Art in Germany

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Art in Germany

During the Renaissance, the art of German-speaking lands was remarkably varied and inventive. Between 1400 and the late 1500s, printmaking and book publishing began in Germany, painting and sculpture rose to new artistic levels, and several German artists gained international fame. More than ever before, art became available and affordable to people at all levels of society. A simple woodcut* cost just pennies, and members of the growing merchant class adorned their homes with portraits and small collectible objects. They also filled their churches with statues, stained glass windows, and other works of art.


The German Style. The Renaissance did not take hold in most German-speaking lands until about 100 years after it began in Italy. Even then, German art maintained a strong link to the traditional Gothic* styles of the Middle Ages. German painters adopted elements of the Renaissance style in creating more realistic forms and using perspective*. However, the bright colors and the stiffness of the figures in their work show the lingering influence of Gothic art.

Most of the art in German-speaking countries was religious in nature. Religious images had two functions in society. First, they served as an aid to devotion, providing people with a focus for their faith. Second, religious art could reflect personal goals, both heavenly and earthly. For example, if a wealthy patron* donated an altarpiece to a church, the work might indicate the patron's desire for religious salvation. However, it would also remind other members of the community of the donor's prominent social or financial status.

Most German painters and sculptors limited their work to a specific city or region. Only a few of the biggest towns, such as Augsburg, Cologne, and NÜrnberg, could support a community of artists. Smaller communities looked to nearby market towns or to cities to find talented masters for important projects. At no point in the Renaissance was there a single German style. Instead, a rich variety of individual, local, and regional styles developed.


Influence of the Netherlands. Throughout the Renaissance, German art reflected the new styles that were developing in other parts of northern Europe. In the 1400s the art of the Netherlands had a particularly strong influence on Germany. The city of Cologne, located near the Netherlands, was an important religious and commercial center. The city attracted a large community of artists and emerged as a major art center that followed the Netherlandish style.

During the 1400s, the focus of art in Cologne shifted from architecture to painting. Although work on the cathedral and a few monasteries continued, the city's great age of church building was over. Now wealthy patrons in Cologne sought to decorate religious buildings as well as their own residences with new works of art, contributing to a great era of painting.

Like the artists of the Netherlands, painters in Cologne developed an increasingly naturalistic* style during the Renaissance. They combined this naturalism with soft lines and rich, intense colors. This expressive style of painting remained popular with masters in Cologne for a long time. The artistic ties between Cologne and the Netherlands became even stronger after the mid-1400s. The work of Flemish* painters such as Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden had a great influence on later generations of Cologne artists.

The impact of artistic styles from other parts of Europe could also be seen in German-speaking lands. In Hamburg, for example, one of the most noted painters of the late 1300s was an artist known as Master Bertram. He produced simple, heavyset figures that strongly reflected the art of Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic). During the 1400s this style gave way to the intensely emotional art of Master Francke, which reflected the new naturalistic style of northern Renaissance art. This style also spread to southern Germany, where it found favor with the influential painter and sculptor Hans Multscher.

In the mid-1400s, sculptor Nikolaus Gerhaert played a significant role in introducing northern Renaissance ideas into Germany. Originally from the city of Leiden in the Netherlands, Gerhaert worked in several German cities throughout his career. His carved figures are much more lifelike than those of earlier artists. Engravings based on Gerhaert's works helped spread his style far and wide.


Later Developments. By 1500 the cities of Nürnberg and Augsburg had become the liveliest centers of art in Germany. Painter and engraver Albrecht DÜrer, one of the most celebrated German artists of the Renaissance, helped bring fame to Nürnberg. More than any other artist, Dürer created a distinctly German Renaissance style that blended the qualities of Italian Renaissance art with the traditional Gothic art of northern Europe. Although a fine painter, Dürer became best known for his woodcuts and engravings, which reflect the many influences on German Renaissance art. The human body fascinated Dürer, and his figures are extremely realistic.

The other recognized master of the 1500s was painter Lucas Cranach. A close friend of religious reformer Martin Luther, Cranach became the first great artist of the Protestant Reformation*. His pictures combined themes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Reformation had a dramatic effect on art in Germany. It reduced the demand for new religious images, which many Protestants saw as idols. In Basel, the arts went into such a decline that the noted painter Hans Holbein the Younger left the city and moved to England. Other painters adapted to the times by switching to other art forms, such as portraits and landscapes.

In the years between about 1540 and 1580, Germany had very few artists of the stature of Dürer or Cranach, and patrons often brought foreign artists to Germany for major projects. However, by the late 1570s and 1580s a gifted new generation of German artists emerged. These artists, such as the sculptor Hubert Gerhard and painter Hans von Aachen, often worked alongside skilled masters from the Netherlands and Italy. The arts continued to flourish in Germany until the early 1600s, when wars and religious conflicts had a devastating effect on the region's artistic life.

(See alsoArchitecture; Art; Art in Central Europe; Art in Italy; Art in the Netherlands; Printing and Publishing; Wars of Religion. )

* woodcut

print made from a block of wood with an image carved into it

* Gothic

style of architecture characterized by pointed arches and high, thin walls supported by flying buttresses; also, artistic style marked by bright colors, elongated proportions, and intricate detail

* perspective

artistic technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

see color plate 12, vol. 1

* naturalistic

realistic, showing the world as it is without idealization

* Flemish

relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches