Albrecht Durer
Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2005


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Albrecht Dürer—Artist:

1471-1528) May 30, 1471 NS, Nuremberg, Germany, 10:25 AM, LMT. (Source: Fagan, stating that the horoscope was calculated by Bishop Lucas Gauricus and included in his Tractatus Astrologicus; Notable Nativities states 10:30 AM, LMT)

(Ascendant Leo; MC, Taurus with Mercury in Taurus conjunct the MC; Sun and Saturn widely conjunct in Gemini with Mercury and Gemini also conjunct in Gemini; Mars in Aries; Jupiter and Pluto in Virgo; Uranus in Libra; Neptune in Scorpio; NN in Sagittarius)

Painter, engraver, and designer; one of the foremost German artists of the Renaissance, who combined a love of the ancient world with a deep Christian spirit. Became the favorite painter of Maximilian I (1471-1528)


And since geometry is the right foundation of all painting, I have decided to teach its rudiments and principles to all youngsters eager for art...

But when great and ingenious artists behold their so inept performances, not undeservedly do they ridicule the blindness of such men; since sane judgment abhors nothing so much as a picture perpetrated with no technical knowledge, although with plenty of care and diligence. Now the sole reason why painters of this sort are not aware of their own error is that they have not learnt Geometry, without which no one can either be or become an absolute artist; but the blame for this should be laid upon their masters, who are themselves ignorant of this art.

Whoever ... proves his point and demonstrates the prime truth geometrically should be believed by all the world, for there we are captured.

What beauty is, I know not, though it adheres to many things.
(Venus in Gemini.)

No single man can be taken as a model for a perfect figure, for no man lives on earth who is endowed with the whole of beauty.

If a man devotes himself to art, much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.

I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.

My father suffered much and toiled painfully all his life, for he had no resources other than the proceeds of his trade from which to support himself and his wife and family. He led an honest, God-fearing life. His character was gentle and patient.

Why has God given me such magnificent talent? It is a curse as well as a great blessing.

Sane judgment abhors nothing so much as a picture perpetrated with no technical knowedge, although with plenty of care and diligence. Now the sole reason why painters of this sort are not aware of their own error is that they have not learnt Geometry, without which no one can either be or become an absolute artist; but the blame for this should be laid upon their masters, who are themselves ignorant of this art.

O God in heaven, have mercy on us! Lord Jesus Christ, intercede for your people, deliver us at the opportune time, preserve in us the true genuine Christian faith, collect your scattered sheep with your voice, your divine Word as Holy Writ calls it. Help us to recognize your voice, help us not to be allured by the madness of the world, so that we may never fall away from you, O Lord Jesus Christ.

O God please do not be merciful with those that do not believe in your holy presence. O God please smite the unbelievers with your holy wrath. Make them as toads in the garden eating dirty flies. Let them pluck out their own eyes and cook them in a holy broth.
(Mars in Aries opposition Uranus!?)

The artist is chosen by God to fulfill his commands and must never be overwhelmed by public opinion (Stellium in Gemini in 10th house.)

The one test of an artist's conception is nature. Therefore, study her industriously, for truly art sticks fast in nature and he who can get ut has it.

Although I do have talent, I have not yet drawn the perfect scene, nor do I expect to do so, for I can never get on the paper exactly what I see in my mind. Albrecht Durer Now since we cannot attain to the very best, shall we give up our research altogether? This beastly thought we do not accept. For, men having good and bad before them, it behooves a reasonable human being to concentrate on the better. So then let us ask how a better figure may be made.

l shall let the little l have learnt go forth into the day in order that someone better than l may guess the truth, and in his work may prove and rebuke my error.  At this l shall rejoice that l was yet a cause whereby such truth has come to light.


Albrecht Dürer (May 21, 1471 - April 6, 1528) was a German painter, wood carver, engraver, and mathematician. He is best known for his woodcuts in series, including the Apocalypse (1498), two series on the crucifixion of Christ, the Great Passion (1498-1510) and the Little Passion (1510-11) as well as many of his individual prints, such as Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513) and Melancholia I (1514).

Early life in Nuremberg
Dürer was born in Nuremberg. His family came from Hungary, germanizing the family name of Thürer when they settled in Nuremberg soon after the middle of the 15th century. His father, also called Albrecht, was a goldsmith and served as assistant to Hieronymus Helfer, and in 1468 married his daughter Barbara. They had eighteen children, of whom Albrecht was the second. Albrecht's brother, Hans Dürer, also became a renowned artist.

