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Dürer, Albrecht

Dürer, Albrecht

(b. Nuremberg, Germany, 21 May 1471; d. Nuremberg, 6 April 1528)

mathematics, painting, theory of art.

Dürer was the son of Albrecht Dürer (or Tüirer, as he called and signed himself) the Elder. The elder Dürer was the son of a Hungarian goldsmith and practiced that craft himself. He left Hungary, traveled through the Netherlands, and finally settled in Nuremberg, where he perfected his craft with Hieronymus Holper. He married Holper’s daughter Barbara. The printer and publisher Anton Koberger stood godfather to the younger Dürer.

Dürer attended the Lateinschule in St. Lorenz and learned goldsmithing from his father. From 1486 to 1489 he studied painting with Michael Wolgemut (then the leading church painter of Nuremberg); in Wolgemut’s workshop he was able to learn not only all the standard painting techniques but also woodand copper-engraving. In 1490, in accordance with the custom of the painter’s guild, Dürer went on his Wanderjahre. Until 1494 he traveled through the Upper Rhine and to Colmar, Basel, and Strasbourg, presumably making his living as a draftsman.

Dürer returned to Nuremberg and on 7 July 1494 married Agnes Frey, the daughter of Hans Frey, Frey, who had been a coppersmith, had become prosperous as a mechanician and instrument maker. He belonged to that school of craftsmen in metals for which Nuremberg was famous. The marriage brought Dürer’s family increased social standing and brought Dürer a generous dowry.

As early as his Wanderjahre Dürer had come to appreciate the works of Mantegna and other Italian artists. He wished to learn more of the artistic and philosophical rediscoveries of the Italian Renaissance (he knew from books about the Academy of Florence, modeled on Plato’s Academy). Moreover, he had become convinced that the new art must be based upon science—in particular, upon mathematics, as the most exact, logical, and graphically constructive of the sciences. It was this realization that led him to the scientific work for which he was, in his lifetime, as celebrated as for his art. He decided to travel to Italy and in 1494 left his wife in Nuremberg and set off on foot to visit Venice.

On his return to Nuremberg in 1495, Dürer began serious study of mathematics and of the theory of art as derived from works handed down from antiquity, especially Euclid’s Elements and the De architectura of Vitruvius. These years were highly productive for Dürer; in 1497 he adopted his famous monogram to protect his work against being counterfeited. At about the same time he formed an important and lasting friendship with Willibald Pirckheimer, subject of one of his most famous portraits. (Dürer was fortunate in his patrons and friends; besides Pirckheimer these included such humanists as Johannes Werner, the mathematician; Johann Tscherte, the imperial architect; and Nicholas Kratzer, court astronomer to the English King Henry VIII.)

Most important, however, this period marked the beginning of Dürer’s experiments with scientific perspective and mathematical proportion. The mathematical formulations of Dürer’s anatomical proportion are derived both from antiquity and from the Italian rediscoveries; he drew upon both Polyclitus the Elder and Alberti, and to these he added the notion of plastic harmony after the mode of musical harmony taken from Boethius and Augustine. The earliest of Dürer’s documented figure studies to be constructed in accordance with one or several strictly codified canons of proportion date from 1500 and include the study of a female nude (now in London). In addition, critics have pointed out that the head of the famous Munich self-portrait may be shown to have been constructed proportionally.

Throughout the years 1501–1504 Dürer continued to work with the problem of proportion, making numerous studies of men and horses. His copper engraving Adam and Eve (1504) marks the high point of his theoretical mastery—the figures were methodically constructed, he wrote, with a compass and a ruler. The preliminary studies for the Adam and Eve (now in Vienna) reveal Dürer’s method. During this time he also mastered the techniques of linear perspective, as may be seen in his series of woodcuts, The Life of the Virgin.

In 1505–1507 Dürer returned to Venice. He extended his Italian travels to Bologna on this occasion, “on account,” he wrote, “of secret [knowledge of] perspective.” He most probably made the journey to meet with Luca Pacioli, a mathematician and theorist of art. Pacioli’s book, Divina proportione (in which Leonardo da Vinci collaborated), propounded the notion that the sectio aurea (the famous “golden mean” of classical sculpture and architecture), being mathematical in nature, related art to that science exclusively. In Venice, at the close of his second Italian trip, Dürer bought Tacinus’ 1505 edition of Euclid, which was henceforth to be his model for mathematical formulation. This period of Dürer’s life marks the full maturity of his mathematical, philosophical, and aesthetic theory; in his painting he had begun to realize the full synthesis of late German Gothic and Italian Renaissance painting.

Between 1506 and 1512 Dürer devoted himself to the rigorous study of the problem of form, which presented itself to him in three aspects: true, mathematical form; beautiful, proportional form; and compositional form, used in an actual work of art, ideally the fusion of the preceding. In solving these problems Dürer drew upon the resources of arithmetic and geometry; it was in his achievement as a painter that his formal solutions were meaningful and expressive.

From about 1508 Dürer sketched and wrote down the substance of his theoretical studies (fragments of these notes and drawings are preserved in the notebooks in London, Nuremberg, and Dresden). Some of these fragments may have been intended for inclusion in the encyclopedic Speis’ der Malerknaben that Dürer had planned to publish; this Malerbuch was to have presented his mathematical solutions to all formal problems in the plastic arts. Although the Malerbuch was never completed, Dürer extracted a part of it for his major “Treatise on Proportion” (Proportionslehre).

