Albrecht Duerer images
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Albrecht Dürer

See also: Renaissance Art


"Albrecht Duerer was without doubt the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance. Living in Nuremberg, half-way between the Netherlands and Italy, he found inspiration in the work of painters of both the major European artistic centres of his time. But rather than simply imitating what others were doing, Duerer was very much an innovator. He is, for example, the first artist who is known to have painted a self-portrait and to have done a landscape painting of a specific scene.

"The range and versatility of Duerer's work is astonishing. His woodcuts and engravings made him famous across Europe and he is still considered to be the greatest printmaker of all time. As an oil painter, Duerer was equally successful at religious and secular subjects, producing magnificent altarpieces and powerful portraits. His drawings and watercolours are impressive for their diversity of subject-matter and the varied media in which they were produced. Duerer was to have a major influence on the development of European art.

"Although Duerer lived five centuries ago, we are fortunate that so much of his work survives. Duerer published over 350 woodcuts and engravings which appeared with his famous AD monogram. At least 60 of his oil paintings have survived, an approximate number since in a few cases art historians are divided over the attribution of a work. It is impossible to know how many oil paintings have been lost, but these 60 may well represent most of his major works. Duerer after all, spent much of his time as a printmaker and often complained that working in oils was time-consuming and badly paid. Finally, there are a thousand of his drawings and watercolours. Duerer seems to have realized that future generations would be interested in what he had produced. He carefully saved these works on paper, sometimes inscribing them with his monogram, the year and even a few words of explanation about the subject-matter. These informal drawings, produced as studies for prints and paintings or else simply for personal pleasure, are highly revealing about Duerer's interests and techniques.

"More of Duerer's writings survive than those of any other early Northern artist. In the diary he kept of his 1520-1 visit to the Netherlands, he records seeing the works of the early Flemish painters, meeting the leading artists of his day, sketching the philosopher Erasmus, worrying about Luther's fate, and attending the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor. Duerer also enjoyed the pleasures of being a tourist and his intense curiosity about the marvels he encounters is evident in his diary. He writes about seeing the bones of an 18 foot-high giant from Antwerp who had 'done wondrous great feats' and describes a great bed in Brussels 'wherein 50 men can lie'. He later sets off in mid-winter in search of a beached whale in Zeeland, explaining that the people there were worried about 'the great stink, for it is so large that they say it could not be cut into pieces and the blubber boiled down in half a year.'

"A different side of Duerer's character emerges from ten letters that he wrote in 1506 from Venice to his closest friend, Willibald Pirckheimer. This correspondence was discovered over two centuries later, hidden for safekeeping in a hollow wall of the Pirckheimers' family chapel. Duerer comes over as a warm and lively friend, with a wit that occasionally verged on the crude. He reports taking dancing lessons, at the age of 35: 'I went twice to the school, for which I had to pay the master a ducat. No one could get me to go there again. To learn dancing I should have had to pay all that I have earned and at the end I should have known nothing about it.' In another letter Duerer berates his friend Pirckheimer for chasing younger women: 'You ought to be ashamed of yourself, an old man like you pretending to be so good-looking. Courting pleases you in the same way that a big, shaggy dog plays with a little kitten.'

"It is, however, the self-portraits of Duerer that give us the greatest insight into his character and beliefs. The first, drawn when he was just 13, depicts the soft features of a young boy, sketched with great confidence and skill. Duerer was rightly proud of his achievement and years later he added the inscription: 'This I drew, using a mirror; it is my own likeness, in the year 1484, when I was still a child.' Duerer's first painted self-portrait dates from 1493, when he was 22. In this work, quite possibly painted as a gift for his fiancée, his features are still youthful and he appears bashful. 'Things with me fare as ordained from above', the artist inscribed at the top of the picture.

"Duerer's self-portrait of 1498, just five years later, reveals a transformation. Dressed in elegant clothes, he stands up much straighter and is a highly confident young man. Beside him is a window, overlooking a distant Alpine landscape. The view is a pointed reminder that the well-travelled Duerer had recently returned from Venice - one of the leading centres of the Renaissance. His face is painted with great realism - evidence of his skill. Konrad Celtis, the humanist scholar and friend of Duerer's, once repeated a story based on an anecdote of the Roman writer Pliny, saying that Duerer's faithful dog had barked and wagged its tail when it first saw a newly-completed self-portrait of its master. This, perhaps, is the picture which had once so excited his dog.

"The final painted self-portrait, dated 1500, is inscribed: 'Thus I, Albrecht Duerer from Nuremburg, painted myself with indelible colours at the age of 28 years.' Although the artist has depicted himself in a Christ-like pose, this was no gesture of blasphemy. It was an acknowledgement that God had made Christ and Man in his own image. Artistic talent therefore ultimately derives from God. After this work, no other painted self-portraits survive, although he is known to have given one to the great Italian artist Raphael (1483-1520).

"Duerer drew several self-portraits. These include an unusually frank one of him in the nude. A few years later he made a small sketch of his body with his hand touching a spot near his spleen (Kunsthalle, Bremen). In what may have been a note to a doctor, or perhaps a comment on his melancholic state, he added the inscription: 'I am pointing to it with my finger: that is where it hurts.' In 1522, towards the end of his life, he did an anguished drawing of Christ as the Man of Sorrows (formerly Kunsthalle, Bremen), giving Jesus his own facial features and depicting his own worn body.

"Sometimes Duerer depicted himself in a painted altarpiece. On occasions he appears in his role as artist, proudly holding a board with his name and a few details about the work. At other times he gives a figure in an altarpiece his own features, such as the drummer who is mocking the afflicted Job or King Melchior in a Nativity scene. But despite this abundance of different self-portraits, the three paintings which Duerer did when he was in his twenties most affect the way we view the artist. To us he seems eternally youthful, his curly locks of hair cascading over his shoulders."

- From Martin Bailey, "Durer"

Further reading on Albrecht Dürer:

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Albrecht Dürer Images

c. 1489 The Wire-drawing Mill
1493 Self-portrait at 22
c. 1493 Christ as the Man of Sorrows
c. 1494 St Jerome in the Wilderness
c. 1495 Virgin and Child before an Archway
c. 1496 Pond in the Woods
c. 1496-97 The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin
c. 1496-98 Willow Mill
1497 Portrait of Durer's Father at 70
1498 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
1498 Self-Portrait at 26
1498 St. Michael's fight against the dragon
c. 1498-1504 The Paumgartner Altarpiece
1499 Portrait of Elsbeth Tucher
1500 Self-Portrait at 28
c. 1500-03 Lamentation for Christ
1502 A Young Hare
1503 The Large Turf
1504 Adam and Eve (engraving)
1505 Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman
1506 Christ Among the Doctors
1507 Adam and Eve (painting)
1508 Study of Praying Hands
1508 The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand
1512 Wing of a Roller
1513 Knight, Death and Devil
1514 Melencolia I
1514 St. Jerome in his Study
1514 Portrait of Duerer's Mother
1516 Portrait of Michael Wolgemut
1516 Apostle Philip
1519 St Anne with the Virgin and Child
1526 The Four Holy Men
1526 Portrait of Hieronymus Holzschuher

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