Albrecht Dürer – Poster boy of the German Renaissance

Germany * 1471-1528

Albrecht Dürer was born on 21 May 1471 in Neurenberg, Germany. His father was a goldsmith and young Dürer started his “career” working in his father’s workshop before being apprenticed to painter and engraver Michael Wolgemut between 1486-89. There he was given a wide range of tasks: the designs for stained glass windows, artefacts, carving wooden blocks for book illustrations, enabling him to acquire varied skills. Through copies he became acquainted with Dutch art and the works of the well-known German copper engraver Martin Schongauer.

In 1490 he starts a four-year long odyssey through Europe although the exact route remains unknown. From notes it is known that he visited Haarlem, The Netherlands, and Colmar, France. In the latter town he was keen to get to know Schongauer, but unfortunately he had died shortly before Dürer arrived. In Basel, Switzerland, he was tasked by book printer and publisher Johann Amerbach to produce wood cuts as illustrations for the “Komedies” (“Comedies”) of Terentius. It is understood that at the end of his travels, he met the “Hausbuchmeester” who taught him copper engraving and etching. Both the influence of Schongauer and Hausbuchmeester were clearly present in his early works.

In 1494 he married Agnes Frey, the daughter of a copper engraver, but the marriage remained childless. When the plague hit Neurenberg shortly after, he undertook his first trip to Italy, making plenty of watercolour paintings en-route. He travelled via Augsburg and Innsbruck over the Brenner Pass to Venice, where he met the Bellini brothers who served as inspiration as did Jacopo de Barbari, who made Dürer look deeper into the matter of proportion. He copied, studied and drew from Italian works.


Paumgartner Altar – Albrecht Dürer (1501-04)

Once returned to Nuerenberg he established his own engraving workshop. He developed his skills further and his 1500 self-portrait shows him as a confident young man, conscious of his individuality and ability. Unusual at the time, he signed his work with his initials AD.  At the workshop, he started a modest production of altar pieces for private customers with a preference for painted triptychs such as the Paumgartner Altar (1501-04), followed by his religious piece de resistance, the Heller Altar (1508-09).

In 1505 he undertakes a second trip to Italy to escape another outbreak of the plague, but returns to Neurenberg two years later. There he starts to move in humanist circles and becomes good friends with scientist Willibald Pirckheimer, who brings him work of foreign masters.

Albrecth durer-charlemagne

Emperor Charlemagne – Albrecht Dürer (1509)

Dürer also played a key role in Renaissance portraiture through works such as the portrait of Emperor Charlemagne (1509) and the two portraits of Emperor Maximilian. The same year he becomes a member of Neurenberg’s Great Council, an honour bestowed on eminent citizens.

From 1510 Dürer increasingly devotes his time to engravings and wood cuts with commissions important rulers at the time such as Emperor Maximillian, who tasked him with producing a humanist-allegorical cycle Triumphal Arch and the Large Triumphal Carriage. His body of engravings and wood cuts is considerable – he created around 350 wood cuts and more than 100 copper engravings and dry needle etchings as well as over 1000 drawings and water colours.


Emperor Maximillian’s Large Triumphal Carriage – Albrecht Dürer (1515)

In 1520 he started a journey through The Netherlands where he was received warmly and met key people such as the humanist Erasmus and the painters Lucas van Leyden, Jan Provost and Joachim Patenier. Several painted and engraved portraits followed, including one of his friend Willibald Pirckheimer (1524). Between 1523 and 1528 he wrote treaties “Lessons in measuring” and “Four books about proportion”.

His later work, the “Four Apostles” (1526), consisted of two parts and was finished a few years before his death, signalling his sympathies for the Reformation. Dürer died in his city of birth on 6 April 1528.