1902 Encyclopedia > Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer
German painter and engraver

ALBRECHT DURER, (1471-1528), was born at Nuremberg on the 21st of May 1471 ; he was therefore six years older than Titian and twelve years older than Raphael. In the history of art, Albert Dürer has a name equal to that of the greatest of the Italians. North of the Alps, his only peer was Holbein. But Holbein w as not born till 1497, and lived after 1525 principally in England ; hence in youth he came within the influence of the already matured arts of Italy, and in manhood his best powers were concentrated on the painting of portraits in a foreign country. Dürer lived a German among Germans, and is the true representative artist of the nation. All the qualities of his art—its combination of the wild and rugged with the homely and tender, its meditative depth, its enigmatic gloom, its sincerity and energy, its iron diligence and discipline—all these are qualities of the German spirit. And the hour at which Dürer arose to interpret that spirit in art was the most pregnant and critical in the whole history of his race. It was the hour of the Renaissance, of the transition between the Middle Ages and our own. The awakening of Germany of the Renaissance was not, like the other awakening of Italy at the same time, movement merely intellectual. It was, indeed, from Italy that the races of the North caught the impulse of intellectual freedom, the spirit of science and curiosity, the longing retrospect towards the classic past ;but joined with these, in Germany, was a moral impulse which was h er own, a craving after truth and right, a rebellion against tyranny and corruption, an assertion of spiritual independence—the Renaissance was big in the North, as it was not in the South, with a Reformation to come. Th art of printing was invented at the right time to help and hasten the new movement of men’s minds. Nor was it by the diffusion of written ideas only that the new art supplied the means of popular enlightenment. Along with word-printing, or indeed in advance of it, there had come into use another kind of printing, picture-printing, or what is commonly called engraving. Just as books, or word-printing, were the means of multiplying, cheapening, and disseminating ideas, so engravings, or picture-printing, were the means of multiplying, cheapening, and disseminating images which gave vividness to the ideas, or served, for those ignorant of letters, in their stead. Technically, the art of engraving was a development of the art of the goldsmith or metal-chaser. Between the art of the goldsmith and the art of the painter there had always been a close alliance, both being habitually exercised by persons of the same family, and sometimes by one and the same person ; so that there was no lack of hands ready trained, so to speak, for the new art which was a combination of the other two, and required of the man who practised it that he should design like a painter and cut metal like a goldsmith. The engraver on metal habitually cut his own designs ; whereas designs intended to be cut on wood were usually handed over to a class of workmen—Formschneider—especially devoted to that industry. Both kinds of engraving soon come to be in great demand. Independently of the illustration of written or printed books, separate engravings, or sets of engravings, were produced, and found a ready sale at the markets, fairs, and church-festivals of the land. Subjects of popular devotion predominated. Figures of the Virgin and child, of the apostles, the evangelists, the fathers of the church, the saints and martyrs, with illustration of sacred history and the Apocalypse, were supplied in endless repetition to satisfy the cravings of a pious and simple-minded people. But to these were quickly added subjects of allegory, subject of classical learning—confused mythologies of Hercules, Satyr, and Triton—subjects of witchcraft and superstition, subjects, of daily life, scenes of the parlour and the cloister, of the shop, the field, the market, and the camp; and lastly portraits of famous men, with scenes of court life and princely pageant and ceremony. The emperor Maximillian himself, chivalrous, adventurous, ostentatious, on fire with a hundred ambitions, and above all with the desire of popular fame, gave continual employment to the craftsmen of Augsburg and Nuremberg in designing and engraving processional and historical representations, which were destined to commemorate him to all time in his double character of imperial lawgiver and hero of romance. So the new art become the mirror, for all men to read, of all the life and thoughts of the age.

Self-Portrait (1500) by Albrecht Durer (image)

Self-Portrait (1500) by Albrecht Dürer.

Current location: Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

The genius of Albert Dürer cannot be rightly estimated without taking into account the position which the art of engraving thus held in the culture of his time. He was, indeed first of all a painter ; and though in his methods he was too scrupulous and laborious to produce many great works, and though one of his greatest, the assumption of the virgin, has been destroyed by fire, and another, the Feast of Rose-Garlands, has suffered irreparably between injury and repair, yet the painting which remain by his hand are sufficient to place him among the great masters of the world. He has every gift in art except the Greek and the Italian gift of beauty or ideal grace. In religious painting, he has profound earnestness and humanity, and an inexhaustible dramatic invention ; and the accessory landscape and scenery of his compositions are more richly conceived and better studied than by any painter before him. In portrait, he is equally master of the soul and body, rendering every detail of the human superficies with a microscopic fidelity, which nevertheless does not encumber or overlay the essential and inner character of the person represented. Still more if we judge him by his drawings and studies, of which a vast number are preserved in private as well as public collections, shall we realize his power in grasping and delineating natural fact and character, the combined gravity and minuteness of his style, the penetration of his eye, and the almost superhuman patience and accuracy of his line in drawing, whether from persons, animals plants, or landscape, whether with pen, pencil, charcoal, or (which was his favourite method) in colour with the point of the brush. But neither his paintings nor his drawings could by themselves have won for him the immense popular fame and authority which have been his own time to ours ; that fame and that authority are due to his pre-eminence in the most popular and democratic of the arts, that of which the works are accessible to the largest number, the art of engraving. In an age which drew a large part of its intellectual nourishment from engravings, Dürer furnished the most masterly examples both of the refined and elaborate art of the metal engraver, as well as the most striking inventions for the robust and simple art of the wood engraver.