Dürer House, Nuremberg
At the age of fifteen Dürer was apprenticed to the principal painter of the town, Michael Wolgemut, a prolific if undistinguished producer of small works in the late Gothic style. Dürer learned not only painting but also wood carving and elementary copper engraving under Wolgemut. At the end of his apprenticeship in 1490 he travelled (the so-called Wanderjahre). In 1492 he arrived in Colmar, intending to study under Martin Schöngauer, a well regarded painter-engraver of his time. He found that Schongauer had died the previous year, but he was received kindly by the family of the deceased master there and in Basel. Under them he evidently had some practice both in metal-engraving and in furnishing designs for the woodcutter. He left Basel some time in 1494 and travelled briefly in the Low Countries before he returned to Nuremberg. From this period, little of the work that can be attributed to him with certainty survives, though several of the illustrations of the Nuremberg Chronicle are sometimes attributed to him. fdsfa

On July 9, 1494 Dürer was married, according to an arrangement made during his absence, to Agnes Frey, the daughter of a local merchant. His relationship with his wife is unclear and her reputation has suffered from a posthumous assault by Dürer's friends. He did not remain in Nuremberg long; in the autumn of 1494 he travelled to Italy, leaving his wife at Nuremberg. He went to Venice, evidence of his travels being derived from drawings and engravings that are closely linked to existing northern Italian works by Mantegna, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Lorenzo di Credi and others. Some time in 1495 Dürer must have returned to Nuremberg, where he seems to have lived and worked for possibly the next ten years, producing most of his notable prints.

Return to Nuremberg
During the first few years from 1495 onwards he worked in the established Germanic and northern forms but was open to the influences of the Renaissance. His best works in this period were for wood-block printing, typical scenes of popular devotion developed into his famous series of sixteen great designs for the Apocalypse, first carved in 1498. Counterpointed with the first seven of scenes of the Great Passion in the same year, and a little later a series of eleven on the Holy Family and of saints. Around 1504-1505 he carved the first seventeen of a set illustrating the life of the Virgin. Neither these nor the Great Passion were published till several years later.

Dürer trained himself in the more finely detailed and expensive copper-engraving. He attempted no subjects of the scale of his woodcuts, but produced a number of Madonnas, single figures from scripture or of the saints, some nude mythologies, and groups, sometimes satirical, of ordinary people. The Venetian artist Jacopo de Barbari, whom Dürer had met in Venice, came to Nuremberg for a while in 1500. He influenced Dürer with the new developments in perspective, anatomy and proportion, from which Dürer began his own studies. A series of extant drawings show Dürer's experiments in human proportion, up to the famous engraving of Adam and Eve (1504) which showed his firm and detailed grasp of landscape had extended into the quality of flesh surfaces by the subtlest use of the graving-tool known to him. Two or three other technical masterpieces were produced up to 1505, when he made a second visit to Italy.

Second visit to Italy
In Italy he turned his hand to painting, at first producing a series of works by tempera-painting on linen, including portraits and altarpieces, notably the Paumgartner altarpiece and the Adoration of the Magi. In early 1506 he returned to Venice, and stayed there until the spring of 1507. The occasion of this journey has been erroneously stated by Vasari. Dürer's engravings had by this time attained great popularity and had begun to be copied. In Venice he was given a valuable commission from the emigrant German community for the church of St. Bartholomew. The picture painted by Dürer was closer to the Italian style - the Adoration of the Virgin, also known as the Feast of Rose Garlands; it was subsequently acquired by the Emperor Rudolf II and taken to Prague. Other paintings Dürer produced in Venice include The Virgin and Child with the Goldfinch, a Christ disputing with the Doctors (apparently produced in a mere five days) and a number of smaller works.

Nuremberg and the masterworks
Adam and Eve, 1507, Oil on PanelDespite the regard in which he was held by the Venetians, Dürer was back in Nuremberg by mid-1507. He remained in Germany until 1520. His reputation spread all over Europe. He was on terms of friendship or friendly communication with all the masters of the age, and Raphael held himself honored in exchanging drawings with Dürer.

