1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dürer, Albrecht
Dürer, Albrecht (1471–1528), German painter, draughtsman and engraver, was born at Nuremberg on the 21st of May 1471. His family was not of Nuremberg descent, but came from the village of Eytas in Hungary. The name, however, is German, and the family device—an open door—points to an original form Thürer, meaning a maker of doors or carpenter. Albrecht Dürer the elder was a 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 in 1468 married his master's daughter Barbara, the bridegroom being forty and the bride fifteen years of age. They had eighteen children, of whom Albrecht was the second. The elder Dürer was an esteemed craftsman and pious citizen, sometimes, as was natural, straitened in means by the pressure of his numerous progeny. His famous son writes with reverence and affection of both parents, and has left a touching narrative of their death-bed hours. He painted the portrait of his father twice, first in 1490, next in 1497. The former of these is in the Uffizi at Florence; of the latter, four versions exist, that in the National Gallery (formerly in the Ashburton-Northampton collections) having the best claim to originality.
The young Albrecht was his father's favourite son. “My father,” he writes, “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; his father, after some hesitation on the score of the time already spent in learning the former trade, gave way and apprenticed him for three years, at the age of fifteen and a half, to the principal painter of the town, Michael Wolgemut. Wolgemut furnishes a complete type of the German painter of that age. At the head of a large shop with many assistants, his business was to turn out, generally for a small price, devotional pieces commissioned by mercantile corporations or private persons to decorate their Chapels in the churches—the preference being usually for scenes of the Passion, or for tortures and martyrdoms of the saints. In such work the painters of Upper Germany at this time, working in the spirit of the late Gothic style just before the dawn of the Renaissance, show considerable technical attainments, with a love of quaint costumes and rich draperies crumpled in complicated angular folds, some feeling for romance in landscape backgrounds, none at all for clearness or balance in composition, and in the attitudes and expressions of their overcrowded figures a degree of grotesqueness and exaggeration amounting often to undesigned caricature. There were also produced in the workshop of Wolgemut, as in that of other artist-craftsmen of his town, a great number of woodcuts for book illustration. We cannot with certainty identify any of these as being by the 'prentice hand of the young Dürer. Authentic drawings done by him in boyhood, however, exist, including one in silver-point of his own likeness at the age of thirteen in the Albertina at Vienna, and others of two or three years later in the print room at Berlin, at the British Museum and at Bremen.
In the school of Wolgemut Dürer learned much, by his own account, but suffered not a little from the roughness of his companions. At the end of his apprenticeship in 1490 he entered upon the usual course of travels—the Wanderjahre—of a German youth. Their direction we cannot retrace with certainty. There had been no one at Nuremberg skilled enough in the art of metal-engraving to teach it him to much purpose, and it had at one time been his father's intention to apprentice him to Martin Schongauer of Colmar, the most refined and accomplished German painter-engraver of his time. But after travelling two years in various parts of Germany, where we are unable to follow him, the young Dürer arrived at Colmar in 1492, only to find that Schongauer had died the previous year. He was received kindly by three brothers of the deceased master established there, and afterwards, still in 1492, by a fourth brother at Basel. Under them he evidently had some practice both in metal engraving and in furnishing designs for the woodcutter. There is in the museum at Basel a wood-block of St Jerome executed by him and elaborately signed on the back with his name. This was used in an edition of Jerome's letters printed in the same city in the same year, 1492. Some critics also maintain that his hand is to be recognized in several series of small blocks done about the same date or somewhat later for Bergmann and other printers of Basel, some of them being illustrations to Terence (which were never printed), some to the romance of the Ritter vom Turm, and some to the Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brandt. But the prevailing opinion is against this conjecture, and sees in these designs the work not of a strenuous student and searcher such as Dürer was, but of a riper and more facile hand working in a spirit of settled routine. Whether the young Dürer's stay at Basel was long or short, or whether, as has been supposed, he travelled from there into the Low Countries, it is certain that in the early part of 1494 he was working at Strassburg, and returned to his home at Nuremberg immediately after Whitsuntide in that year. Of works certainly executed by him during his years of travel there are extant, besides the Basel wood-block, only a much-injured portrait of himself, very finely dressed and in the first bloom of his admirable manly beauty, dated 1493 and originally painted on vellum but since transferred to canvas (this is the portrait of the Felix Goldschmid collection); a miniature painting on vellum at Vienna (a small figure of the Child-Christ); and some half a dozen drawings, of which the most important are the characteristic pen portrait of himself at Erlangen, with a Holy Family on the reverse much in the manner of Schongauer; another Holy Family in nearly the same style at Berlin; a study from the female nude in the Bonnat collection; a man and woman on horseback in Berlin; a man on horseback, and an executioner about to behead a young man, at the British Museum, &c. These drawings all show Dürer intent above all things on the sternly accurate delineation of ungeneralized individual forms by means of strongly accented outline and shadings curved, somewhat like the shadings of Martin Schongauer’s engravings, so as to follow their modellings and roundness.