The town of Nuremberg in Franconia, in the age of Dürer, was a home favourable to the growth and exercise of his powers. Of the free imperial cities of central Germany, none had a greater historic fame, none a more settled and patriotic, none was more the favourite of the emperors, none was the seat of a more active and the flourishing commerce. Nuremberg was the great mart for the merchandise that came to central Europe from the East through Venice and over the passes of the Tyrol. She held not only a close commercial intercourse, but also a close intellectual intercourse, with Italy. Without being so forward as the neighbour city of the Augsburg to embrace the architectural fashions of the Italian Renaissance,--nay, continuing to be profoundly imbued with the old German burgher spirit, and to wear, with an evidence which is almost unimpaired to this day, the old German civic aspect,--she had imported, before the close of the 15th century, much of the new learning of Italy, and numbered among her citizens a Willibald Pirkheimer, a Sebald Schreyer, a Hartmann Schedel, and others fit to hold a place in the first rank of European humanists. The life into which Albert Dürer was born was a grave, a devout, a law-loving, and a lettered life, in the midst of a community devoted to honourable commerce and honourable civic activities, proud of its past, of its wealth, proud of its liberties, proud of its art and ingenuities, and abounding in aspects of a quaint and picturesque dignity. His family was not of Nuremberg descent, but came from the village of Eytas in Hungary. The name, however, is German, and the family bearing—an open door—points to an original form of Thürer, meaning a maker of doors, or carpenter. Albrecht Dürer the elder was as goldsmith by trade, and settled soon after the middle of the 15th century in Nuremberg. He served as assistant under a master goldsmith of the city, Hieronymus Holper, and presently married his master’s daughter, Barbara. This was in 1468, the bridegroom being forty and the bride fifteen years of age. They had eighteen, of whom Albert was the second. The elder Dürer was an esteemed craftsman and citizen, sometimes, it seems straitened by the claims of his immense family, but living in virtue and honour to the end of his days. The accounts we have of him proceed from his illustrious son, who always speaks with the tenderest reverence and affection of both his parents, and has left a touching narrative of the deathbed of each. He painted the portrait of his father twice, once about 1490, the second time in 1497.The former of these two pieces is in the Uffizi at Florence ; the latter, well known by Hollar’s engraving, is the possession of the duke of Northumberland. A third "Portrait of his Father" by Dürer, in the gallery at Frankfort, is probably so called in error. The young Albert was his father’s favourite son. "My father," these are his own words, "took special delight in me. Seeing that I was industrious in working and learning, he put me to school; and when I had learned to read and write, he took me home from school and taught me the goldsmith’s trade." By-and-by the boy found himself drawn by preference from goldsmith’s work to painting ; and after some hesitation, his father at first opposing his wishes on the ground of the time already spent in learning the former trade, he was at the age of fifteen and a half apprenticed for three years to the principal painter of the town, Michael Wohlgemuth. Wohlgemuth furnishes a complete type of the German painter of that age. At the head of a large shop with numerous assistants, his business was to turn out, generally for a small price, devotional pieces commissioned by mercantile corporations or private to decorate their chapels in the churches,—the preference being usually for scenes of our Lord’s Passion, or tortures and martyrdoms of the saints. In work of this class, the painters of upper Germany before the Renaissance show considerable technical knowledge, and a love of rich and quaint costumes and of landscape, but in human part of their representations often a grim and debased exaggeration, transgressing all bounds in the grotesqueness of undersigned caricature. Wohlgemuth and his assistants also produced woodcuts for book illustration, and probably—though this is a vexed question—engravings on copper. In this school Dürer learnt much, by his own account, but suffered also not a little from the roughness of his companions. At the end of his term under Wohlgemuth, he entered upon the usual course, of travels—the Wanderjahre—of a German youth. The direction of these travels we cannot retrace with certainty. It had been at one time his father’s intention to apprentice him to Martin Schonagauer, of Colmar in Alsace, incomparably the most refined German painter and engraver of his time. To Colmar, among other places, Albert Dürer went in the in the course of his travels ; but Schongauer had already died there in 1488. We also hear of him at Strasburg. It is a moot point among biographers whether towards the end of his Wanderjahre—about the year 1494—the young Dürer did not cross the Alps to Venice. On the one hand it is argued that he did ; first, because, on the occasion of an undoubted visit to Venice in 1506, he speaks of admiring no longer that which he had vastly admired "eleven years before ;" secondly, because several careful drawings by his hand from the engravings of Mantegna and other Italian masters, bearing the date 1494, show that in this year he was making a special study of Italian art ; and thirdly, because he has left a number of coloured drawings of the scenery of Tyrol, such as he would have to traverse on the road between Bavaria and Venice, and these show a technical finish and minuteness of execution, characteristic of his studies at this early period but not later. Those who do not believe in this early visit to Venice reply, first, that the allusion interpreted as above in Dürer’s correspondence is too vague and uncertain, and that what Dürer, in 1506, had really "admired eleven years ago" was probably not the work of Venetians seen at Venice, but of a Venetian artist known as Jacopo de’ Barbari, or Jacob Walch, who resided about that time in Nuremberg, and who, we know, had a very considerable influence on the art of Dürer ; secondly, that the prints of Mantegna and other Italians, undoubtedly copied by Dürer in 1494, may very well have been brought to Germany with other wares on sale from Venice or have been shown him by the same Jacopo de’ Barbari ; and thirdly, that other landscapes, bearing the date of 1506 or later dates, do in fact show the date of 1606 or later as those which are assigned, by the other side in the argument, to 1494.The question will probably remain open to the end. With reference, however, to the third head of the argument, the character of Dürer’s early landscape work, it has not been sufficiently observed that his ideal of scenery shows itself fully formed and developed by the time of the publication of his Apocalypse woodcuts and his earliest engravings on copper, that is, about the year 1497 ; that this ideal background, of a lake with castled and wooded headlands sloping down from either side, and sloops afloat in the distance, is taken not from the neigbourhood of Nuremberg but from the northern borders of Tyrol—it is the scenery, not of the banks of the Pegnitz nor even the Danube, but rather of the Würmsee or the Tegernsee ; that to the alps and lakes, therefore, of the Northern Tyrol, whether on his way to Venice or otherwise, Dürer must certainly have come during these travels of his youth.