In 1520–1521 Dürer traveled to the Netherlands, particularly Bruges and Ghent, where he saw the works of the early Flemish masters. He returned to Nuremberg ill with malaria; henceforth he devoted himself primarily to the composition and printing of his three major theoretical books. (He continued to paint, however; his pictures from this period include several notable portraits of his friends as well as the important diptych of the Four Apostles, given to the city council of Nuremberg by Dürer in 1526 and now in Munich.)

Dürer had completed the manuscript of the “Treatise on Proportion” by 1523, but he realized that a more basic mathematical text was necessary to its full comprehension. For that reason, in 1524–1525, he wrote such a text, the Underweysung der Messung mit Zirckel und Richtscheyt in Linien, Ebnen und gantzen Corporen (“Treatise on Mensuration With the Compass and Ruler in Lines, Planes, and Whole Bodies”), which was published by his own firm in Nuremberg in 1525.

The Underweysung der Messung is in four books. In the first, Dürer treats of the construction of plane curves (including the spiral of Archimedes, the logarithmic spiral, tangential spirals, conchoids, and so forth) and of helices according to the methods of descriptive geometry. In addition he includes a method for the construction of “Dürer’s leaf” (the folium Dureri), presents the notion of affinity by the example of the ellipse as a related representation of the circle, and, most important, describes the conic sections in top and front views as well as demonstrating their construction.

In book II Dürer develops a morphological theory of regular polygons and their exact or approximate constructions. He shows how to make use of such constructions as architectural ornaments, in parquet floors, tesellated pavements, and even bull’s-eye window panes. The book concludes with theoretical investigations (culminating in the Vitruvian approximation for squaring the circle, a process which had already been noted by Dürer in a proportional study made in Nuremberg in 1504 or 1505) and with the computation of π (as 3.141).

The first part of the third book includes bird’s-eye and profile elevations of pyramids, cylinders, and columns of various sorts (in 1510, in Nuremberg, Dürer had already sketched a spiral column with spherical processes). The second part of the book deals with sundials and astronomical instruments; Dürer had a small observatory at his disposal in the house that he had acquired from Bernhard Walther, a student of Regiomontanus, and could also make use of Walther’s scientific library, part of which he bought. In the third part of the third book Dürer is concerned with the design of letters and illustrates the construction in a printer’s quad of capitals of the Roman typeface named after him as well as an upper-and lowercase fraktur alphabet.

In book IV Dürer presents the development of the five Platonic solids (polyhedra) and of several semiregular (Archimedean) solids. He additionally shows how to construct the surfaces of several mixed bodies and, of particular importance, presents an approximate development of the sphere (he had begun work on the last for the construction of the first globe in Nuremberg in 1490–1492; his work on other globes, celestial charts, and armillary spheres is well known). He also shows how to duplicate the cube (the Delian problem) and related bodies, demonstrates the construction of the shadows of illuminated bodies, and finally summarizes the theory of perspective.

Except for the Geometria Deutsch (ca. 1486–1487), a book of arithmetical rules for builders which Dürer knew and used, the Underweysung der Messung is the first mathematics book in German. With its publication Dürer could claim a place in the front ranks of Renaissance mathematicians.

Dürer’s next technical publication, the Befestigungslehre (“Treatise on Fortifications”), was a practical work dictated by the fear of invasion by the Turks, which gripped all of central Europe. This book was published in Nuremberg in 1527; as well as summarizing the science of fortification it contains some of Dürer’s chief architectural work (various other architectural drawings and models are extant). Many of his ideas were put to use; the city of Nuremberg was strengthened according to his plan (in particular the watchtowers were fortified), similar work was undertaken at Strasbourg, and the Swiss town of Schaffhausen built what might be considered a model of Dürer’s design with small vaults above and below ground, casemates, and ramparts that still survive intact.

Dürer’s third book, his “Treatise on Proportion”, Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion, was published posthumously in 1528; Dürer himself saw the first proof sheets (there are no other details of his last illness and death) and his friends saw to the final stages of publication. This book is the synthesis of Dürer’s solutions to his self-imposed formal problems; in it, he sets forth his formal aesthetic. In its simplest terms, true form is the primary mathematical figure (the straight line, the circle, conic sections, curves, surfaces, solids, and so forth), constructed geometrically or arithmetically, and made beautiful by the application of some canon of proportion. The resulting beautiful form may be varied within limits of similarity. (In the instance of human form, there should be sufficient variation to differentiate one figure from another, but never so much as that the figure becomes deformed or nonhuman.) Dürer’s Platonic idea of form figures in his larger aesthetic; for him beauty was the aggregate of symmetrical, proportionate, and harmonious forms in a more highly symmetrical, proportionate, and harmonious work of art.

Dürer’s aesthetic rules are firmly based in the laws of optics—indeed, he even designed special mechanical instruments to aid in the attainment of beautiful form. He used the height of the human body as the basic unit of measurement and subdivided it linearly to reach a common denominator for construction of a unified artistic plan. This canon was not inviolable; Dürer himself modified it continually in an attempt to approximate more closely the canon of Vitruvius (which was also the canon most favored by Leonardo). Thus the artist retains freedom in the act of selecting his canon. In books I and II of the Vier Bücher Dürer deals, once again, with the arithmetic and geometrical construction of forms; in books III and IV he considers the problems of variation and movement.