Within a few weeks of his return (July 7th, 1494) Dürer was married, according to an arrangement apparently made between the parents during his absence, to Agnes Frey, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant of the city. By the autumn of the same year, probably feeling the incompleteness of the artistic training that could be obtained north of the Alps, he must have taken advantage of some opportunity, we know not what, to make an excursion of some months to Italy, leaving his lately married wife at Nuremberg. The evidences of this travel (which are really incontestable, though a small minority of critics still decline to admit them) consist of (1) some fine drawings, three of them dated 1494 and others undated, but plainly of the same time, in which Dürer has copied, or rather boldly translated into his own Gothic and German style, two famous engravings by Mantegna, a number of the “Tarocchi” prints of single figures which pass erroneously under that master’s name, and one by yet another minor master of the North-Italian school; with another drawing dated 1495 and plainly copied from a lost original by Antonio Pollaiuolo, and yet another of an infant Christ copied in 1495 from Lorenzo di Credi, from whom also Dürer took a motive for the composition of one of his earliest Madonnas; (2) several landscape drawings done in the passes of Tirol and the Trentino, which technically will not fit in with any other period of his work, and furnish a clear record of his having crossed the Alps about this date; (3) two or three drawings of the costumes of Venetian courtesans, which he could not have made anywhere but in Venice itself, and one of which is used in his great woodcut Apocalypse series of 1498; (4) a general preoccupation which he shows for some years from this date with the problems of the female nude, treated in a manner for which Italy only could have set him the example; and (5) the clear implication contained in a letter written from Venice in 1506 that he had been there already eleven years before; when things, he says, pleased him much which at the time of writing please him no more. Some time in 1495 Dürer must have returned from this first Italian journey to his home in Nuremberg, where he seems to have lived, without further change or removal, in the active practice of his art for the next ten years.
The hour when Dürer, the typical artist of the German nation, attained maturity was one of the most pregnant in the history of his race. It was the crisis, in northern Europe, of the transition between the middle ages and our own. The awakening of Germany at the Renaissance was not, like the awakening of Italy a generation or two earlier, a movement almost exclusively 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 eager retrospect towards the classic past; but joined with these in Germany was a moral impulse which was her own, a craving after truth and right, a rebellion against spiritual tyranny and corruption—the Renaissance was big in the north, as it was not in the south, with a Reformation to come. The art of printing had been invented in good 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 sprung into use another kind of printing, picture-printing, or what is commonly called engraving. Just as books were the means of multiplying, cheapening and disseminating ideas, so engravings on copper or wood 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 one of these arts, that of line-engraving on copper, sprang from the craft of the goldsmith and metal-chaser; while that of wood-engraving sprang from the craft of the printers of pattern-blocks and playing cards. The engraver on metal habitually cut his own designs, and between the arts of the goldsmith and 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 for the new craft which required of the man who practised it that he should design like a painter and cut metal like a goldsmith. Designs intended to be cut on wood, on the other hand, were usually drawn by the artist on the block and handed over for cutting to a class of workmen—Formschneider or Briefmaler—especially devoted to that industry. Both kinds of engraving soon came to be in great demand. Independently of the illustration of written or printed books, for which purpose woodcuts were almost exclusively used, separate engravings or sets of engravings in both kinds were produced, the more finely wrought and more expensive, appealing especially to the more educated classes, on copper, the bolder, simpler and cheaper on wood; and both kinds found a ready sale at all the markets, fairs and church festivals of the land. Subjects of popular devotion predominated. Figures of the Virgin and Child, of the apostles and evangelists, the fathers of the Church, the saints and martyrs, with illustrations 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, of classical learning, of witchcraft and superstition and 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. Thus the new art became a mirror of almost all the life and thoughts of the age. The genius of Albrecht Dürer cannot be rightly estimated without taking into account the position which the arts of engraving on metal and on wood thus held in the culture of this time. He was indeed professionally and in the first place a painter; but throughout his career a great, and on the whole the most successful, part of his industry was devoted to drawing on the block for the woodcutter or engraving with his own hand on copper. The town of Nuremberg in Franconia, in the age of Dürer’s early manhood, was a favourable home for the growth and exercise of his powers. Of the free imperial cities of central Germany, none had a greater historic fame or a more settled and patriotic government. None was more the favourite of the emperors, nor the seat of a more active and flourishing commerce. Nuremberg was the chief mart for the merchandise that came to central Europe from the east through Venice and over the passes of Tirol. She held not only a close commercial intercourse, but also a close intellectual intercourse, with Italy. Without being so forward as the rival city of Augsburg to embrace the architectural fashions of the Italian renaissance—continuing, indeed, to be profoundly imbued with the old and homely German burgher spirit, and to wear, in a degree which time has not very much impaired even yet, the quaintness of the old German civic aspect—she had imported before the close of the 15th century a fair share of the new learning of Italy, and numbered among her citizens distinguished humanists like Hartmann Schedel, Sebald Schreier, Willibald Pirkheimer and Conrad Celtes. From associates like these Dürer could imbibe the spirit of Renaissance culture and research; but the external aspects and artistic traditions which surrounded him were purely Gothic, and he had to work out for himself the style and form-language fit to express what was in him. During the first seven or eight years of his settled life in his native city from 1495, he betrays a conflict of artistic tendencies as well as no small sense of spiritual strain and strife. His finest work in this period was that which he provided for the woodcutter. After some half—dozen miscellaneous single prints—“Samson and the Lion,” the “Annunciation,” the “Ten Thousand Martyrs,” the “Knight and Men-at-arms,” the “Men’s Bath,” &c.