At the end of May 1494, being twenty-three years old, Albert Dürer returned, at his fathers’ summons, to his native Nuremberg, and within two months was married to Agnes, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant of the town named Hans Frey. It is probable that the marriage had been arranged between Hans Frey and the elder Dürer while Albert was on his travels ;and possible that a portrait of the young painter very richly habited, executed by himself in the previous year 1493, and showing him in the first bloom of that admirable manly, beauty for which he was afterwards renowned, may have been destined to recommend him to the good graces of the lady. Their marriage was childless. Agnes survived her husband. The petulance of an old friend of her husband’s has unsjustly blackened her reputation. Her name has for centuries been used to point a moral, and among the unworthy mates of great men the wife of Dürer was as notorious as the wife of Socrates. The origin of this tradition must be sought in a letter written a few years Dürer’s death by his close friend and life-long companion, Willibald Pirkheimer, in which Pirkheimer accuses Agnes of having plagued her husband to death with her persimonious ways, of having made him over-work himself for money’s sake, of having given his latter days no peace. But a closer study of facts and documents shows that there is not a jot of evidence to support these splenetic charges. Pirkheimer, when he made them, was old, broken with gout, and disgusted with the world, and the immediate occasion of his outbreak was a fit of peevishness against the widow because she had not let him have a pair of antlers—a household ornament much prized in those days—to which he fancied himself entitled out of ht property left by Dürer. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence of the close confidence and companionship that subsisted between Dürer and his wife ; she accompanied him on his journey to the Low Countries in 1521 ; after his death she behaved with peculiar generously to his brothers ; it is perfectly probable that Dürer had in her a kind and beloved as well as a careful partner ; the old legend of his sufferings at her hands must be regarded as completely discredited. So far from being forced to toil for money to the end, he died well off, though he had in his latter years occupied himself more and more with unremunerative pursuits—with the theoretical studies of Perspective, Geometry, Fortification, Proportion, for which he shared the passion of Leonardo, and on which, like Leonardo, he has left treatises.

