily seem gross. It is said of Pirkheimer that his vehement opinions and caustic wit led him to quarrel with every friend except Dürer. Melanchthon is the subject of another engraved portrait full of interest. He has a high brow, emaciated cheeks, the peculiar absent smile and introspective stare of the mystic. Erasmus was still another famous man whose portrait Dürer engraved, reproducing faithfully the scholar's fine face.
The death of Maximilian in 1519 was a serious loss to Dürer, and it soon after be-came expedient for him to visit the Nether-lands on business connected with his pension. All along the way he painted portraits, and still more portraits, and again portraits. At the inns he painted his hosts, to defray expenses ; here and there he caught some rich patron, or some celebrity; and, greatest pleasure of all, he honoured some fellow craftsmen with portraits : Bernard von Orley, Joachim Patinir, Lucas van Leyden, Jakob of Lubek. Returning to Nuremberg, the few remaining years of his life were not very productive, but his chief artistic interest seems to have been portrait painting. His last group of paintings includes three masterpieces of portrait art.
Of foremost importance is the man in the Prado gallery, commonly, but without proof, called Hans Imhof. The rich fur collar furnishes a splendid decorative element suggesting a Venetian work. The man himself, with the strong concentrated gaze of a close thinker, is delineated to the very life. In precisely the same compositional style is the fine portrait at Fenway Court, but here the man is younger and less interesting in character. Jacob Muffel, Councillor of Nuremberg, is another of the famous trio referred to. He is a fine old man, with smooth face, and thin sharp features, and the eyes of a dreamer. He, too, wears a fur collar which Dürer could so cunningly paint. Lastly the famous Hieronymus Holschuher, also in fur collar, brings to a climax the master's characteristic method. The picture is painted with a realism so painstaking that it is almost painful, be-cause it shows too plainly the labour it cost. Every hair seems to have been painted separately, every line studied with intense and absorbing interest. With all this attention to detail, Dürer did not fail to give life to his subject. Holschuher's individuality is so strikingly preserved, that he may well be called the best known Nuremberger of the sixteenth century, only Dürer himself excepted.
Dürer was not preëminently a portrait painter, his highest claim to immortality being his engravings. Yet his contribution to the art is not only considerable in quantity, but remarkable in quality. His work is intensely serious and expressive, thoroughly representative of the German spirit. He never got very far away from Nuremberg. As her castle towers in the background of his pictures, so her influence dominated the character of his work. Painstaking and conscientious in minute detail, he had besides the higher gifts of the portrait painter, vigour and vitality. His qualities were best adapted to the portrayal of men. There are not a half dozen women in his entire list of sitters. Apparently portraits of women and children were not much in fashion in his world.
Though Dürer was no flatterer, he yet understood the art of making the most of a con-genial subject. Best of all, he was a genuine psychologist, in the true meaning of that overworked term. He chose by preference the thoughtful mood, and discerned with much insight the special calibre of the thinker. The strong vein of mysticism which is so prominent in his allegorical engravings is now and then apparent in his character interpretation. Homeliness is of course the invariable note, characteristic alike of the German nationality and the man Albert Dürer.