—he undertook and by 1498 completed his famous series of sixteen great designs for the Apocalypse. The northern mind had long dwelt with eagerness on these phantasmagoric mysteries of things to come, and among the earliest block-books printed in Germany is an edition of the Apocalypse with rude figures. Founding himself to some extent on the traditional motives, Dürer conceived and carried out a set of designs in which the qualities of the German late Gothic style, its rugged strength and restless vehemence, its love of gnarled forms, writhing actions and agitated lines, are fused by the fire of the young master’s spirit into vital combination with something of the majestic power and classic severity which he had seen and admired in the works of Mantegna. Of a little later date, and of almost as fine a quality, are the first seven of a large series of woodcuts known as the Great Passion; and a little later again (probably after 1500), a series of eleven subjects of the Holy Family and of saints singly or in groups: then, towards 1504-1505, come the first seventeen of a set illustrating the life of the Virgin: neither these nor the Great Passion were published till several years later.
In copper-engraving Dürer was at the same time diligently training himself to develop the methods practised by Martin Schongauer and earlier masters into one suitable for his own self-expression. He attempted no subjects at all commensurate with those of his great woodcuts, but contented himself for the most part with Madonnas, single figures of scripture or of the saints, some nude mythologies of a kind wholly new in northern art and founded upon the impressions received in Italy, and groups, sometimes bordering on the satirical, of humble folk and peasants. In the earliest of the Madonnas, the “Virgin with the Dragon-fly” (1495-1496), Dürer has thrown something of his own rugged energy into a design of the traditional Schongauer type. In examples of a few years later, like the “Virgin with the Monkey,” the design of Mother and Child clearly betrays the influence of Italy and specifically of Lorenzo di Credi. The subjects of the “Prodigal Son” and “St Jerome in the Wilderness” he on the other hand treats in an almost purely northern spirit. In the nudes of the next four or five years, which included a “St Sebastian,” the so-called “Four Witches” (1497), the “Dream” or “Temptation,” the “Rape of Amymome,” and the “Jealousy” or “Great Hercules,” Venetian, Paduan and Florentine memories are found, in the treatment of the human form, competing somewhat uncomfortably with his own inherited Gothic and northern instincts. In these early engravings the highly-wrought landscape backgrounds, whenever they occur, are generally the most satisfying feature. This feature reaches a climax of beauty and elaboration in the large print of “St Eustace and the Stag,” while the figures and animals remain still somewhat cramped and immature. In the first three or four years of the 16th century, we find Dürer in his graver-work still contending with the problems of the nude, but now with added power, though by methods which in different subjects contrast curiously with one another. Thus the “Nemesis,” belonging probably to 1503, is a marvellously wrought piece of quite unflinching realism in the rendering of a common type of mature, muscular, unshapely German womanhood. The conception and attributes of the figure are taken, as has lately been recognized, from a description in the “Manto” of Politian: the goddess, to whose shoulders are appended a pair of huge wings, stands like Fortune on a revolving ball, holding the emblems of the cup and bridle, and below her feet is spread a rich landscape of hill and valley. In the “Adam and Eve” of the next year, we find Dürer treating the human form in an entirely opposite manner; constructing it, that is, on principles of abstract geometrical proportion. The Venetian painter-etcher, Jacopo de Barbari, whom Dürer had already, it would seem, met in Venice in 1494-1495, and by the example of whose engravings he had already been much influenced, came to settle for a while in Nuremberg in 1500. He was conversant to some extent with the new sciences of perspective, anatomy and proportion, which had been making their way for years past in Italy, and from him it is likely that Dürer received the impulse to similar studies and speculations. At any rate a whole series of extant drawings enables us to trace the German gradually working out his own ideas of a canon of human proportion in the composition of his famous engraving of “Adam and Eve” (1504); which at first, as a drawing in the British Museum proves, had been intended to be an Apollo and Diana conceived on lines somewhat similar to one of Barbari’s. The drama of the subject has in this instance not interested him at all, but only the forms and designs of the figures, the realization of the quality of flesh surfaces by the subtlest use of the graving-tool known to him, and the rendering, by methods of which he had become the greatest of all masters, of the richness and intricacy of the forest background. Two or three other technical masterpieces of the engraver’s art, the “Coat-of-Arms with the Skull,” the “Nativity,” with its exquisite background of ruined buildings, the “Little Horse” and the “Great Horse,” both of 1505, complete the list of the master’s chief productions in this kind before he started in the last-named year for a second visit to Italy.