For more than eleven years after his marriage, Dürer lived at Nuremberg the settled and industrious life of his profession. Within this period his masterly powers unfolfed and matured themselves. Two important devotional pictures are attributed to his early practice ; one a large triptych painted in tempera on linen, now in the gallery at Dresden, the other also an altar-piece with wings, now in the summer palace of the archbishop of Vienna at Over St Veit ; both probably painted for the Elector Frederick of Saxony. These pictures have been executed, like those of Wohlgemuth, hastily, and with the help of pupils. (Of painters trained in the school of Dürer, we know the names and characters of Schaüfelein, Springinklee, Hans Baldung Grün, and Hans of Culmbach). A finer, and somewhat later, example of the master’s work in this class is the altar-piece painted for the family of Baumgartner, having a Birth of Christ in the centre and the figure of a knight on either side ; this is now at Munich. The best of Dürer’s energies both of mind and hand, must been given in these days to the preparation of his sixteen great woodcut designs for the Apocalypse. The first edition illustrated with this series appeared in 1498. The Northern mind had long dwelt with eagerness on these mysteries of things to come, and among the earliest block-books printed in Germany is an edition of the Apocalypse with rude figures. But Dürer not only transcends all efforts made before him in the representation of these strange promises, terrors, and transformations, these thaumaturgic visions of doom and redemption ; the passionate energy and undismayed simplicity of his imagination enable him, in this order of creations, to touch the highest point of human achievement. The four angles keeping back the winds that they blow not ; the four riders ; the loosing of the angels of the Euphrates to slay the third part of men; these and others are conceptions of such force, such grave or tempestuous grandeur in the midst of grotequeness, as the art of no other age or hand has produced. At the same time, Dürer was practising himself diligently in the laborious art of copper engraving. In the years immediately about or preceding 1500, he produced a number of plates of which the subjects are generally fanciful and allegorical, and the execution is more or less tentative and uncertain. Of several of these, other verseion exist by contemporary masters, and it is disputed in most of such cases whether Dürer’s version is the original, or whether, being at that time young and comparatively unknown, he did not rather begin by copying the work of older men ; in which case, the original of such engraving would have to be sought in versions bearing other signatures than Dürer’s. One signature of frequent occurrence on German engravings of this time, and among them, on several subjects which are also repeated by Dürer’s hand, is the letter W. As to the identity of this W, criticism is much divided. He has been generally identified with one Wenzel of Olmütz, whom we know to have engraved copies after Martin Schongauer and other masters. Others, again, attribute some at least of the prints signed W to Dürer’s teacher Wohlgemuth, and when the same composition is found engraved by each of the two masters, conclude that the younger has copied the work of the elder. Instances are the subjects of the Four Naked Women with Death and the Fiend ; the Old Man’s Dream of Love ; the Virgin and Child with the Ape, &c. The question is difficult to decide. It seems certain that the work of several different hands is signed with this same initial W ; and we are of those who hold that, of the engravers so signing, one, whether Wohlgemuth or not, is a very accomplished master, whose work Dürer, until near the age of thirty, was in the habit of occasionally copying. From another master, again, whose name we have already mentioned, the half Venetian half German Jacopo de’ Barbari, Dürer learned much. The Italians had already begun to work out a science of the human structure and of ideal proportions ; and from Jacopo de’ Barbari, as Dürer himself tells us, he received in youth the first hints of this science ; which he subsequently investigated for himself with his usual persistent industry. These early notions received from Jacopo de’ Barbari led to one immediate result of value, the famous engraving of Adam and Eve published in 1504. The figures here, as we can see by many preparatory sketches, are planned on geometrical principles, not drawn—as was the common German custom, and Dürer’s own in a large majority of his works—direct from the model, with all the crudities of the original faithfully delineated. The background of foliage and animals is a miracle of rich invention and faithful and brilliant execution ; the full powers of Dürer as an engraver on copper are here for the first time asserted. In another elaborate engraving which probably soon followed this—the Great Fortune or Nemesis—the opposite principles is observed ; above a mountain valley, of which every detail is rendered in bird’s eye view rich amazing completeness, an allegorical figure of a woman rides upright upon the clouds, bearing a cup in one hand and a bridle in the other ; in her countenance and proportions there is nothing ideal, there is the most literal and graceless commonness. In his own journals Dürer calls this plate Nemesis ; has been conjectured that the piece was composed in allusion to the unfortunate expedition sent by the emperor Maximilian to Switzerland, in which a number of Nuremberg citizens took part, with Pirkheimer at their head. In the meantime Dürer had been variously exercising his inexhaustible power of dramatic invention on the subjects of Christian story. He had completed the set of drawings of the Passion of Christ, in which on a green ground, which is known as the Green Passion, and forms one of the treasures of the Albertina at Vienna. He had followed up his great woodcut series of ht Apocalypse with preparations for other series on a similar scale, and had finished seven out of twelve subjects for the set known as the Great Passion, and sixteen out of twenty for the Life of the Virgin, when his work was interrupted by a journey which is one of the principal episodes in his life. In the autumn of the year 1505 he went to Venice, and stayed there until the autumn of the following year.

