Albrecht Dürer

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Dürer, Albrecht


Born May 21, 1471, in Nuremberg; died there Apr. 6, 1528. German painter, draftsman, engraver, and art theoretician. The greatest artist of the German Renaissance.

Dürer was apprenticed to his father, a goldsmith of Hungarian origin. From 1486 to 1489 he studied painting in the workshop of M. Wolgemut, where he absorbed the principles of the late Gothic style. He was greatly influenced by the copper engravings of M. Schongauer, with their graphic delicacy and elements of early Renaissance realism. The works done by Dürer during his educational travels on the Upper Rhine (1490-94) are typical of 15th-century German art, which combined features of the late Gothic and Renaissance styles. Later, the influence of humanist teachings, reinforced by visits to Italy (1494-95 and 1505-07) and the Netherlands (1520-21), strengthened Dürer’s preference for scientific methods of artistic cognition of the world. He studied nature more deeply, reflected on the meaning of art and the laws of beauty and harmony, and developed a theory of proportions. The diversity of Dürer’s interests and his tireless explorations were revealed in his paintings, watercolors, drawings and engravings, and theoretical works (Course in the Art of Measurement, 1525, Instruction on the Fortification of Cities, 1527, and Four Books on Human Proportion 1528).

Dürer’s early watercolor landscapes are distinguished by freshness and spontaneity (A View of Trent, 1495, Gallery of Art, Bremen, and House on an Island in a Pond, c. 1495-97, British Museum, London). In them he sought to capture the colors of nature and the surrounding light and air that give them coherence. Later, his painting reinforced a new aspiration in German art, toward complete logical clarity of figurative structure, strictly ordered distribution of plastic dimensions in space, and clear-cut juxtaposition of concentrated colors. This tendency is exemplified in a number of his multifigured compositions, including the Dresden altarpiece (c. 1496, Picture Gallery, Dresden), the Paumgärtner altarpiece (1502-04, the Old Pinacotheca, Munich), and The Adoration of the Trinity (1511, Museum of Fine Arts, Vienna).

Dürer was sustained by the experience of Italian art, including the achievements of the Venetian school in working with color (Adoration of the Magi, 1504, Uffizi Gallery, Florence; The Feast of the Rose Garlands, 1506, National Gallery, Prague, and Madonna and Child, 1512, Museum of Fine Arts, Vienna). Nonetheless, he did not lose the extremely sharp powers of observation, the very lifelike vividness of images, and the expressiveness of details that stemmed from the German Gothic traditions of intense expression. The universal quality of his genius was most fully revealed in his drawings, of which there are approximately 900, including the finest analytically detailed studies of nature, sketches for compositions, and finished works.

Dürer worked with particular intensity and tenacity on engraving, creating many masterpieces of world graphic art. (He made about 350 drawings for woodcuts and 100 copper engravings.) In the Apocalypse series of woodcuts (1498) he turned to the theme of the end of the world, reflecting the social attitudes that prevailed in a time of crisis, when powerful class and religious battles were imminent. In the Apocalypse woodcuts Dürer expressed in arresting, fantastic images his expectation of dreadful retribution and worldwide historical changes. In subsequent series such as the Great Passion (c. 1497-1511), the Life of the Virgin (c. 1502-11), and the Little Passion (1509-11), with their heroism and lyricism, their drama and tranquillity, he brought to perfection the rhythmic structure of lines, contrasting delicate and fragile lines with those permeated with strength and inner dynamism. The artist’s copper engravings revealed his predilection for clear lines and dimensions, a wealth of fluid forms and chiaroscuro transitions, and the rendition of the sensual diversity of the material world.

Having attained a marvelous subtlety in the expressive means of graphic art in engravings executed around 1500-03 (for example, St. Eustace and The Nemesis), Dürer reached the summit of his achievement in 1513-14 in three so-called master engravings. The Knight, Death and the Devil (1513) presents an image of unfaltering devotion to duty and of fortitude before all temptations. Melancolia (1514) embodies the inner conflicts and anxiety of man’s creative spirit. St. Jerome in His Study (1514) is a humanist glorification of the probing mind of a researcher, and the captivating poetry of serene comfort is depicted in the background—a room suffused with sunlight. In his engravings, paintings, and drawings Dürer constantly returned to the representation of the undraped human figure and the study of its proportions, following the example of Italian Renaissance artists (for example, Adam and Eve, a copper engraving, 1504). Subjects taken from the everyday life of the people and images of vigorous peasants are important in his engravings (for example, the copper engravings Three Peasants, c. 1497, and Dancing Peasants, c. 1514).

Dürer is one of the world’s greatest portraitists. Even his early attempts are striking for their mature mastery (the portrait of his father, 1490, Uffizi Gallery). His portraits covered a broad spectrum, ranging from the lyric, intimate portrait of a woman (c. 1506, Picture Gallery, Berlin-Dahlem) to the overwhelmingly realistic portrait of his mother (charcoal, 1514, Department of Prints and Drawings, Berlin-Dahlem). Furthermore, one may contrast the youthful curiosity of the young man (1521, Picture Gallery, Dresden), the introspection of Erasmus of Rotterdam (copper engraving, 1526), and the calm collectedness of Jacob Muffel (1526, Picture Gallery, Berlin-Dahlem) with the indefatigable fervor of Hieronymus Holzschuher (1526, in the same gallery) and the violent wrath of the elderly burgher (1524, the Prado, Madrid). Dürer’s self-portraits are as diverse in mood as his other portraits (1493, the Louvre, Paris; 1498, the Prado, Madrid; 1500, the Old Pinacotheca, Munich). All the portraits bring together the artist’s humanist aspirations, his models’ proud sense of personal worth, and an awareness of the inquiring quality of man’s mind, his inner tension, spiritual energy, and strength.

Dürer’s creative efforts were fulfilled in the diptych The Four Apostles (1526, the Old Pinacotheca, Munich), which is striking for the fluid power and bold energy with which the faces and draperies are treated. The four generalized characters and temperaments are linked by the overall humanist ideal of independent thought, the power of the will, and courage in the struggle for justice and truth.

Dürer was a Renaissance artist—a new phenomenon in Germany. He had definitely broken with the medieval anonymity of creative work. He earned a position of honor in his native city and fame in Germany and abroad, and he was a friend of the most eminent humanists. Dürer received orders from the emperor, princes, and rich burghers. Considered one of the titans of the Renaissance by Engels, Dürer succeeded as an artist and thinker in giving a profoundly national interpretation to Renaissance ideas. His creative work, which was tightly interwoven with German traditions, contained the beginnings of a restless expression, vividness, and aspiring fantasy, combined with a clear expression of the flowing spatial structure of the real world, which was typical of the High Renaissance. Dürer’s art, which reflected the violent age of the Reformation and the Peasant War of 1524-26 in many ways, was an important element in social progress, as is shown by the populist tendencies of his art, his fidelity to the humanist ideals of the Renaissance, and his unfaltering aspiration to reflect realistically the wealth and dialectical complexity of life.


Dnevniki, pis’ma, traktaty, vols. 1-2. Leningrad-Moscow, 1957. (Translated from German.)


Libman, M. la. Diurer. Moscow, 1957.
Nessel’shtraus, Ts. Al’brekht Diurer, 1471-1528. Leningrad-Moscow, 1961.
Gershenzon-Chegodaeva, N. Al’brekht Diurer. Moscow, 1964.
Flechsig, E. Albrecht Dürer, vols. 1-2. Berlin, 1928-31.
Musper, T. Albrecht Dürer, der gegenwärtige Stand der Forschung. Stuttgart, 1952.
Waetzold, W. Dürer und seine Zeit. Cologne, 1953.
Wölfflin, H. Die Kunst Albrecht Dürers. Munich, 1953.
Panofsky, E. The Life and Art of A. Dürer. Princeton, 1955.
Winkler, F. Albrecht Dürer. Berlin, 1957.

K. M. KOBER (German Democratic Republic)

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