The pictures of this earlier Nuremberg period are not many in number and not very admirable. Dürer’s powers of hand and eye are already extraordinary and in their way almost unparalleled, but they are often applied to the too insistent, too glittering, too emphatic rendering of particular details and individual forms, without due regard to subordination or the harmony of the whole. Among the earliest seem to be two examples of a method practised in Italy especially by the school of Mantegna, but almost without precedent in Germany, that of tempera-painting on linen. One of these is the portrait of Frederick the Wise of Saxony, formerly in the Hamilton collection and now at Berlin; the second, much disfigured by restoration, is the Dresden altarpiece with a Madonna and Child in the middle and St Anthony and Sebastian in the wings. A mythology reminiscent of Italy is the “Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds” in the Germanic Museum at Nuremberg, founded directly upon the “Hercules and Centaur Nessus” of Pollaiuolo, now at New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. Of portraits, besides that of his father already mentioned as done in 1497, there is his own of 1498 at Madrid. Two totally dissimilar portraits of young women, both existing in duplicate examples (one pair at Augsburg and Frankfort, the other pair in the collections of M. Hengel in Paris and Baron Speck von Sternburg at Lützschema, for each of which has been claimed the name Fürlegerin, that is, a member of the Fürleger family at Nuremberg), belong to nearly the same time. Other panel portraits of the period are three small ones of members of the Tucher family at Weimar and Cassel, and the striking, restlessly elaborated half-length of Oswald Krell at Munich. In some devotional pictures of the time Dürer seems to have been much helped by pupils, as in the two different compositions of the Maries weeping over the body of Christ preserved respectively at Munich and Nuremberg. In an altarpiece at Ober St Veit and in the scattered wings of the Jabach altarpiece severally preserved at Munich, Frankfort and Cologne, the workmanship seems to be exclusively that of journeymen working from his drawings. The period is closed, so far as paintings are concerned, by two examples of far higher value than those above named, that is to say the Paumgartner altarpiece at Munich, with its romantically attractive composition of the Nativity with angels and donors in the central panel, and the fine armed figures of St George and St Eustace (lately freed from the over-paintings which disfigured them) on the wings; and the happily conceived and harmoniously finished “Adoration of the Magi” in the Uffizi at Florence.
In the autumn of 1505 Dürer journeyed for a second time to Venice, and stayed there until the spring of 1507. The occasion of this journey has been erroneously stated by Vasari. Dürer’s engravings, both on copper and wood, had by this time attained great popularity both north and south of the Alps, and had begun to be copied by various hands, 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 lodged 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 connexion with another set of Dürer’s woodcuts, the first seventeen of the Life of the Virgin. 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 some such grievance may possibly 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 Strahow at Prague. It shows the pope and emperor, with a lute-playing angel between them, kneeling to right and left of the enthroned Virgin and Child, who crown them with rose garlands, with a multitude of other kneeling saints disposed with free symmetry in the background, and farther in the background portraits of the donor and the painter, and a flutter of wreath-carrying cherubs in the air. Of all Dürer’s works, it is the one in which he most deliberately rivalled the combined splendour and playfulness of certain phases of Italian art. The Venetian painters assured him, he says, that they had never seen finer colours. They were doubtless too courteous to add that fine colours do not make fine colouring. Even in its present ruined state, it is apparent that in spite of the masterly treatment of particular passages, such as the robe of the pope, Dürer still lacked a true sense of harmony and tone-relations, and that the effect of his work must have been restless and garish beside that of a master like the aged Bellini. That veteran showed the German visitor the most generous courtesy, and Dürer still speaks of him as the best in painting (“der pest im gemell”) in spite of his advanced years. A similar festal intention in design and colouring, with similar mastery in passages and even less sense of harmonious relations in the whole, is apparent in a second important picture painted by Dürer at Venice, “The Virgin and Child with the Goldfinch,” formerly in the collection of Lord Lothian and now at Berlin. A “Christ disputing with the Doctors” of the same period, in the Barberini Gallery at Rome, is recorded to have cost the painter only five days’ labour, and is an unsatisfying and ill-composed congeries of heads and hands, both of such strenuous character and individuality as here and there to pass into caricature. The most satisfying of Dürer’s paintings done in Venice are the admirable portrait of a young man at Hampton Court (the same sitter reappears in the “Feast of Rose Garlands”), and two small pieces, one the head of a brown Italian girl modelled and painted with real breadth and simplicity, formerly in the collection of Mr Reginald Cholmondeley and now at Berlin, and the small and very striking little “Christ Crucified” with the figure relieved against the night sky, which is preserved in the Dresden Gallery and has served as model and inspiration to numberless later treatments of the theme. An interesting, rather fantastic, portrait of a blonde girl wearing a wide cap, now in the Berlin museum, is dated 1507 and may have been done in the early months of that year at Venice. It is possible, though not certain, that to this date also belongs the famous portrait of himself at Munich bearing a false signature and date, 1500; in this it has been lately shown that the artist modified his own lineaments according to a preconceived scheme of facial proportion, so that it must be taken as an ideal rather than a literal presentment of himself to posterity as he appeared in the flower of his early middle age. From Venice Dürer kept up a continuous correspondence, which has been published, with his bosom friend Pirkheimer at Nuremberg. He tells of the high position he holds among the Venetians; of the jealousy shown him by some of the meaner sort of native artist; 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 he knows that after his return it will set him shivering for the south. Yet he resisted all seductions and was in Nuremberg again before the summer of 1507. First, it seems, he had made an excursion 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, from whose work he had himself in youth learned the most. But the death of Mantegna prevented his purpose.
From the spring of 1507 until the summer of 1520, Dürer was again a settled resident in his native town. Except the brilliant existences of Raphael at Rome and of Rubens at Antwerp and Madrid, the annals of art present the spectacle of few more honoured or more fortunate careers. His reputation had spread all over Europe. From Flanders to Rome his distinction 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; and he was the familiar companion of chosen spirits among the statesmen, humanists and reformers of the new age. The burgher life of even Nuremberg, the noblest German city, seems narrow, quaint and harsh beside the grace and opulence and poetical surroundings of Italian life in the same and the preceding generation. The great cities of Flanders also, with their world-wide commerce and long-established eminence in the arts, presented aspects of more splendid civic pomp and luxury. But among its native surroundings the career of Dürer stands out with an aspect of ideal elevation and decorum which is its own. His temper and life seem to have been remarkably free from all that was jarring, jealous and fretful; unless, indeed, we are to accept as true the account of his wife’s character which represents her as having been no fit mate for him, but an incorrigible shrew and skinflint. The name of Agnes Dürer was for centuries used to point a moral, and among the unworthy wives of great men the wife of Dürer became almost as notorious as the wife of Socrates. The source of the traditions to her discredit is to be found in a letter written a few years after Dürer’s death by his life-long intimate, Willibald Pirkheimer, who accuses her of having plagued her husband to death by her meanness, made him overwork himself for money’s sake, and given his latter days no peace. No doubt there must have been some kind of foundation for Pirkheimer’s charges; and it is to be noted that neither in Dürer’s early correspondence with this intimate friend, nor anywhere in his journals, does he use any expressions of tenderness or affection for his wife, only speaking of her as his housemate and of her helping in the sale of his prints, &c. That he took her with him on his journey to the Netherlands shows at any rate that there can have been no acute estrangement. And it is fair to remember in her defence that Pirkheimer when he denounced her was old, gouty and peevish, and that the immediate occasion of his outbreak against his friend’s widow was a fit of anger 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 the property left by Dürer. We have evidence that after her husband’s death Agnes Dürer behaved with generosity to his brothers.