A Young Hare (by Albrecht Durer) (image)

A Young Hare (1502) by Albrecht Dürer.

The occasion of this journey has been erroneously stated by Vasari. Dürer’s engravings, having by this time attained a great popularity both north and south of the Alps, had begun to be copied by various hands, and among others by the celebrated Marcantonio of Bologna, then in his youth. According to Vasari, Marcantonio, in copying Dürer’s series of the Little Passion on Wood, had imitated the original monogram, and Dürer, indignant at this fraud, set out for Italy in order to protect his rights, and having lodges a complaint against Marcantonio before the signory of Venice, carried his point so far that Marcantonio was forbidden in future to add the monogram of Dürer to copies taken after his works. This account will not bear examination. Chronological and other proofs show that if such a suit was fought at all, it must have been in connection with another set of Dürer’s woodcuts, the first sixteen of the Great Passion on Wood. Dürer himself, a number of whose familiar letters written from Venice to his friend Pirkheimer at Nuremberg are preserved, makes no mention of anything of the kind. Nevertheless something of the kind may probably have been among the causes which determined his journey. Other causes, of which we have explicit record, were an outbreak of sickness at Nuremberg ; Dürer’s desire, which in fact was realized, of finding a good market for the proceeds of his art ; and the prospect, also realized, of a commission for an important picture from the German community settled at Venice, who had lately caused an exchange and warehouse—the Fondaco de’ Tedeschi—to be built on the Grand Canal, and who were now desirous to dedicate a picture in the church of St Bartholomew. The picture painted by Dürer on this commission was the Adoration of the Virgin, better known as the Feast of Rose-Garlands ; it was subsequently acquired by the emperor Rudolf II., and carried as a thing beyond price upon men’s shoulders to Vienna ; it now exists in a greatly injured state in the monastery of strachow, near Prague. It is one of Dürer best conceived and most multitudinous compositions, and one in which he aims at rivalling the richness and playfulness of Italian art. Other pictures probably painted by him at Venice are Christ disputing with the Doctors, now in the Palazzo Barberini at Rome, Christ Crucified, in the gallery at Dresden, and a Madonna and Child in the possession of Lord Lothian. These works of the German master were not without influence upon the Italian painters resident at Venice, an influence which we can distinctly trace in some of the early works of Titian. Dürer’s letters testify to the high position he held at Venice, and speak of the jealously shown towards him by some of the meaner sort of artists, the friendship and courtesy by the nobler sort, and especially by the noblest of all, the veteran Giovanni Bellini. He by the noblest of all, the veteran Giovanni Bellini. He talks of the honour and wealth in which he might live if he would consent to abandon home for Italy, of the Northern winter, and how it will make him shiver. Yet he resisted the seductions of the South, and was in Nuremberg again before the close of 1506. First, it seems he had made an execursion to Bologna, having intended to take Mantua on the way, in order to do homage to the old age of that Italian master, Andrea Mantegna, form whom he had himself in youth learnt the most. But the death of Mantegna prevented this purpose.

From the winter of 1506 until the summer of 1520, Dürer was again a settled resident in his native town. During these years his genius and his fortunes were at their height. Except the dazzling existence of Raphael at Rome, the annals of art present the spectacle of no more honorable or more enviable career. Dürer’s fame had spread all over Europe. From Antwerp to Rome his greatness was acknowledged, and artists of less invention, among them some of the foremost on both sides of the Alps, were not ashamed to borrow from his work this or that striking combination or expressive type. He was on terms of friendship or friendly communication with all the first masters of the age, and Raphael held himself honoured in exchanging drawings with Dürer. In his own country, all orders of men, from the emperor Maximilian down, delighted to honour him ; he was the familiar companion of chosen spirits among statesmen, humanists, and reformers, and had the power to bind himself with the links of a more than brotherly friendship the leading citizen of the leading city of Germany Willibald Pirkheimer. His temper and his life were singularly free from all that was jarring, jealous, or fretful. The burgher life of even this, the noblest German city, seems narrow, quaint, and harsh beside the grace and opulence and poetry of Italian life in the same and the preceding generation ; but among its native surroundings, the career of Dürer stands out with an aspect of ideal elevation and decorum which is its own. He is even distinguished from his fellow citizens by the stately beauty of his aspect and the rich elegance of his attire. Every reader will be familiar with the portrait in which he has represented himself at this middle period of life—the nobly formed oval counternance, with the short beard, and the long carefully divided locks curled and flowing over either shoulder, the upright brow, the stedfast penetrating gaze of the large perfectly cut eyes, the long nose somewhat aquiline, and full perfectly cloven mouth, the strong delicate fingers playing with the rich fur lappest of his cloak.