The last of the Vier Bücher is perhaps of greatest mathematical interest since in treating of the movement of bodies in space Dürer was forced to present new, difficult, and intricate considerations of descriptive spatial geometry; indeed, he may be considered the first to have done so. At the end of this book he summarizes and illustrates his theories in the construction of his famous “cube man.”

Dürer’s chief accomplishment as outlined in the Vier Bücher is that in rendering figures (and by extension, in the composition of the total work of art) he first solved the problem of establishing a canon, then considered the transformations of forms within that canon, altering them in accordance with a consistent idea of proportion. In so doing he considered the spatial relations of form and the motions of form within space. His triumph as a painter lay in his disposition of carefully proportioned figures in surrounding space; he thereby elevated what had been hit-or-miss solutions of an essential problem of plastic composition to a carefully worked out mathematical theory. No earlier method had been so successful, and Dürer’s theoretical work was widely influential in following centuries.


I.Original Works. Editions of Dürer’s works include Underweysung der Messung mit Zirckel und Richtscheyt in Linien, Ebnen, und gantzen Corporen (Nuremberg, 1525; 2nd ed., Nuremberg, 1538; facsimile ed. by Alvin Jaeggli and Christine Papesch, Zurich, 1966); Etliche Underricht zu Befestigung der Stett, Schloss und Flecken (Nuremberg, 1927), repr. as W. Waetzoldt, ed., Dürer’s Befestigungslehre (Berlin, 1917); and Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion (Nuremberg, 1528), of which there is a facsimile ed. in 2 vols, with text and commentary, Max Steck, ed. (Zurich, 1969).

II. Secondary Literature. Max Steck, Dürer’s Gestaltlehre der Mathematik und der bildenden Künste (Halle-Tübingen, 1948), contains an extensive bibliography of works by and about Dürer as well as a scientific analysis of the sources of the Underweysung der Messung; see also Hans Rupprich, Dürer-Schriftlicher Nachlass, vols. I and II (Berlin, 1956–1966), vol. III (in preparation); and Max Steck, “Albrecht Dürer als Mathematiker und Kunsttheoretiker,” in Nova Acta Leopoldina, 16 (1954), 425–434; “Albrecht Dürer als Schrifsteller,” in Forschungen und Fortschritte, 30 (1956), 344–347; Dürer: Eine Bildbiographie (Munich, 1957; 2nd ed. Munich, 1958; other German eds.), trans. into English as Dürer and His World (London-New York, 1964); “Ein neuer Fund zum literarischen Bild Albrecht Dürer’s im Schrifttum des 16. Jahrhunderts,” in Forschungen und Fortschritte, 31 (1957), 253–255; “Drei neue Dürer-Urkunden,” ibid, 32 (1958), 56–58; “Grundlagen der Kunst Albrechts Dürers,” in Universitas (1958), pp. 41–48, also trans. for English and Spanish eds.; “Theoretische Beiträge zu Dürers Kupferstich ‘Melancolia l’ von 1514,” in Forschungen und Fortschritte, 32 (1958), 246–251; Albrecht Dürer, Schriften—Tagebücher—Briefe (Stuttgart, 1961); “Albrecht Dürer as a Mathematician,” in Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of the History of Science, II (Paris, 1964), 655–658; “Albrecht Dürer als Mathematiker und Kunsttheoretiker,” in Der Architekt und der Bauingenieur (Munich, 1965), pp. 1–6; and “Albrecht Dürer: Die exaktwissenschaftlichen Grundlagen seiner Kunst,” in Scientia, Milano, 1C (1966), 15–20, with French trans. as “Albert Dürer: Les sciences exactes sont les bases de son art,” ibid., pp. 13–17.

Max Steck

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Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer

The German painter and graphic artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) introduced the achievements of the Italian Renaissance into northern European art. His prints diffused his new style, a fusion of the German realistic tradition with the Italian ideal of beauty.

Until the end of the 15th century late medieval realism in the north and the art of the Renaissance in Italy developed more or less independently of each other. While Italian artists invented rules of perspective and proportion to govern their representations of man in his natural environment, the German and early Netherlandish painters perfected their observation and depiction of individual natural phenomena without, however, establishing a correct perspectival space within which to contain the multiplicity of detail. Albrecht Dürer was, in effect, the first non-Italian artist to associate the humanistic disciplines with the esthetic pursuits of art.

Albrecht Dürer was born on May 21, 1471, in Nuremberg. His father, Albrecht the Elder, was a Hungarian goldsmith who went to Nuremberg in 1455, where he married Barbara Holper, daughter of a goldsmith. The young Dürer received his first training in his father's workshop as an engraver. He executed his first self-portrait, a drawing in silverpoint, at the age of 13.

His Apprenticeship

From 1486 to 1490 Dürer was apprenticed to the Nuremberg painter and woodcut illustrator Michael Wolgemut, following which he went on his bachelor's journey, the route of which is not known but which presumably led him to the Rhineland and to the Netherlands, since influences of early Netherlandish art are traceable in his works. He arrived in Colmar in 1492, soon after the death of the prominent German graphic artist Martin Schongauer in 1491, and continued on to Basel, where he stayed until late 1493 working extensively as a woodcut designer.

