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Albrecht Durer Biography

Short biography and information on the life of Albrecht Durer, or Albert Durer, and his paintings, drawing, and woodcuts.

Albrecht Durer has come to stand for German art somewhat as Raphael once stood for Italian art and he had a great influence on the development of the European renaissance in Germany.

Early Life & Biography

Albrecht Durer, his name sometimes written as Albert Durer, Albrect Durer, and Albercht Durer, was born in 1471, in Nuremburg, and died in 1528. When age 15 Durer was apprenticed to the main painter of Nuremburg, Michael Wolgemut, a painter of small works in Gothic style under whose tuition Durer learned painting as well as wood carving and simple copper engraving.

Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Durer

Durer later travelled around Europe, to Basel, and the Low Countries in which places he learnt some metal engraving and furnishing designs for the woodcutter.

The letters from Venice and the diary of his journey in the Netherlands allow us to see into the mind of Durer. They reveal Durer as one of the distinctively modern men of the Renaissance: intensely, but not arrogantly, conscious of his own personality ; accepting with ease the universal admiration of his genius, a personal admiration, too, of a quite modern kind ; careful of his fame as one who could see that it would last. They show him as having, though in a far less degree, something of Leonardo da Vinci's scientific interest, certainly as having a quick, though naive curiosity about the world and a quite modern freedom from superstition.

It is clear that his dominating, and yet kindly personality, no less than his physical beauty and distinction, made him the centre of interest whereever he went. His easy and humorous friendliness, of which the letters to Pirkheimer are eloquent, won for him the admiring friendship of the best men of his time. To all these characteristics we must add a deep and sincere religious feeling, which led him to side with the leaders of the Reformation, a feeling that comes out in his passionate sense of loss when he thinks that Luther is about to be put to death, and that prompted him to write a stirring letter to Erasmus, in which he urged him to continue the work of reform.

For all that, there is no trace in him of either Protestantism or Puritanism. He was perhaps fortunate - certainly as an artist he was fortunate - in living at a time when the line of cleavage between the Reformers and the Church was not yet so marked as to compel a decisive choice. The symbolism of the Church still had for him its old significance, as yet quickened and not discredited by the reformer's energy. But intense as Durer's devotion was, his religious feeling found its way to effective artistic expression only upon one side, namely, the brooding sense which accompanied it, of the imminence and terror of death.

Art of Durer

Drawings

How much more definite is the inspiration in the drawing of "Death on a Horse" in the British Museum, in the "Knight, Death and the Devil" and in the allied "Melancholia", than it is in his renderings of the Virgin Mary or indeed of any of the scenes of Christian legend. It is this feeling, too, which gives to his description of his mother's death its almost terrible literary beauty and power. Nor in the estimate of Durer's character must one leave out the touching affection and piety which the family history written by him in 1524 reveals.

Durer the Artist

So much that is attrative and endearing in Durer cannot but react upon our attitude to his work has done so, perhaps, ever since his own day ; and it is difficult to get far enough away from Durer the man to be perfectly just to Durer the artist. But if we make the attempt, it becomes clear, I think, that Durer cannot take rank in the highest class of creative geniuses. His position is none the less of great importance and interest for his relation on the one hand to the Gothic tradition of his country, and on the other to the newly perceived splendours of the Italian Renaissance.

Paintings

Durer was perhaps the greatest infant prodigy among painters, and the drawing of himself at the age of twelve shows how early he had mastered that simple and abrupt sincerity of Gothic draughtsmanship. One is inclined to say that in none of his subsequent work did he ever surpass this in all that really matters, in all that concerns the essential vision and its adequate presentment. He increased his skill until it became the wonder of the world and entangled him in its seductions ; his intellectual apprehension was indefinitely heightened, and his knowledge of natural appearances became encyclopaedic.

Renaissance Man

What, then, lies at the root of Durer's art is this Gothic sense of the characteristic, already menaced by the professional bravura of the late Gothic craftsman. The superstructure is what Durer's industry and intellectual acquisitiveness, acting in the peculiar conditions of his day, brought forth. It is in short what distinguishes him as the pioneer of the Renaissance in Germany. This new endeavour was in two directions, one due mainly to the trend of native ideas, the other to Italian influence. The former was concerned mainly with a new kind of realism. In place of the older Gothic realism with its naive and self-confident statement of the salient characteristic of things seen, this new realism strove at complete representation of appearance by means of perspective, at a more searching and complete investigation of form, and a fuller relief in light and shade.

Durer Woodcuts

The Little Passion by Durer
The Little Passion by Durer

The splendid woodcuts of Durer's "Apocalypse" and of the "Little Passion", and the design called "The Cannon" (1518), give us further insight into his method of drawing and his graphic power; and one can hardly go to stronger or better examples for the study of expression by means of bold line work, a command of which is most valuable to designers in all materials, though, of course, especially so to those who desire to make black and white drawing their principal pursuit. For Durer's finer line treatment on copper there is no better example than the portrait of Erasmus.

The style of drawing shown in these woodcuts was no doubt to a great extent determined by the nature of the method of cutting the block. The drawing on the smooth planknot on the cross section of the tree, as in modern wood-engraving was actually cut with a knife, not a graver. Each line had to be excavated, as it were, from the surface, the ground or white part sunk each side, so as to make it take the ink and print the impression of its surface sharply upon the paper in the press. These conditions would necessarily lead to a certain economy of line both as to quantity and direction, and would favour the use of bold outline and lines expressive of relief surfaces or shadow arranged in a comparatively simple way, and often running into solid black, as in small folds of drapery and details.

The drawing was probably done with a reed or quill pen, which latter still remains perhaps the best tool for emphatic, graphic drawing on the scale of book designs, since it offers the maximum possibility of effect with the minimum of simplicity and economy of means. Its only rival (though it may also be regarded as a useful auxiliary to the pen) is the narrow flexible brush point, and this has the advantage of spreading more easily into solid blacks, though more likely to lead one into looseness of style owing to its very facility.









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