The years between his return from Venice and his journey to the Netherlands are commonly divided according to the type of work with which he was principally occupied. The first five years, 1507-1511, are pre-eminently the painting years of his life. In them, working with a vast number of preliminary drawings and studies, he produced what have been accounted his four best works in painting - Adam and Eve (1507), Virgin with the Iris (1508), the altarpiece the Assumption of the Virgin (1509), and the Adoration of the Trinity by all the Saints (1511). During this period he also completed the two woodcut series of the Great Passion and the Life of the Virgin, both published in 1511 together with a second edition of the Apocalypse series.

From 1511 to 1514, Dürer concentrated on engraving, both on wood and copper, but especially the latter. The major work he produced in this period was the thirty-seven subjects of the Little Passion on wood, published first in 1511, and a set of fifteen small copper-engravings on the same theme in 1512. 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 called it, 1513), Melancolia and St Jerome in his Study (both 1514).

In the years leading to 1520 he produced a wide range of works. Tempera on linen portraits in 1516. Engravings on many subjects, experiments in etching on plates of iron and zinc. A part of the Triumphal Gate and the Triumphal March for the Emperor Maximilian. He also did the marginal decorations for the Emperor's prayer-book and a portrait-drawing of the Emperor shortly before his death in 1519.

Journey to the Netherlands and beyond
In the summer of 1520 the desire of Dürer to secure new patronage following the death of Maximilian and an outbreak of sickness in Nuremberg, gave occasion to his fourth and last journey. 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 new Emperor Charles V. He journeyed by the Rhine, Cologne, and then to Antwerp, where he was well received and produced numerous drawings in silverpoint, chalk or charcoal. Besides going to Aachen for the coronation, he made excursions to Cologne, Nijmwegen, 's-Hertogenbosch, Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Zeeland. He finally returned home in July 1521, having caught an undetermined illness which afflicted him for the rest of his life.

Final years in Nuremberg
The title page of Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion (Four Books of Human Proportion, 1528)Back in Nuremberg Dürer began work on a series of religious pictures. Many preliminary sketches and studies survive, but no paintings on the grand scale were ever carried out. This was due in part to his declining health, but more because of the time he gave to the preparation of his theoretical works on geometry and perspective, proportion and fortification. Though having little natural gift for writing, he worked hard to produce his works.

The consequence of this shift in emphasis was that in the last years of his life Dürer produced, as an artist, comparatively little. In painting there was a portrait of Hieronymus Holtzschuher, a Madonna and Child (1526) and two panels showing St. John with St. Peter in front and Saint Paul with St. Mark in the background. In copper-engraving Dürer's produced only a number of portraits, those of the cardinal-elector of Mainz (The Great Cardinal), Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, and his friends the humanist scholar Willibald Pirckheimer, Philipp Melanchthon and Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Of his books, Dürer succeeded in getting two finished and produced during his lifetime. One on geometry and perspective, which was published at Nuremberg in 1525, and one on fortification, published in 1527. His work on human proportion was brought out shortly after his death in 1528 at the age of 56.

Painter and printmaker generally regarded as the greatest German Renaissance artist. His vast body of work includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings. His woodcuts, such as the Apocalypse series (1498), retain a more Gothic flavour than the rest of his work.

Education and early career
Dürer was the second son of the goldsmith Albrecht Dürer the Elder, who had left Hungary to settle in Nuremberg in 1455, and of Barbara Holper, who had been born there. Dürer began his training as a draughtsman in the goldsmith's workshop of his father. His precocious skill is evidenced by a remarkable self-portrait done in 1484, when he was 13 years old (Albertina, Vienna), and by a Madonna with Musical Angels, done in 1485, which is already a finished work of art in the late Gothic style. In 1486, Dürer's father arranged for his apprenticeship to the painter and woodcut illustrator Michael Wohlgemut, whose portrait Dürer would paint in 1516. After three years in Wohlgemuth's workshop, he left for a period of travel. In 1490 Dürer completed his earliest known painting, a portrait of his father (Uffizi, Florence) that heralds the familiar characteristic style of the mature master.

Dürer's years as a journeyman probably took the young artist to the Netherlands, to Alsace, and to Basle, Switzerland, where he completed his first authenticated woodcut, a picture of St Jerome Curing the Lion (Kunstmuseum, Basle). During 1493 or 1494 Dürer was in Strasbourg for a short time, returning again to Basle to design several book illustrations. An early masterpiece from this period is a self-portrait with a thistle painted on parchment in 1493 (Louvre, Paris).