The thirteen or fourteen years of Dürer’s life between his return from Venice and his journey to the Netherlands (spring 1507-midsummer 1520) can best be divided according to the classes of work with which, during successive divisions of the period, he was principally occupied. The first five years, 1507-1511, are pre-eminently the painting years of his life. In them, working with infinite preliminary pains, as a vast number of extant drawings and studies testify, he produced what have been accounted his four capital works in painting, besides several others of minor importance. The first is the “Adam and Eve” dated 1507, in which both attitudes and proportions are as carefully calculated, though on a somewhat different scheme, as in the engraving of 1504. Two versions of the picture exist, one in Florence at the Pitti palace, the other, which is generally allowed to be the original, at Madrid. To 1508 belongs the life-sized “Virgin with the Iris,” a piece remarkable for the fine romantic invention of its background, but plainly showing the hand of an assistant, perhaps Hans Baldung, in its execution: the best version is in the Cook collection at Richmond, an inferior one in the Rudolphinum at Prague. In 1508 Dürer returned to a subject which he had already treated in an early woodcut, the “Massacre of the Ten Thousand Martyrs of Nicomedia.” The picture, painted for the elector Frederick of Saxony, is now in the Imperial Gallery at Vienna; the overcrowded canvas (into which Dürer has again introduced his own portrait as a spectator alongside of the elector) is full of striking and animated detail, but fails to make any great impression on the whole, and does not do justice to the improved sense of breadth and balance in design, of clearness and dignity in composition, which the master had undoubtedly brought back with him from his second visit to Italy. In 1509 followed the “Assumption of the Virgin” with the Apostles gathered about her tomb, a rich altarpiece with figures of saints and portraits of the donor and his wife in the folding wings, executed for Jacob Heller, a merchant of Frankfort, in 1509. This altarpiece was afterwards replaced at Frankfort (all except the portraits of the donors, which remained behind) by a copy, while the original was transported to Munich, where it perished by fire in 1674. The copy, together with the many careful and highly finished preparatory studies for the heads, limbs and draperies which have been preserved, shows that this must have been the one of Dürer’s pictures in which he best combined the broader vision and simpler habits of design which had impressed him in the works of Italian art with his own inherited and ingrained love of unflinchingly grasped fact and rugged, accentuated character. In 1511 was completed another famous painting, multitudinous in the number of its figures though of very moderate dimensions, the “Adoration of the Trinity by all the Saints,” a subject commissioned for a chapel dedicated to All Saints in an almshouse for decayed tradesmen at Nuremberg, and now at the Imperial Gallery at Vienna. Nothing can exceed the fulness and variety of invention, or the searching force and precision of detail in this picture; nor does it leave so much to desire as several of the master’s other paintings in point of colour-harmony and pleasurable general effect.
In the meantime Dürer had added a few to the number of his line-engravings and had completed the two woodcut series of the Great Passion, begun about 1498-1499, and the Life of the Virgin. The new subjects compared with the old show some falling off in dramatic stress and intensity of expression, but on the other hand a marked gain in largeness of design and clearness of composition. In 1511 these two works were brought out for the first time, and the Apocalypse series in a second edition; and for the next three years, 1511-1514, engraving both on wood and copper, but especially the latter, took the first place among Dürer’s activities. Besides such fine single woodcuts as the “Mass of St Gregory,” the “St Christopher,” the “St Jerome,” and two Holy Families of 1511, Dürer published in the same year the most numerous and popularly conceived of all his woodcut series, that known from the dimensions of its thirty-seven subjects as the “Little Passion” on wood; and in the next year, 1512, a set of fifteen small copper-engravings on the same theme, the “Little Passion” on copper. Both of these must represent the labour of several preceding years: one or two of the “Little Passion” plates, dating back as far as 1507, prove that this series at least had been as long as five years in his mind. In thus repeating over and over on wood and copper nearly the same incidents of the Passion, or again in rehandling them in yet another medium, as in the highly finished series of drawings known as the “Green Passion” in the Albertina at Vienna, Dürer shows an inexhaustible variety of dramatic and graphic invention, and is never betrayed into repeating an identical action or motive.
In 1513 and 1514 appeared the three most famous of Dürer’s works in copper-engraving, “The Knight and Death” (or simply “The Knight,” as he himself calls it, 1513), the “Melancolia” and the “St Jerome in his Study” (both 1514). These are the masterpieces of the greatest mind which ever expressed itself in this form of art. Like other masterpieces, they suggest much more than they clearly express, and endless meanings have been, rightly or wrongly, read into them by posterity. Taken together as a group, they have been supposed to be three out of an uncompleted series designed to illustrate the four “temperaments” and complexions of men. Again, more reasonably, they have been taken as types severally of the moral, the intellectual and the theological virtues. The idea at the bottom of the “Knight and Death” seems to be a combination of the Christian knight of Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani with the type, traditional in medieval imagery, of the pilgrim on his way through the world. The imaginative force of the presentation, coming from a man of Dürer’s powers, is intense; but what consciously occupied him most may well have been the problem how to draw accurately the proportions and action of a horse in motion. This problem he here solves for the first time, with the help of an Italian example: at least his design so closely repeats that of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous and early destroyed equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza that we must certainly suppose him to have seen either the model itself or such a drawing of it as is still preserved by Leonardo’s own hand. The face of the rider seems to recall that of the statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni at Venice; for the armour Dürer had recourse to an old drawing of his own, signed and dated in 1498. The “Melancolia,” numbered “1” as though intended to be the first of a series, with its brooding winged genius sitting dejectedly amidst a litter of scientific instruments and symbols, is hard to interpret in detail, but impossible not to recognize in general terms as an embodiment of the spirit of intellectual research (the student’s “temperament” was supposed to be one with the melancholic), resting sadly from its labours in a mood of lassitude and defeat. Comparatively cheerful beside these two is the remaining subject of the student saint reading in his chamber, with his dog and domestic lion resting near him, and a marvellous play of varied surface and chequered light on the floor and ceiling of his apartment and on all the objects which it contains. Besides these three masterpieces of line-engraving, the same years, 1512-1515, found Dürer occupied with his most important experiments in etching, both in dry-point (“The Holy Family and Saints” and the “St Jerome in the Wilderness”) and with the acid bath. At the same time he was more taken up than ever, as is proved by the contents of a sketch-book at Dresden, with mathematical and anatomical studies on the proportions and structure of the human frame. A quite different kind of study, that of the postures of wrestlers in action, is illustrated by a little-known series of drawings, still of the same period, at Vienna. Almost the only well-authenticated painting of the time is a “Virgin and Child” in the Imperial Museum at Vienna. The portraits of the emperors Charles the Great and Sigismund (1512), in their present state at any rate, can hardly be recognized as being by the master’s hand. An interval of five years separates the Vienna “Madonna” from the two fine heads of the apostles Philip and James in the Uffizi at Florence, the pair of boys’ heads painted in tempera on linen in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, the “Madonna with the Pink” at Augsburg, and the portrait of Wolgemut at Munich, all of 1516. Among engravings of the same time are three Madonnas, the apostles Thomas and Paul, a bagpiper and two peasants dancing, and three or four experiments in etching on plates of iron and zinc. In wood-engraving his energies were almost entirely given to bearing a part—which modern research has proved to have been not nearly so large as was traditionally supposed—in the great decorative schemes commanded by the Emperor Max in his own honour, and devised and carried out by a whole corps of men of letters and artists: namely, the Triumphal Gate and the Triumphal March or Procession. A third and smaller commemorative design, the Triumphal Car, originally designed to form part of the second but in the end issued separately, was entirely Dürer’s own work. A far more successful and attractive effort of his genius in the same service is to be found in the marginal decorations done by him in pen for the emperor’s prayer-book. This unequalled treasure of German art and invention has in later times been broken up, the part executed by Dürer being preserved at Munich, the later sheets, which were decorated by other hands, having been transported to Besançon. Dürer’s designs, drawn with the pen in pale lilac, pink and green, show an inexhaustible richness of invention and an airy freedom and playfulness of hand beyond what could be surmised from the sternness of those studies which he made direct from life and nature. They range from subjects of the homeliest and most mirthful realism to others serious and devout, and from literal or almost literal transcripts of natural form to the most whimsically abstract combinations of linear pattern and tendril and flourish.
All these undertakings for his imperial friend and patron were stopped by the emperor’s death in 1519. A portrait-drawing by the master done at Augsburg a few months previously, one of his finest works, served him as the basis both of a commemorative picture and a woodcut. Other paintings of this and the succeeding year we may seek for in vain; but in line engravings we have four more Madonnas, two St Christophers, one or two more peasant subjects, the well-known St Anthony with the view of Nuremberg in the background, and the smaller of the two portraits of the Cardinal-Elector of Mainz; and in wood-engraving several fine heraldic pieces, including the arms of Nuremberg.