There is a difference of scholarly opinion in regard to Dürer's work in Basel, mostly woodcuts in books illustrated by several artists. The works generally ascribed to him show he was an extremely lively and many-faceted artist, interested in the representation of various aspects of daily life. The prints and drawings he executed at that period were influenced by Schongauer and the Housebook Master, the two major representatives of Rhenish graphic art.

In 1493 Dürer painted a self-portrait (Paris) in which he represented himself in a lyrical, romantic vein and inscribed above his head, "My affairs will go as ordained in Heaven." In May 1494 he returned to Nuremberg, and 2 months later he married Agnes Frey.

First Trip to Italy

In the fall Dürer journeyed to Venice, Padua, and Mantua. He copied works by the leading contemporary Italian masters, and it is apparent in his drawings that he soon learned how to impart to his figures perfection of anatomy, classical pathos, and harmony. It was at this time that Dürer began to be interested in the art of the ancients, although he probably had access to the classical works largely through Italian copies and interpretations. In the process of assimilating the spirit of classical art, he became aware of the necessity of art theory, to which he later devoted much of his time. Dürer's travels not only opened his eyes to the marvels of ancient art but also to the variety to be found in nature, which he captured in his excellent landscape drawings and watercolors of Alpine views.

Return to Nuremberg

In 1498 Dürer published a series of 15 woodcuts, the Apocalypse, which represents the highest achievement of German graphic art in that medium and which had a dramatic message to impart on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. The series is a tour de force in giving shape, in a realistic framework, to the fantastic images conjured up in the Book of Revelation. Each of the woodcuts represents a homogeneous action but at the same time contributes to create a powerful unity of the whole series. In the Apocalypse series as well as in the later series of prints representing the Passion of Christ (The Great Passion, begun before 1500 and published in 1511; the Small Passion, 1509-1511, repeated in copper engravings in 1507-1513; and the Life of the Virgin, 1500-1511), Dürer interpreted the Gospel in a new, human, and understandable language, organically fusing northern realism with the ideal beauty of Italy.

In Dürer's painting, another self-portrait (1498; Madrid) marked the turning point of his art. He represented himself as a humanist scholar and an elegant young man without the attributes of his profession. In this way he opposed the concept of art as craft current outside of Italy. "There were many talented youths in our German countries who were taught the art of painting but without fundamentals and with daily practice only. They therefore grew up unconscious as a wild uncut tree," he wrote. He wanted to be different and to change his followers: "Since geometry is the right foundation of all painting, I have decided to teach its rudiments and principles to all youngsters eager for art…"

In his altarpieces Dürer revealed his interest in perspective, as in the Paumgartner Altarpiece (1502-1504). His portraits, such as Oswolt Krell (1499), were characterized by sharp psychological insight. Dürer depicted mythological and allegorical subjects in engravings on metal, for example, the Dream of the Doctor (after 1497) and Sea Monster (ca. 1498), and he also used that technique for one of his most popular prints, the Prodigal Son (ca. 1496). Dürer represented the hero in a novel way, the scene chosen being neither the prodigal son's sinful life nor the happy ending of his return to his father, but the moment in which the hero becomes cognizant of his sinful life and begins his repentance. In the print Nemesis (1501-1502) Dürer's study of human proportion is manifested, together with his taste for complicated humanistic allegory, which appears in several of his prints of that period.

Second Trip to Italy

In 1505 Dürer went to Venice again. Records of that stay abound in his letters to his humanist friend Willibald Pirckheimer. There is no mention of a visit to Rome. The assumption that Dürer visited Rome has been a subject much discussed by art historians. It was only quite recently that the inscription "Romae 1506" was discovered on his painting Christ among the Doctors (Lugano), which seems to argue favorably for the assumption that he did go to Rome. Until recently scholars knew only that he went as far as Balogna, but even if he really visited Rome his stay there must have been rather short as it left no visible traces in his drawings.

It was the art of Venice that profoundly influenced Dürer's work. He was on good terms there with artists, humanists, and noblemen. He wrote Pirckheimer that the painter Giovanni Bellini was his friend and wanted Dürer to paint a picture for him. It seems, however, that it was Dürer's prints rather than his paintings which established his reputation.

In 1506 Dürer painted for the church of the German merchants in Venice, S. Bartolommeo, his most Italian picture—in composition as in color: the Feast of the Rose Garlands. Even today, in spite of its damaged condition, "a solemn splendor of the southern town rests upon the picture," according to M. J. Friendländer. Dürer's portraits done at this time excel by nature of their soft subtlety of chiaroscuro, compositional simplicity, and lyrical mood, for example, Portrait of a Young Girl (1505; Vienna). The same freedom of touch, subtle and flexible, characterizes his drawings of nudes, done during and after the Italian journey.

Nuremberg Altarpieces

The large altarpieces executed when Dürer returned to Nuremberg show a mixture of colorful Italianisms with the traditional northern style. One of them is the Heller Altarpiece (1507-1509). The central panel was destroyed by fire in 1729 and is known only through a copy by Jobst Harrich. The wings were painted by Dürer's assistants, and four panels were executed by Mathias Grünewald.