First journey to Italy
At the end of May 1494, Dürer returned to Nuremberg, where he soon married Agnes Frey, the daughter of a merchant. In the autumn of 1494 Dürer seems to have undertaken his first journey to Italy, where he remained until the spring of 1495. A number of bold landscape watercolours dealing with subjects from the Alps of the southern Tirol were made on this journey and are among Dürer's most beautiful creations. Depicting segments of landscape scenery cleverly chosen for their compositional values, they are painted with broad strokes, in places roughly sketched in, with an amazing harmonization of detail. Dürer used predominantly unmixed, cool, sombre colours, which, despite his failure to contrast light and dark adequately, still suggest depth and atmosphere.

The trip to Italy had a strong effect on Dürer; direct and indirect echoes of Italian art are apparent in most of his drawings, paintings, and graphics of the following decade. While in Venice and perhaps also before he went to Italy, Dürer saw engravings by masters from central Italy. He was most influenced by the Florentine Antonio Pollaiuolo, with his sinuous, energetic line studies of the human body in motion, and by the Venetian Andrea Mantegna,. an artist greatly preoccupied with classical themes and with precise linear articulation of the human figure.

Dürer's secular, allegorical, and frequently self-enamoured paintings of this period are often either adaptations of Italian models or entirely independent creations that breathe the free spirit of the new age of the Renaissance. Dürer adapted the figure of Hercules from Pollaiuolo's The Rape of Deianira for a painting of Hercules and the Birds of Stymphalis (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg). A purely mythological painting in the Renaissance tradition, the Hercules is exceptional among Dürer's works. The centre panel from the Dresden Altarpiece, which Dürer painted in about 1498, is stylistically similar to the Hercules and betrays influences of Mantegna. In most of Dürer's free adaptations the additional influence of the more lyrical, older painter Giovanni Bellini, with whom Dürer had become acquainted in Venice, can be seen.

The most striking painting illustrating Dürer's growth toward the Renaissance spirit is a self-portrait, painted in 1498 (Prado, Madrid). Here Dürer sought to convey, in the representation of his own person, the aristocratic ideal of the Renaissance. He liked the way he looked as a handsome, fashionably attired young man, confronting life rather conceitedly. In place of the conventional, neutral, monochromatic background, he depicts an interior, with a window opening on the right. Through the window can be seen a tiny landscape of mountains and a distant sea, a detail that is distinctly reminiscent of contemporary Venetian and Florentine paintings. The focus on his own figure in the interior distinguishes his world from the vast perspective of the distant scene, another world to which the artist feels himself linked.

Italian influences were slower to take hold in Dürer's graphics than in his drawings and paintings. Strong late Gothic elements dominate the visionary woodcuts of his Apocalypse series (the Revelation of St John), published in 1498. The woodcuts in this series display emphatic expression, rich emotion, and crowded, frequently overcrowded, compositions. The same tradition influences the earliest woodcuts of Dürer's Large Passion series, also from about 1498. Nevertheless, the fact that Dürer was adopting a more modern conception, a conception inspired by classicism and humanism, is indicative of his basically Italian orientation. The woodcuts Samson and the Lion (c. 1498) and Hercules and many prints from the woodcut series The Life of the Virgin (c. 1500-10) have a distinct Italian flavour. Many of Dürer's copper engravings are in the same Italian mode. Some examples of them that may be cited are Fortune (c. 1502), The Four Witches (1497), The Sea Monster (c. 1498), Adam and Eve (1504), and The Large Horse (1505). Dürer's graphics eventually influenced the art of the Italian Renaissance that had originally inspired his own efforts. His painterly style, however, continued to vacillate between Gothic and Italian Renaissance until about 1500. Then his restless striving finally found definite direction. He seems clearly to be on firm ground in the penetrating half-length portraits of Oswolt Krel (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), in the portraits of three members of the aristocratic Tucher family of Nuremberg - all dated 1499 - and in the Portrait of a Young Man of 1500 (Alte Pinakothek). In 1500 Dürer painted another self-portrait (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) that is a flattering, Christlike portrayal.