These years of Dürer’s life can best be divided according to the several classes of work with which, during their succession, he was principally occupied. During and after his residence at Venice, he had come to disuse the traditional German practice of painting with the help of a whole school of assistants and apprentices. The first six years after his return, from 1506 to 1512, are pre-eminently the painting years of his life ; in them, working with infinite preliminary pains, and, as it seems almost entirely with his own hands, he produced what are accounted his four capital works—the Adam and Eve, painted in 1507 ; of this it has been disputed whether a version at Madrid or one in the Pitti Palace at Florence is the original ; the Ten Thousand Martyrs of Nicomedia, painted for the elector Frederick of Saxony in 1508, and now in the imperial gallery at Vienna ; a rich altar-piece representing the Assumption of the Virgin, with portraits of the donor and his wife and other accessory subjects, executed for Jacob Heller a merchant of Frankfort, in 1509—this was afterwards replaced, at Frankfort, by a copy, and the original transported to Munich, where it perished by fire in 1674 ; and lastly the Adoration of the Trinity by all the Saints, a composition of many figures commissioned for a chapel dedicated to All Saints in an almshouse for decayed tradesmen at Nuremberg, and completed in 1511—this is now one of the glories of the Belvedere at Vienna. In this same year, 151, Dürer brought out his three great woodcut books in folio form together—the Apocalypse in a second edition, the Great Passion, and the Life of the Virgin for the first time complete. In 1512, he painted two pictures for his native town, the historical portraits of Charlemagne and the emperor Sigismund, which are now to be seen in the Germanic Museum of Nuremberg. The two or three years next following this are for Dürer years, above all things, of engraving on metal. Of the sixteen composing the Little Passion on Copper, perhaps the best invented and certainly the most brilliantly executed of all his gospel histories, ten were executed in 1512 and the last six in 1513. Of the many devotional figures of the Virgin and Child cut on copper by Dürer at various times of his career, several of the most pathetic and carefully finished date from about the same time. Now, also, he began to repeat with greater persistency the experiment, which he had first tried some years before, of working by the method, then newly invented, of the etcher ; that is, of biting the lines of his drawing with acid upon metal instead of cutting them with the burn. And these, again, are the years of those three master-pieces of his mind and hand, the Melancholia, the Knight with Death and the Devil, and the St Jerome reading in his Cell. These engravings are too well known to need description. The first two, by their earnest and enigmatic significance, have fascinated minds of every class, and given rise to an infinity of discussion. It is nearly certain that in these three plates, of almost the same size, date, and manner, and of equal technical perfection, we have three our of four projected illustrations of the Human Temperaments, as they were divided by mediaeval science—the Melancholic, the Sanguine, the Phlegmatic, and the Choleric. Melancholy being intended to stand at the head of the series (although it is dated 1513, and the Knight 1512), has the numeral I. written after the name Melancholia the wingled genius, in whom the qualities of this temperament are incarnated, is seated darkly musing among symbolic instruments of science. She seems an incarnation of the new spirit of the age, the spirit of solemn and resolute search. The subject of the Knight, being intended to illustrate the sanguine temperament, has the initial S written in the corner. To some students this stedfast rider has seemed a type of the righteous man undismayed by the powers of darkness that beset him, to others of the evil man whom fate and retribution are about to overtake at last. Some have read the initial S as designating one one of the first soldiers of the Reformation, Franz von Sickengen ; other as designating one of the most infamous of robber nobles, Sparnecker. But indeed the subject is not thus definitely to be interpreted in either sense ; the piece is but one, and the most pregnant and impressive, interpret it how you will, of the thousand emblems with which the Northern imagination in this age commemorated the power of Death , and proclaimed how he is for ever dogging at the heels of strong and weak, the just man and the unjust alike. St Jerome, the Father of the church to whom Renaissance Christianity turned with the greatest devotion, and whom the labours of Erasmus had made familiar in especial to the humanists of the North, serves as the natural type of the Phlegmatic or student temperament. No fourth subject seems to have been attempted to complete the set. The reason of this may have been the call which at this time began to be made on Dürer’s industry by another kind of work. The five years between 1514 and 1519 are devoted above all things to woodcut work, on commission from the emperor Maximilian, who had resided for some time at Nuremberg in 1512, and whose personal favour and friendship Dürer from that time enjoyed. With the learned co-operation of Johannes Stabius, he presently commenced a scheme of design for wood engraving in honour of Maximilian more vast and laborious than either Burgkmair’s schemes of illustration to the Weisskunig or Schäufelein’s to the Theuerdank. This is the prodigious work known as the Gate of Honour ; on it, and on the Car of Honour, and on portions of the Triumphal Procession, all of which belonged to the same great scheme (other portions of the Procession being the work of Burgkmair) Dürer was chiefly engaged for four or five years. One of the most delightful memorials of his activity in the service of the emperor is the famous Prayer-Book of Maximilian, a volume decorated by Dürer’s hand with marginal arabesques of an inexhaustibly quaint and various invention, this is now preserved at Munich, and is known by more than one modern edition published in facsimile. His few paintings remaining from this period show a manifest falling off in labour and completeness from those of the period just preceding. In 1518 the Diet Augsburg brought Maximilian to that city, and there Dürer was in attendance on him. A noble portrait drawn in charcoal, and subsequently used for an engraving in wood, carries a note in the artist’s handwriting to the effect that it was done from the emperor at Augsburg "in his little room up at the top in the palace."