The other two important altarpieces of that period are the Adoration of the Trinity (1511) and the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (1508), in which Dürer's placement of little figures in vast landscapes was a return to his early style, based on the traditions of northern painting. Dürer was also returning to his personal heritage in that he once again took up the engraver's burin as his main tool.

Melancholy and Humanism

Perhaps Dürer's most important works of the period from 1513 to 1520 were his engravings. In them his humanistic interests appear, developed through his friendships with distinguished German scholars, especially Pirckheimer. Through Pirckheimer, Dürer became acquainted with contemporary Italian thought as well as with classical philosophy and its recent revival known as Neoplatonism. The three so-called Master Engravings Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), St. Jerome in His Study (1514), and Melencolia I (1514) are the climax of Dürer's graphic style and also express his thoughts on life, man, and art.

These engravings are allegories of the three kinds of virtue associated with the three spheres of human activity: in Knight the active sphere is depicted; in St. Jerome, the contemplative sphere; and in Melencolia I, the intellectual sphere, which Erwin Panofsky describes as an allegory of "the life of the secular genius in the rational and imaginative worlds of science and art." The three prints excel not only in transmitting their complicated allegorical messages but also in conveying a powerful expression of mood: heroic in Kinght, intellectually concentrated but serene in St. Jerome, and dramatic and gloomy in Melencolia. At the same time they show the greatest virtuosity in the handling of the medium; their silvery, vibrant surfaces contain both graphic and pictorial effects. It is possible that Melencolia was connected with a difficult moment in the development of Dürer's theoretical concepts, which he formulated at that time, although it was only later that his theoretical works were published.

Dürer was equally interested in a direct depiction of observed data. Throughout his life he drew and engraved simple motifs studied from life, as in the dramatic drawing of his old mother, emaciated and ill (1514).

Until 1519 Dürer worked for Emperor Maximilian I, taking part in the execution of various artistic projects of allegorical and decorative character, mostly in graphic media (the Triumphal Arch and the Triumphal Procession ofMaximilian I) but also in miniature (drawings in the Maximilian I Prayer Book, 1515).

Last Period

In July 1520 Dürer left for the Netherlands in order to receive from Charles V, Maximilian I's successor, the re-confirmation of his yearly salary of 100 florins that Maximilian had allotted him. This trip was a triumph for the artist and proved the esteem with which he was regarded. In his travel journal Dürer left a moving day-by-day record of his stay in Antwerp and of his visits to various Dutch, Belgian, and German towns. He met princes, rich merchants, and great artists. He drew portraits, landscapes, townscapes, and curiosities in his sketchbook. He met Erasmus of Rotterdam, whom he greatly admired and of whom he made a portrait drawing, which he later engraved (1526).

Dürer's last years were difficult. The Reformation was creating great religious and social changes. Dürer supported Martin Luther, whose teachings were heralded by Dürer's Apocalypse. In his last drawings, such as the Oblong Passion (10 drawings, 1520-1524), he expressed his powerful religious feelings, but held in check by a severe composition.

Dürer's last great work was the so-called Four Apostles (1526). The monumental, sculpturesque figures towering in their shallow space represent Saints John and Peter (left panel) and Saints Mark and Paul (right panel). The two paintings were probably intended as the wings of a triptych, the central panel of which was not executed. He gave the panels to the Town Council of Nuremberg. In the panels he included quotations from the writings of the saints represented, which contained accusations against "false prophets." Dürer's work proclaimed the unity of the new faith against the different sects arising at that time.

In 1525 Dürer published his book concerning perspective (Instruction in Measurement), and in 1527 his treatise on fortifications appeared. He died on April 6, 1528, a few months before his last and most important theoretical work, The Four Books on Proportions, was published. Excellent painter, engraver, and draftsman, Dürer was also a learned theorist. Active in art and science, he was the first true Renaissance artist outside of Italy and in his diversity a typical Renaissance man.

Dürer's Influence

Dürer's influence was greater than that of any artist of northern Europe of his time and was most widely felt through his woodcuts and engravings. He created a language of visual forms that furnished his contemporaries and followers with modern tools adapted to their needs: his art was a translation of the Italian Renaissance vocabulary into a dialect understandable north of the Alps. Dürer was beloved by the German romantic artists and writers of the 19th century, for whom he represented the quintessential German artist.

Further Reading

An English edition of Dürer's writings is William Martin Conway, Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer (1889; rev. ed. 1958). A selection of his writings is included in Wolfgang Stechow, ed., Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600: Sources and Documents (1966). There are several works on Dürer in English, all overshadowed by the magisterial monograph of the foremost Dürer scholar, Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (2 vols., 1943; paperback ed., 1 vol., 1971). Old but good is William Martin Conway, The Art of Albrecht Dürer (1910). Wilhelm Waetzoldt, Dürer and His Times (1935; trans. 1950), written for a general audience, stresses the cultural background. For a study of Dürer's drawings see Dürer: Drawings and Water Colours, selected and with an introduction by Edmund Schilling (trans. 1949); and for the prints see Arthur M. Hind, Albrecht Dürer: His Engravings and Woodcuts (1911). The humanistic background and the symbolism of the Melencolia I print are discussed in Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy (1964). □