During this period of consolidation in Dürer's style, the Italian elements of his art were strengthened by his contact with Jacopo de' Barbari, a minor Venetian painter and graphic artist who was seeking a geometric solution to the rendering of human proportions; it is perhaps due to his influence that Dürer began, around 1500, to grapple with the problem of human proportions in true Renaissance fashion. Initially, the most concentrated result of his efforts was the great engraving Adam and Eve (1504) in which he sought to bring the mystery of human beauty to an intellectually calculated ideal form. In all aspects Dürer's art was becoming strongly classical. One of his most significant classical endeavours is his painting Altar of the Three Kings (1504), which was executed with the help of pupils. Although the composition, with its five separate pictures, has an Italian character, Dürer's intellect and imagination went beyond direct dependence on Italian art. From this maturity of style comes the bold, natural, relaxed conception of the centre panel, The Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi), and the ingenious and unconventional realism of the side panels, once believed to belong to this altarpiece, one of which depicts the Drummer and Piper and the other Job and His Wife (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne). However, the side panels belong to the Jabach altarpiece, the cenral panel of which is lost.

Second journey to Italy
In the autumn of 1505, Dürer made a second journey to Italy, where he remained until the winter of 1507. Once again he spent most of his time in Venice. Of the Venetian artists, Dürer now most admired Giovanni Bellini, the leading master of Venetian early Renaissance painting, who, in his later works, completed the transition to the High Renaissance. Dürer's pictures of men and women from this Venetian period reflect the sweet, soft portrait types especially favoured by Bellini. One of Dürer's most impressive small paintings of this period, a compressed half-length composition of the Young Jesus with the Doctors of 1506, harks back to Bellini's free adaptation of Mantegna's Presentation in the Temple. Dürer's work is a virtuoso performance that shows mastery and close attention to detail. In the painting the inscription on the scrap of paper out of the book held by the old man in the foreground reads, "Opus quinque dierum" ("the work of five days"). Dürer thus must have executed this painstaking display of artistry, which required detailed drawings, in no more than five days. Of even greater artistic merit than this quickly executed work are the half-length portraits of young men and women painted between 1505 and 1507, which seem to be entirely in the style of Bellini. In these paintings there is a flexibility of the subject, combined with a warmth and liveliness of expression and a genuinely artistic technique, that Dürer otherwise rarely attained.

In 1506, in Venice, Dürer completed his great altarpiece The Feast of the Rose Garlands for the funeral chapel of the Germans in the church of St Bartholomew. Later that same year Dürer made a brief visit to Bologna before returning to Venice for a final three months. The extent to which Dürer considered Italy to be his artistic and personal home is revealed by the frequently quoted words found in his last letter from Venice (dated October 1506) to Willibald Pirckheimer, his long-time humanist friend, anticipating his imminent return to Germany: "O, how cold I will be away from the sun; here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite."

Development after the second Italian trip
By February 1507 at the latest, Dürer was back in Nuremberg, where two years later he acquired an impressive house (which still stands and is preserved as a museum). It is clear that the artistic impressions gained from his Italian trips continued to influence Dürer to employ classical principles in creating largely original compositions. Among the paintings belonging to the period after his second return from Italy are Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (1508) and Adoration of the Trinity (1511), which are both crowd scenes. Drawings from this period recall Mantegna and betray Dürer's striving for classical perfection of form through sweeping lines of firmly modeled and simple drapery. Even greater simplicity and grandeur characterize the diptych of Adam and Eve (1507; Prado), in which the two figures stand calmly in relaxed classical poses against dark, almost bare, backgrounds.

Between 1507 and 1513 Dürer completed a Passion series in copperplate engravings, and between 1509 and 1511 he produced the Small Passion in woodcuts. Both of these works are characterized by their tendency toward spaciousness and serenity. During 1513 and 1514 Dürer created the greatest of his copperplate engravings: the Knight, Death and Devil, St Jerome in His Study, and Melencolia I - all of approximately the same size. The extensive, complex, and often contradictory literature concerning these three engravings deals largely with their enigmatic, allusive, iconographic details. Although repeatedly contested, it probably must be accepted that the engravings were intended to be interpreted together. There is general agreement, however, that Dürer, in these three master engravings, wished to raise his artistic intensity to the highest level, which he succeeded in doing. Finished form and richness of conception and mood merge into a whole of classical perfection. To the same period belongs Dürer's most expressive portrait drawing - one of his mother.

Service to Maximilian I
While in Nuremberg in 1512, the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I enlisted Dürer into his service, and Dürer continued to work mainly for the emperor until 1519. He collaborated with several of the greatest German artists of the day on a set of marginal drawings for the emperor's prayer book. He also completed a number of etchings in iron (between 1515 and 1518) that demonstrate his mastery of the medium and his freedom of imagination. In contrast to these pleasing improvisations are the monumental woodcuts, overloaded with panegyrics, made for Maximilian. In these somewhat stupendous, ornate woodcuts, Dürer had to strain to adapt his creative imagination to his client's mentality, which was foreign to him.
Besides a number of formal show pieces - a painting entitled Lucretia (1518; Alte Pinakothek), and two portraits of the emperor (c. 1519) - during this decade Dürer produced a number of more informal paintings of considerably greater charm. He also traveled. In the fall of 1517 he stayed in Bamberg. In the summer of 1518 he went to Augsburg where he met Martin Luther, who had in the previous year circulated his Ninety-five Theses denouncing the sale of papal indulgences. Dürer later became a devoted follower of Luther. Dürer had achieved an international reputation as an artist by 1515, when he exchanged works with the illustrious High Renaissance painter Raphael.

Final journey to the Netherlands
In July 1520 Dürer embarked with his wife on a journey through the Netherlands. In Aachen, at the October 23 coronation of the emperor Charles V, successor to Maximilian I (who had died in 1519), Dürer met and presented several etchings to the mystical and dramatic Matthias Grünewald, who stood second only to Dürer in contemporary German art. Dürer returned to Antwerp by way of Nijmegen and Cologne, remaining there until the summer of 1521. He had maintained close relations with the leaders of the Netherlands school of painting. In December 1520 Dürer visited Zeeland and in April 1521 traveled to Bruges and Ghent, where he saw the works of the 15th-century Flemish masters Jan and Hubert van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hugo van der Goes, as well as the Michelangelo Madonna. Dürer's sketchbook of the Netherlands journey contains immensely detailed and realistic drawings. Some paintings that were created either during the journey or about the same time seem spiritually akin to the Netherlands school - for example, the St Anne with the Virgin and Child (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), a half-length picture of St Jerome (1521; Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), and the small portrait of Bernhard von Resten, previously Bernard van Orley (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden).
Final works

By July, the travelers were back in Nuremberg, but Dürer's health had started to decline. He devoted his remaining years mostly to theoretical and scientific writings and illustrations, although several well-known character portraits and some important portrait engravings and woodcuts also date from this period. One of Dürer's greatest paintings, the so-called Four Holy Men (St John, St Peter, St Paul, and St Mark), was done in 1526. This work marks his final and certainly highest achievement as a painter. His delight in his own virtuosity no longer stifled the ideal of a spaciousness that is simple, yet deeply expressive.

Dürer died in 1528 and was buried in the churchyard of Johanniskirchhof in Nuremberg. That he was one of his country's most influential artists is manifest in the impressive number of pupils and imitators that he had. Even Dutch and Italian artists did not disdain to imitate Dürer's graphics occasionally. The extent to which Dürer was internationally celebrated is apparent in the literary testimony of the Florentine artist Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), in whose Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors, the importance of Albrecht Dürer, the "truly great painter and creator of the most beautiful copper engravings," is repeatedly stressed. Like most notable Italian artists, Dürer probably felt himself to be an "artist-prince," and his self-portraits seem incontestably to show a man sure of his own genius.

Born: 21 May 1471 in Imperial Free City of Nürnberg (now in Germany)
Died: 6 April 1528 in Imperial Free City of Nürnberg (now in Germany)

Albrecht Dürer was the third son of Albrecht Dürer and Barbara Holfer. He was one of their eighteen children. The Dürer family came from Hungary, Albrecht Dürer senior being born there, and at this time the family name was Ajtos. The name Ajtos means "door" in Hungarian and when Dürer senior and his brothers came to Germany they chose the name Türer which sounds like the German "Tür" meaning door. The name changed to Dürer but Albrecht Dürer senior always signed himself Türer rather than Dürer.

Albrecht Dürer senior was a jeweller who had served his apprenticeship with Hieronymus Holfer, and then married Holfer's daughter. Albrecht Dürer junior wrote about his father and his upbringing

My father suffered much and toiled painfully all his life, for he had no resources other than the proceeds of his trade from which to support himself and his wife and family. He led an honest, God-fearing life. His character was gentle and patient. He was friendly towards all and full of gratitude to his Maker. He cared little for society and nothing for worldly amusements. A man of very few words and deeply pious, he paid great attention to the religious education of his children. His most earnest hope was that the high principles he instilled into their minds would render them ever more worthy of divine protection and the sympathy of mankind. He told us every day that we must love God and be honourable in our dealings with our neighbours.

As a young boy Dürer was educated at the Lateinschule in St Lorenz and he also worked in his father's workshop learning the trade of a goldsmith and jeweller. By the age of 13 he was already a skilled painter as seen from a self portrait which he painted at that time. This was the first of many self-portraits which Dürer painted and they provide a wonderful record. Here is our collection of such self-portraits.

In 1486 Dürer became an apprentice painter and woodcut designer to Michael Wolgemut, the leading producer of altarpieces. After an apprenticeship of four years, Dürer had learnt all he could from Wolgemut and had reached a level of artistic quality exceeding that of his famous teacher. Wolgemut advised Dürer to travel to widen his experience and meet other artists. Following Wolgemut's advice, Dürer delayed visiting Italy (which Wolgemut himself never visited), where there were very different artistic styles, until he had fully developed his own style and learnt more techniques from other German artists.

Dürer travelled first to Nördlingen, where he met artists of the Swabian school. The Swabian style had been influenced by Dutch artistic design which Dürer had not met before. His next visit was to Ulm where he met more artists of the Swabian school.

.. participated with keen enjoyment in the discussions among artists of his own age, in the low-ceilinged taverns, over foaming mugs of beer. These youthful enthusiasts, in common with those of all nations throughout history, were bent on rejuvenation of the art of the world. They were delighted with Dürer's drawings, with his first engravings and the small pictures he had already painted, independently of Wolgemut's directions or opinions.

Leaving Ulm, Dürer made his way to Constance which charmed him with its fairyland appearance. Basel was the next town which Dürer visited, and he found it quite similar to his home town of Nürnberg. Finally Dürer returned home, making visits to Colmar and Strasbourg on the way.

It had been a long journey of great importance to Dürer which had taken nearly four years, but after he returned to Nürnberg in 1494 he felt disappointed that he had not visited Italy. He had also become convinced that

... the new art must be based upon science - in particular, upon mathematics, as the most exact, logical, and graphically constructive of the sciences.

Italy was not only a country with new ideas to offer Dürer in art, but it was also leading the world at this time in the revival of mathematics. Before setting out for Italy, however, Dürer married Agnes Frey, the daughter of a learned man Hans Frey who had made quite a lot of money through making jewellery, musical instruments, and mechanical devices.

The marriage seems to have been more the idea of the parents of Agnes and Albrecht, and the pair were married on 7 July 1494. It was a marriage which helped raise Dürer's status in Nürnberg, as well as provide him with money which helped him set up his own studio.

Before the end of 1494, Dürer was on his travels again, leaving Agnes behind in Nürnberg. First he visited Augsburg where he met strong Italian artistic influences for the first time. Travelling through the Tyrol, he reached Trento and his first view of Italy.

He travelled on to Verona before reaching Venice which was his main objective. In Venice, Dürer, as he had done throughout his journeys, sketched scenes, visited galleries and churches, and met with the local artists. One of the artists that he met in Venice, Giovanni Bellini, had an important influence on Dürer for [3]:-

... everything that [Venice] could teach him was to be found in Giovanni's paintings. He cultivated the artist's society, therefore, with a devotion both impassioned and deferential, retaining throughout his life, with his whole heart and soul, unbounded feelings of gratitude to the man whose pictures had unveiled so wonderful a world to him.

Dürer returned to Nürnberg in 1495, and although he does not seem to have met with any of the major Italian mathematicians on his journeys, he did meet Jacopo de Barbari who told him of the mathematical work of Pacioli and its importance to the theory of beauty and art. Nor did Dürer meet with Leonardo da Vinci while in Italy, but he learnt of the importance which that artist placed in mathematics. Back in Nürnberg, Dürer began a serious study of mathematics. He read Euclid's Elements and the important treatise De architectura (On Architecture) by Vitruvius (1st century BC), the famous Roman architect and engineer. He also became familiar with the work of Alberti and Pacioli on mathematics and art, in particular work on proportion.