In 1519 Maximilian died. In the next year the desire of Dürer to secure from his successors a continuance of the patronage and privileges granted during his lifetime, together with an outbreak of sickness in Nuremberg, gave occasion to the master’s third and last journey from his home. On the 12th of July 1520 he set out for the Netherlands, with his maid, in orde r to be present at the coronation of the young emperor Charles V., and if possible to conciliate the good graces of the all powerful regent Margaret. In the latter part of his aim Dürer was but partially successful. His diary of his travels enables us to follow his movements almost day by day. He travelled by the Rhine to Cologne, and thence by road to Antwerp, where he was splendidly received and lived in whatever society was most distinguished, including that of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Many portraits drawings of persons who set to him in these days are preserved. Besides going to Aachen for the coronation, he made excursions down the Rhine from Cologne to Nimeguen, and back overland by Herzogenbusch ; to Brussels ; to Bruges and Ghent ; and to Zealand with the object of seeing a natural curiosity, a whale reported ashore. The vivid account of this last expedition given in his diary contrasts with the usual dry entries of interviews and disbursements. A still more striking contrast is the passionate outburst of sympathy and indignation with which, in the same diary, he commands on the supposed kidna pping of Luther by foul play on his return from the Diet of Worms. Without being one of those who in his city took an avowed part against the old ecclesiastical system, and probably without seeing clearly whither the religious ferment of the time was tending—without, that is, being properly speaking a Reformer—Dürer in his art and his thoughts was the incarnation of those qualities of the Teutonic character and the Teutonic conscience which resulted the Reformation ; and personally, with the fathers of the Reformation he lived in the warmest sympathy.

On the 12th of July 1521 Dürer reached home again. The remaining seven years of his life were occupied chiefly with the preparation of the scientific writings of which we have already spoken ; with engraving on copper, in a style of consummate care and power, several portraits of his friends, among them the elector Frederick, Pirkheimer, Erasmus, and Melanchthon ; and with the execution of those two paintings by which, perhaps, his powers in this highest branch of his art are best known, the figures of St Mark and St John with Peter. These are now in the Munich gallery, and exhibit at their greatest Dürer’s earnest and pregnant conception of character, with a majesty in the types and a grandeur in the gesture and drapery which in his earlier career he had never yet attained. Each apostle or evangelist represents a "temperament,"—John the melancholic, Peter the phlegmatic, Paul the sanguine and Mark the choleric ; and it is characteristic of Dürer’s thought that Peter is put in the background ,studying off a book held open by John, the favourite evangelist of the Reformation and of Luther ; in this representation of John some have recognized the features of Melanchthon; its likeness to the poet Schiller is a coincidence much more obvious. These various classes of work were carried on in the face of failing health. In the canals of the Low Countries Dürer had caught a fever, of which he never shook off the effects. The evidence of this we have in his own written words, as well as in a sketch which he drew to indicate to some doctor with whom he was in correspondence the seat of his suffering ; and again, in the record of his physical aspect—the shoulders already somewhat bent, the features somewhat gaunt, the old pride of the abundant locks shorn away—which is preserved in a portrait engraved on wood just after his death, from a drawing made no doubt not long previously. That death came suddenly, so suddenly that there was no time to call his dearest friends to his bedside, on the night of the 6th of April 1528. Dürer was buried in the vault belonging to his wife’s family, but since disturbed, in the burying ground of St John at Nuremberg. He left a name that will be honoured by the latest posterity, and a place that nothing could fill in the affections of is noblest contemporaries. This is the grave and feeling Requiescat of Luther, in a letter written to their common frien, Eoban Hesse:—: "As for Dürer, assuredly affection bids us mourn for one who was the best of men, yet you may well hold him happy that he has made so good an end, and that Christ has taken him from the midst of this time of troubles, and from yet greater troubles in store, lest he, that deserved to behold nothing but the best, should be compelled to behold the worst. Therefore may he rest in peace with his fathers : Amen."