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Dürer, Albrecht (1471–1528)

DÜRER, ALBRECHT (14711528)

DÜRER, ALBRECHT (14711528), German painter, printmaker, mathematician, and theorist. Dürer is the first Western artist for whom an entire era is namedthe Dürerzeit (the Dürer Time, c. 14901528), as the transitional period from late medieval to Renaissance in Germany is called. First mastering both the northern European tradition of rendering objects and textures in meticulous detail, he visited Italy twice to learn the Italian secrets of one-point perspective and classical human proportion. His graphic art was marketed internationally by two sales agents whose contracts still survive, and it was eagerly acquired by other artists as well as by the humanists who were his contemporaries. He counted among his friends the classicist Willibald Pirckheimer (14701530); the imperial poet laureate Conrad Celtis (14591508); the mathematicians Johannes Werner (14681522), developer of conic sections, and Niklas Kratzer (1486/71550), court astronomer to Henry VIII of England; the Lutheran reformers Lazarus Spengler (14791534) and Philipp Melanchthon (14971560); and the Augustinian vicar-general Johann von Staupitz (1468/91524), Martin Luther's (14831546) confessor. He owned sixteen of Luther's early pamphlets and sent Luther some of his own work as a gift. The Saxon elector Frederick the Wise (14631525), the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I (14591519); Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (14901545), archbishop of Mainz and primate of the empire; and the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?1536) were among his most famous patrons.

Dürer was born in Nuremberg on 21 May 1471, the third of eighteen children of the Hungarian-born goldsmith Albrecht Dürer the Elder (14271502) and his wife, Barbara (née Holper, 14421514), and was apprenticed to the leading Nuremberg painterwoodcut designer, Michael Wolgemut (14341519). Hoping to study engraving under Martin Schongauer (1445/501491), he went to Colmar on his bachelor's journey, only to find that Schongauer had died. He worked briefly in Basel as a book illustrator before returning to Nuremberg (1494) to marry Agnes Frey (14751539) and made his first trip to Italy soon afterwarda journey commemorated in a series of pioneering landscape watercolors.

Returning to Nuremberg in 1495, he opened his own workshop, with Frederick the Wise his first portrait sitter (1496). His most famous works include his Self-Portrait (1500, Alte Pinakothek, Munich), the Fall of Man (engraving, 1504); the altarpiece for the church of St. Bartholomew in Venice (1506, National Gallery, Prague), the three so-called Master EngravingsKnight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), and Melencolia I (1514), and his watercolor The Wild Hare (1502, Albertina, Vienna) and chiaroscuro drawing Praying Hands (1508, Albertina, a study for the lost Heller altarpiece), and the Four Apostles painted for the Nuremberg City Hall (1526, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Underscored by quotations from the New Testament writings of Saints John, Peter, Mark, and Paul warning against the danger of following false prophets, this last work was created in reaction against the violence of the German Peasants' War (1525).

Dürer made further trips abroad, to Venice (15051507), Switzerland (1517), and the Netherlands (15201521), attending the coronation of the new emperor, Charles V, in Aachen and making Antwerp his headquarters for a year. His experiences are recorded in his travel diary, and they include two dinners as the guest of Erasmus and his friend Peter Gillis (Aegidius: 14861533) and dinners with King Christian II of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (14811559), the Portuguese consul, João Brandao (served 15141521), and the young Dutch artist Lucas van Leyden (14941533), and an audience with Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands (14801530). He recorded his delight at viewing the golden objects from Mexico sent to court by Hernán Cortés, as well as his deep despair at hearing the false news of Luther's arrest after the Diet at Worms (entry of 17 May 1521). During his stay in the Netherlands, however, he contracted the lingering illness that ended his life seven years later. He died in Nuremberg on 6 April 1528, aged fifty-seven, having devoted his last years to the writing of his theoretical works the Treatise on Measurement (Unterweysung der Messung, 1525); the treatise on fortification (Befestigungslehre, 1527), and the Four Books on Human Proportion, edited after his death by his friend Pirckheimer in 1532 and published by the widowed Agnes.

In 1509 Dürer had bought the house previously owned by the mathematician-astronomer Bernhard Walther (now the Dürerhaus Museum), which still contained both its observatory and scientific library. His house, tomb, and the bronze portrait statue of Dürer by Christian Daniel Rauch (17771857) erected in 1840the first such public monument to honor an artistcan still be seen in Nuremberg.

See also Erasmus, Desiderius ; Luther, Martin ; Melanchthon, Philipp ; Nuremberg ; Peasants' War, German ; Prints and Popular Imagery .


Primary Source

Rupprich, Hans. Dürers schriftlicher Nachlass. 3 vols. Berlin, 19561969. The complete texts of the artist's publications, personal letters, travel diary, and family chronicle, as well as contemporary references to him in the correspondence and publications of others. No English edition exists.

Secondary Sources

Anzelewsky, Fedya. Albrecht Dürer: Das malerische Werk. 2nd, rev. ed. 2 vols. Berlin, 1991. The standard catalogue of the artist's paintings.

Hutchison, Jane Campbell. Albrecht Dürer: A Biography. Princeton, 1990.