In the summer of 1520 the desire of Dürer to secure from Maximilian’s 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 fourth and last journey from home. Together with his wife and her maid he set out in July for the Netherlands in order 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 journeyed by the Rhine, Cologne, and thence by road to Antwerp, where he was handsomely received, and lived in whatever society was most distinguished, including that of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Besides his written notes, interesting traces of his travels exist in the shape of the scattered leaves of a sketch-book filled with delicate drawings in silver-point, chiefly views of places and studies of portrait and costume. Several of his finest portrait-drawings in chalk or charcoal, including those of his brother artists Lucas Van Leyden and Bernard Van Orley, as well as one of two fine portrait paintings of men, belong to the period of this journey. So does a magnificent drawing of a head of a nonagenarian with a flowing beard who sat to him at Antwerp, together with a picture from the same head in the character of St Jerome; the drawing is now at Vienna, the picture at Lisbon. Dürer’s interest and curiosity, both artistic and personal, were evidently stimulated by his travels in the highest degree. Besides going to Aachen for the coronation, he made excursions down the Rhine from Cologne to Nijmwegen, and back overland by ’s Hertogenbosch; 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 comments on the supposed kidnapping 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 German character and conscience which resulted in 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. Drawings of this and the immediately following years prove that on his return his mind was full of schemes for religious pictures. For a great group of the Madonna surrounded with saints there are extant two varying sketches of the whole composition and a number of finished studies for individual heads and figures. Less abundant, but still sufficient to prove the artist’s intention, are the preliminary studies to a picture of the Crucifixion. There exist also fine drawings for a “Lamentation over the body of Christ,” an “Adoration of the Kings,” and a “March to Calvary”; of the last-named composition, besides the beautiful and elaborate pen-and-ink drawing at Florence, three still more highly-wrought versions in green monochrome exist; whether any of them are certainly by the artist’s own hand is matter of debate. But no religious paintings on the grand scale, corresponding to these drawings of 1521-1524, were ever carried out; perhaps partly because of the declining state of the artist’s health, but more because of the degree to which he allowed his time and thoughts to be absorbed in the preparation of his theoretical works on geometry and perspective, proportion and fortification. Like Leonardo, but with much less than Leonardo’s genius for scientific speculation and divination, Dürer was a confirmed reasoner and theorist on the laws of nature and natural appearances. He himself attached great importance to his studies in this kind; his learned friends expected him to give their results to the world; which accordingly, though having little natural gift or felicity in verbal expression, he laboured strenuously to do. The consequence was that in the last and ripest years of his life he produced as an artist comparatively little. In painting there is the famous portrait of Hieronymus Holtzschuher at Berlin, in which the personality and general aspect of the sitter assert themselves with surprising power. This and the Antwerp head of Jerome are perhaps the most striking examples of Dürer’s power of forcing into subordination to a general impression such a multiplicity of insistent detail as would have smothered any weaker conception than his. No other hand could have ventured to render the hair and beard of a sitter, as it was the habit of this inveterate linearist to do, not by indication of masses, but by means of an infinity of single lines swept, with a miraculous certainty and fineness of touch, in the richest and most intricate of decorative curves. To the same period belong a pleasing but somewhat weak “Madonna and Child” at Florence; and finally, still in the same year 1526, the two famous panels at Munich embodying the only one of the great religious conceptions of the master’s later years which he lived to finish. These are the two pairs of saints, St John with St Peter in front and St Paul with St Mark in the background. The John and Paul are conceived and executed really in the great style, with a commanding nobility and force alike in the character of the heads, the attitudes, and the sweep of draperies; they represent the highest achievement of early German art in painting. In copper-engraving Dürer’s work during the same years was confined entirely to portraits, those of the cardinal-elector of Mainz (“The Great Cardinal”), Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, Willibald Pirkheimer, Melanchthon and Erasmus. To the tale of his woodcuts, besides a few illustrations to his book on measurements (that is, geometry and perspective), and on fortification, he only added one Holy Family and one portrait, that of his friend Eoban Hesse. Of his theoretical books, he only succeeded in getting two finished and produced during his lifetime, that on geometry and perspective or measurement, to use his own title—which was published at Nuremberg in 1525, and that on fortification, published in 1527; the work on human proportions was brought out shortly after his death in 1528. His labours, whether artistic or theoretic, had for some time been carried on in the face of failing health. In the canals of the Low Countries he had caught a fever, of which he never shook off the effects. We have the evidence of this in his own written words, as well as in a sketch which he drew to indicate the seat of his suffering to some physician with whom he was in correspondence, and again in the record of his physical aspect which is preserved by a portrait engraved on wood just after his death, from a drawing made no doubt not long before in this portrait we see his shoulders already bent, the features somewhat gaunt, the old pride of the abundant locks shorn away. The end came on the night of the 6th of April 1528, so suddenly that there was no time to call his dearest friends to his bedside. He was buried in a vault which belonged to his wife’s family, but was afterwards disturbed, in the cemetery of St John at Nuremberg. An appropriate Requiescat is contained in the words of Luther, in a letter written to their common friend 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 trouble and from 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, which for students are the most vitally interesting part of his works, the richest collections are in the Albertina at Vienna, the Berlin Museum and the British Museum. The Louvre also possesses some good examples, and many others are dispersed in various public collections, as in the Musée Bonnat at Bayonne, at Munich, Hamburg, Bremen, Frankfort, Dresden, Basel, Milan, Florence and Oxford, as well as in private hands all over Europe.