The principal extant paintings of Dürer, with the places where they are to be found, have been mentioned above. Of his drawings, by far the richest collection is in the Albertina Palace at Vienna ; the next richest is probably that of the British Museum where a large volume, forming part of Lord Arundel’s collection, is preserved. By the acquisition of the Posonyi-Hullot collection, the Berlin Museum has now (1877) taken certainly the third place. The Louvre also possesses some good examples, and many others are dispersed in various public collections, as at Munich, Hamburg, Bremen, Basel, Milan, and Florence, as well as in private hands all over Europe.

The principal editions of Dürer’s theoretical writings are these:—

GEOMETRY AND PERSPECTIVE.—Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt, in Linien, Ebnen und ganzen Corporen, Nuremberg, 1525. A Latin translation of the same with a long title, Paris, Weichel, 1532, and another ed. In 1555. Again in Latin, with the title Institutionum geometricarum libri quatuor, Arnheim, 1605.

FORTIFICATION.—Etliche Underricht zur Befestigung der Scholoss, Stadt, und Flecken, Nuremberg, 1527, and other editions in 1530 and 1538. A Latin translation, with the title De urbibus, arcibus, castellisque muniendis ac condendis, Paris, Weichel, 1535.

HUMAN PROPORTION.—Hierin sind begriffen vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion, Nuremberg, 1548. Latin translation ; De Symtria partium in rectis formis humanorum corporum libri in latinum conversi, de varietate figurarum, &c., libri II., Nuremberg, 1532.

The private literary remains of Dürer, his diary, letters, &c., were first published, partially in Von Murr’s Journal zur Kunst-geschichte, Nuremberg, 1785-1787 ; afterwards, in Campe’s Reliquien von A. Dürer, Nuremberg, 1827 ; and again, carefully edited by Professor Moritz Thausing, in the Quellenschriften für Kunstgeschichte und Kunsttechnik, Vienna, 1872.

The principal remaining literature of the subject will be found in the following books and treatises, the elaborate monograph of Professor Thausing being the latest, and by far the fullest and most ingenious of them all:—Neudörfer, Johann, Schreib-und Rechenmeister zu Nürnberg, Nachrichten über Künstlern und Werkleuten daselbst, Nuremberg, 1547 ; republished in the Vienna Quellenschrift, 1875 ; Scheurl, Chr., Vita Antonii Kressen, 1515, reprinted in the collection of Pirkheimer’s works, Frankfort, 1610 : Wimpheling, Epitome rerum Germanicarum, ch. 68, Strassburg, 1565 ; Sandrart, Joachim von, Deutsche Academie, Nuremberg,1675 ; Doppelmayr, Historische Nachricht von den Nürnbergischen Mathematicis und Künstlern, Nuremberg, 1730 ; Von Murr, Chr. G., Journal zur Kunstgeschichte, as above ; Bartsch, Adam, Le Peintre-Graveur, vol. vii. Vienna, 1808 ; Passavant, J. P., Le Peintre-Graveur, vol. iii. Leipzig, 1842 ; Roth, J. F., Leben Albrecht Dürer’s, Leipzig, 1791 ; Heller, Das Leben und die Werke Albrecht Dürers, vol. ii., Bamberg, 1827-1831; Von Eye, Dr A., Leben und Werken Albrecht Dürer’s. 2d ed., Nördlingen ; Haussmann, A., Dürer’s Kupferstiche, Rodirungen, Holzeschnitte und Zeichnungen, Hanover, 1861 ; Von Zahn, A Dürer’s Kunstlehre, Leipzig, 1866 ; Allihn, Max., Dürer-Studien, Leipzig, 1871 ; Nagler, G. V., Albrecht Dürer und seine Kunst, Munich, 1827 ; Rettberg, R. von, Nürnberg’s Kunstleben, Stuttgart, 1854 ; Rettberg, R. von Dürer’s Kupferstiche und Holzschnitte, Munich, 1876 ; Heaton, Mrs Charles, The History of the Life of Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, London, 1872 ; Scott, W. B., Albrecht Dürer, his Life and Works, London, 1872; Thausing, Prof. Moritz, Dürer, Geschichte seines Lebens und seiner Kunst, Leipzig, 1876 ; W. Schmidt in Dohme’s Kunst und Künstler des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit, Leipzig, 1877 ; Ceuvres de Albert Dürer reproduit et publié par Amand-Durand, texte par Georges Duplessis, Paris, 1877. (S. C.)

The above article was written by Prof. Sidney Colvin, M.A.; Keeper of Prints and Drawings, British Museum from 1884; Slade Professor of Fine Art, Cambridge, 1873-85; edited the Edinburgh edition of R. L. Stevenson's works, Letters of R. L. Stevenson, and History of Painting, from the German of Woltmann and Woermann.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-16 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries