Albrecht Durer: German Renaissance Draughtsman, Engraver, Woodcutter and Painter

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The undisputed master of the woodcut, Albrecht Durer is one of the most celebrated Northern Renaissance painters and printmakers. Dürer’s etchings, engravings, and woodcut prints also contain exquisite detail and elaborate imagery drawing on religious and philosophical ideas. He turned his hand to many jobs. Durer was a painter, painter, illustrator, engraver, portraitist, and theoretical mathematician!


Self portrait of Albrecht Durer.

Albrecht Durer was born in the city of Nuremberg on March 21st, 1471, to Albrecht and Barbara Dürer. His father, a successful goldsmith, had moved to Nuremberg from Ajtós near Gyula in Hungary in 1455. He changed his surname from the Hungarian Ajtósi to its German translation Türer, meaning doormaker. Due to the local pronunciation, the family name eventually became established as Dürer.

Albrecht Durer started an apprenticeship in his father’s workshop at the age of 13. He showed exceptional talent as a draughtsman that aged fifteen, he apprentice under the painter Michael Wolgemut. He trained with him for three years, from 1486 to 1489.

Upon completing his apprenticeship to the printer-artist Wolgemut, Albrecht did not immediately start exercising his artistic profession. In 1490, he visited Germany and Northern Europe, meeting fellow printers and artists and studying engraving techniques.

He returned to Nuremberg in 1495 and set up his own workshop. He actually expanded the craft of producing illustrations for printing he raised printmaking into an art form. Towards the end of the century (1497-1500), Durer produced an impressive series of religious woodcuts.

Albrecht Durer Engravings

From woodcuts to engravings, Albrecht Durer excelled in producing intricate, richly detailed, suggestive engravings, many riddled with symbolism. He engraved many biblical scenes, such as “Adam and Eve,” signed and dated by the artist in the picture. Later engravings show the complete perfection of Durer’s art.

One of his most famous engravings is the intriguing “Knight, Death and the Devil,” full of medieval fascination. Light filtering through mottled glass windows shows us “Saint Jerome in his Cell.” Another well-known piece is “Melencolia” which is full of symbols, geometry. In 1513-1514, Durer produced the three engravings. It had a substantial impact on the art world and found fame as the Master Engravings.

Albrecht Durer Paintings

Albrecht Durer’s painting of rhino was so realistic that it was used in textbooks for a long time.

Influenced by the great art of the Italian Renaissance, he produced highly artistic drawings for woodblocks and woodcuts for printing. He set new standards for this art form, using techniques and styles he had seen in Italy. It contrasted strongly with traditional German styles.

Sixteen forceful pieces make up the “Apocalypse” series which he produced in 1498. It included the “Great Passion,” the “Holy Family and Saints,” the “Seven Sorrows Polyptych” and, later, the “Life of the Virgin” series. In 1496 he first used his distinctive monogram signature. He produced great art in this fertile period, including many Madonnas and several atmospheric landscapes. His fame spread rapidly.

Albrecht Durer made a trip to Italy in 1505, staying until 1507 and diversifying his artistic output. He produced altarpieces, portraits, and a series of paintings in tempera on linen.

Famous paintings from this period are the rich and sensitive “Adoration of the Magi,”. It reveals the various influences of his recent trip to Italy, and a curious oil-on-wood triptych painting, the Paumgartner altarpiece. 

Influence of his tours 

In 1506, commissioned by the German community of Venice, he created an altarpiece for the church of San Bartolomeo. The beautiful “Adoration of the Virgin,” is in Prague’s National Gallery.

Despite invitations to stay and work in Venice, Durer returned to Nuremberg. He continued to produce fine art, displaying his multiple talents in woodcutting, painting, engraving, printmaking, and portraiture. His drawing dating from 1508, the “Praying Hands” is a fine example of the artist’s extraordinary talent and enduring fame. In 1507, he produced Germany’s first full-scale nude painting: “Adam and Eve” (on two panels), elaborating on his 1504 engraving. Other famous Durer artworks include “Virgin with Iris” , the “Assumption of the Virgin” altarpiece, and the “Adoration of the Trinity” .

Durer wood cuttings

“Holding hands” was one of the best paintings by Albrecht Durer.

Although he delighted in painting pictures, in 1513, he went back to woodcutting and engraving. He saw it was more profitable than painting. 

Durer’s principal patron, was the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, who commissioned a woodcut print of mammoth proportions. A total of 195 separate woodblocks were prepared, and printing was on 36 vast sheets of paper. Under Maximilian’s patronage, Durer made many portraits of the Emperor. He also enhanced Maximilian’s personal printed prayer book with decorative images in the margins. A curiosity: in 1515, Durer created a life-like image of a rhinoceros based only on a written description. This picture is so powerfully realistic that science textbooks used right up until the last century.

Durer books

Albrecht Durer was not only an artist. He also wrote academic books on geometrical forms and proportions and even a book on fortifications. His “Four Books on Measurement” deals with geometry, from linear geometry to polygons or two-dimensional geometry. He explained the applications of geometry in architecture and typography and then combines science and art. The “Four Books on Human Proportion” give examples of different body types. The books also deal with human physiognomy and movement of the body.

Illness and final works

His final artwork ” The four Apostles.”

Durer had contracted an illness during his travels which affected his health and slowed down his artistic and intellectual production. On his return to Nuremberg in 1521, he embarked on several ambitious projects, preparing and compiling his theoretical works. He worked on geometry and proportion and a series of artworks with religious themes. Due to his declining health and his devoting time to geometry, his artistic output reduced in his last years. His final great painting, “The Four Apostles,” composed of two panels. Painted in 1526, it shows the four saints (John, Peter, Mark, Paul) beautifully robed and consulting heavy books. This was a gift from Durer to Nuremberg and can be seen in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. His last engravings were illustrations for his treatise and a few portraits.

Durer had been unwell for some time. He died in 1528 in Nuremberg, and buried in the cemetery of the church of Saint John. Without any children, he left everything to his wife: the grand house and a conspicuous amount of money. Durer had been among the ten wealthiest citizens of Nuremberg. He amply repaid his privileged state by leaving a rich artistic legacy to the city of Nuremberg and the world.

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