. Albrecht Dürer: A Guide to Research. Artist Resource Manuals, vol. 3. New York and London, 2000.

Mende, Matthias. Albrecht Dürer: Das druckgraphische Werk. 3 vols. Nuremberg, 2001. Standard catalogue of the complete prints.

., ed. Dürer-Bibliographie. Wiesbaden, 1971. Complete bibliography of works on the artist published prior to 1970.

Panofsky, Erwin. The Art and Life of Albrecht Dürer. 4th ed. Princeton, 1955.

Strauss, Walter L., ed. Albrecht Dürer: The Painter's Manual. New York, 1977.

Strieder, Peter. Albrecht Dürer: Paintings, Prints, Drawings. Translated by Nancy M. Gordon and Walter L. Strauss. New York, 1982. An excellent general work, by the retired director of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.

Jane Campbell Hutchison

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Dürer, Albrecht (1471–1528)

Dürer, Albrecht (14711528)

A German painter and draftsman, a leading figure of the Renaissance in northern Europe, Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg as the son and grandson of goldsmiths. His early training took place in the metalworking shop of his father, where he showed great talent in drawing. In 1486 he joined the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, a painter and illustrator. Dürer traveled as a young man to the Low Countries, the Rhine River valley, and Basel, Switzerland, where he worked as an illustrator for books and studied the work of masters of silverpoint engraving and woodcut block prints. His earliest known painting was a portrait of his father, completed in 1490. In 1494, he returned to Nuremberg, which became his permanent home, but after his marriage there he was soon voyaging again, this time to Italy. The ruins and literature of ancient Rome impressed him, as did the works of Italian painters of Venice, Milan, and Paduaforemost among them Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna. Their paintings in a new style had a strong influence on Dürer, who would synthesize in his works the Italian ideas of classicism, human proportion, and compositional balance with the northern European taste for detailed and naturalistic draftsmanship.

After returning to Nuremberg, Dürer published The Apocalypse, a series of woodcuts that illustrate events in the Bible's book of Revelation. Dürer also used biblical themes in later series known as The Great Passion, The Small Passion, and The Life of the Virgin. His famous Self Portrait of 1498 is one of the renowned images of the Renaissance, showing Dürer as an idealistic humanist scholar, a type of person he had encountered often during his journey to Italy.

The Italian Renaissance had taught Dürer that certain principles of arranging scenes and rendering figures allowed the skilled artist to convey a sense of spirituality and reverence for religious subject matter. He put this principle to use in his altarpieces, paintings done for prominent display inside a church. One of the most famous of these works is the Paumgartner Altarpiece, which was completed by 1504. Dürer also adopted myth and allegory in his engravings, such as Nemesis and The Prodigal Son. Along with his watercolor painting of The Wild Hare, still one of the most common art reproductions, these works were reproduced as prints by the thousands and circulated throughout Europe.

Dürer returned to Italy in 1505; he visited Venice and Bologna and may have traveled as far as Rome. During this trip he wrote a series of engaging and observant letters to his friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, one of the leading humanist scholars of Germany. In Venice, where he lived for two years, Dürer struck up a friendship with Giovanni Bellini and other artists, and was hired to create a painting for the church of San Bartolomeo. He developed great skill at rendering the natural world of landscapes, plants and animals in his engravings, a skill he refined during his crossing of the Alps from Germany to Italy.

After his return to Germany, he completed two major altarpieces, The Adoration of the Trinity and Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, and created a series of masterful engravings reflecting ideals of humanistic thought Dürer had encountered in Italy. These works include Knight, Death, and the Devil; St. Jerome in His Study ; and Melancolia. They represented the new ideal of philosophy: the contemplative life of study in Neoplatonism and observations in science that countered medieval religious doctrines. On commission from the emperor Maximilian I, Dürer also completed two monumental engravings, The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I and The Triumphal Procession of Maximilian I. In 1520 the new emperor, Charles V, continued the salary and privileges that Maximilian had extended to Dürer, recognizing the artist's talent and importance. But the Catholic emperor was a powerful opponent of the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther, a movement that Dürer wholeheartedly supported and celebrated in engravings such as The Last Supper and Praying Hands. One of his last works was The Four Apostles, a painting of the four apostles of the New Testament: John, Peter, Mark, and Paul. In his last years he wrote extensively on art theory and history. He published a work on fortifications and another on the science of perspective, Instruction in Measurement, and wrote The Four Books on Proportions, which was published a few months after his death.

Dürer's reputation spread throughout Europe, and particularly in Germany, in the years after his death. He ushered an entire nation of German artists from the medieval period into the Renaissance, and brought graphic art of printmaking and woodcuts to a higher level, where they began competing with painting and sculpture for the attention of art historians and patrons. His detailed, well-crafted allegorical works fit well with notions of the Romantic movement that emerged in northern Europe in the eighteenth century, and which adopted Dürer as an artistic forefather.

See Also: Maximilian I; Pirckheimer, Willibald; printing

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Dürer, Albrecht

Albrecht Dürer (äl´brĕkht dür´ər), 1471–1528, German painter, engraver, and theoretician, most influential artist of the German school, b. Nuremberg.

Early Life and Work

The son of a goldsmith, Dürer was an apprentice, first in his father's workshop and later until 1490 in the studio of the painter Wolgemut. After his bachelor journey, which took him to Colmar, Basel, and Strasbourg, and a trip to Italy in 1494, he established himself permanently in Nuremberg. Through these travels he gained a firsthand acquaintance with the art of Schongauer, the foremost Northern engraver of this time, and while in Italy he was drawn to the art of Mantegna and Bellini. Together with a keen sense of observation for realistic details, Dürer developed a rational system of perspective and bodily proportions, but was also able to create visions of fantasy, such as his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A series of large woodcuts of the Apocalypse was issued in 1498.

Later Life and Work

After 1500 Dürer became more interested in art theory, and his engravings reveal a meticulousness of craftsmanship, with a great richness of detail. Two woodcut cycles of the Passion of Christ and a Life of the Virgin appeared in the first decade of the 16th cent. Dürer made a second trip to Italy in 1505, staying in Venice for nearly two years. His sensitive perception of the natural world is shown in a number of drawings and watercolors of plants and animals and in a remarkable series of Alpine landscapes executed in the course of his journey to Italy.

A friend of some of the leading contemporary humanists, Dürer expressed his humanistic inclinations in such engravings as Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), St. Jerome in his Cell, and Melencolia I (both: 1514). The artist's investigation of the ideal proportions of the human body culminated in the Fall of Man (1514). For the Emperor Maximilian I, Dürer was the designer of more decorative projects, including a mammoth woodcut known as the Triumphal Arch, a Triumphal Procession, and a small prayer book. As a theoretician, Dürer composed a treatise on human proportions, a work on applied geometry, and a treatise on fortifications.

Converted (c.1519) to the cause of Protestantism, he reflected the doctrines of Luther in some of his later works, such as a woodcut of the Last Supper (1523) and drawings of saints for an unexecuted altarpiece. In 1520 Dürer went to the Netherlands, where he was received as a recognized master—the first German artist to achieve substantial renown beyond the borders of his native country. In the second decade of the 16th cent. he concentrated more on the translation of lighting and tonal effects into the graphic medium.


Dürer's Portrait of His Father (1490) in Florence, and his Self-Portrait (1493) in the Louvre are his earliest known paintings. He signed most of his work and made penetrating self-portraits throughout his life, revealing a consciousness of his individuality that was unusual in German art before his time. Among Dürer's several important altarpieces are the Paumgärtner Altar (1502–4) in Munich and the Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506) and the Adoration of the Trinity (1511) in Vienna. The Heller Altar, finished in 1509, was destroyed by fire in the 18th cent.


Dürer's principal accomplishments were the elevation of graphic art into the realm of fine art, the evolution of the profession of artist above that of other artisans in Northern Europe, and a highly original realization of a unique artistic vision. In addition, he defined his figures, particularly in mythological scenes, with a superb sense of proportion. An equally talented draftsman and painter, he executed a vast number of woodcuts and engravings throughout his career, achieving as a graphic artist an unsurpassed technical mastery and expressive power. His work has influenced generations of printmakers and draftsmen.


See the catalog of his prints and drawings by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1971); graphics ed. by C. Talbot (1971); biographies by E. Panofsky (4th ed. 1955, repr. 1971) and M. Brion (1960); studies by C. White (1971), H. Lüdecke (1972), and W. Koschatzy (1974). See also W. L. Strauss, ed., The Complete Drawings of Albrecht Dürer (1975).

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Dürer, Albrecht

Dürer, Albrecht

German Painter, Printmaker, and Engraver 14711528

Albrecht Dürer was born in 1471 in Nuremberg, Germany, and died there in 1528. He is regarded as one of the leading artists of the Renaissance. His use of mathematical methods in artistic composition influenced subsequent development of art.

Dürer first worked with his father, who was an accomplished goldsmith, then broadened his artistic training by assisting artist Michel Wohlgemuth. Developing his expertise quickly, Dürer was soon able to go out on his own as a painter and printmaker. He became widely known, traveling throughout Europe while studying and producing works of art, and was a particular favorite of Emperor Maximilian I.

Dürer attempted to portray nature realistically in his works, paying close attention to the appearance of animals, plants, and the human body and trying to reproduce them accurately. He was even known to have dissected cadavers to better understand the human body. Dürer's realistic paintings of plants influenced botanists to use drawings that more closely resembled the plants portrayed.

To improve his paintings and etchings, Dürer sought a mathematical formulation for the ideal human body and for beauty in general. He studied the problems of space, perspective , and proportion and constructed his forms on the canvas, using arithmetic and geometric techniques. The results of his studies were published posthumously in 1528 as The Four Books on Human Proportions, a work that has had a significant effect on succeeding generations of artists.

see also Human Body.

J. William Moncrief


Dürer, Albrecht. The Complete Engravings, Etchings and Drypoints of Albrecht Dürer. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1972.

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Dürer, Albrecht

Dürer, Albrecht (1471–1528) German painter, engraver, and designer of woodcuts, the greatest artist of the n Renaissance. During Dürer's visits to Italy, he was influenced by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. His personal synthesis of n and s European traditions deeply affected European art. Dürer's album of woodcuts, The Apocalypse (1498), established him as a supreme graphic artist. His paintings include The Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506) and Four Apostles (1526), which reveal his preoccupation with Lutheranism.;

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