It was not only this scientific approach to art that influenced Dürer as he began his artistic career in Nürnberg, but he also benefited from seeing different artistic styles and the different scenery which he had viewed [3]:-

The variety of regions through which Dürer had passed in the course of his travels and the care he had taken with the drawings and water-colours he had made of the most attractive or unfamiliar of them had provided him with a great range of pictorial motives emanating from the most diverse sources.

In 1495 Dürer was still not well known as an artist in the highest circles but news of his skill reached Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and Dürer was commissioned to paint his portrait. Frederick liked his portrait which Dürer painted in April 1496 when Frederick had visited Nürnberg. Despite Frederick's attempts to persuade Dürer to move to Weimar and become Court painter, the artist did not wish to leave Nürnberg. He was deeply attached to Nürnberg, painting these views of the city in 1497.

From about 1500 Dürer's art showed the influence of the mathematical theory of proportion which he continued to spend so much time studying. It is claimed that his self-portrait in a wig made in 1500 has the dimensions of the head constructed proportionally. For the engraving Adam and Eve made in 1504, Dürer described the intricate ruler and compass constructions which he made to construct the figures. It was not only the mathematical theory of proportion which influenced Dürer's art at this period, but also his mastery of perspective through his study of geometry. This is most clearly seen in his woodcuts Life of the Virgin made between 1502 and 1505.

During the ten years after 1496 Dürer went from a relatively unknown artist to someone with a wide reputation as both an artist and a mathematician. His personal circumstances had changed greatly. His father had died in 1502 and Dürer was left to care for his invalid, and nearly blind, mother. He had set up his own printing press while he, or often his wife, sold his works to buyers at local fairs. It was a difficult life and one in which Dürer's health began to suffer. In fact he would never regain full health during the rest of his life.

From 1505 to 1507 Dürer made a second visit to Italy, spending much time again in Venice. It was a very different visit from his first, with Dürer now more interested in his international fame than in learning about art. He was so conscious of his fame, and the threat he perceived that he might hold to the local artists, that [3]:-

... he refused invitations to dinner in case someone should try to poison him.
It was not about art that Dürer now wished to learn from the Italians, but rather about mathematics. He visited Bologna to meet with Pacioli whom he considered held the mathematical secrets of art. He also visited Jacopo de Barbari and the great efforts which Dürer made to meet de Barbari shows the importance which Dürer more and more attached to mathematical knowledge. Dürer returned to Nürnberg from this second visit to Italy feeling that he must delve yet more deeply into the study of mathematics.

In about 1508 Dürer began to collect material for a major work on mathematics and its applications to the arts. This work would never be finished but Dürer did use parts of the material in later published work. He continued to produce art of outstanding quality, and he produced one of his most famous engravings Melancholia in 1514.

Dürer worked for Maximilian I, the Holy Roman emperor, from about 1512. Maximilian, however, had little in the way of wealth to pay for Dürer's work and he asked the councillors of Nürnberg to exempt Dürer from taxes as compensation. He then asked the councillors to pay Dürer a pension on his behalf, which certainly did not please them. From about 1515 the councillors tried to avoid paying this pension. Dürer met Maximilian personally for the first time in 1518 and, probably from one sitting in Augsburg, painted Maximilian's portrait. The following year Maximilian died and this was the final excuse for the councillors to refuse to make any further payment, saying that the new emperor Charles would have to agree to the pension.

Although Dürer was fairly well off by this time and the pension was not necessary for him, it was more a matter of prestige to have his pension restored. He set off for Antwerp on 15 July 1520 with his wife and their maid to visit the Emperor Charles V. Passing through Aachen, Dürer sketched the cathedral at Aachen.

Dürer had a second reason for this visit to the Netherlands, for he believed that Maximilian's daughter had a book by Jacopo de Barbari on applications of mathematics to art, and Dürer had long sought the truths which he believed this work contained. On meeting Maximilian's daughter he offered her the portrait of her father which he had painted, but was distressed to find that she did not want the portrait. She had already given the book by Jacopo de Barbari to another artist so Dürer's quest was in vain. He did persuade Charles V to restore his pension, however, which was formally agreed on 12 November 1520.

After returning to Nürnberg, Dürer's health became still worse. He did not slacken his work on either mathematics or painting but most of his effort went into his work Treatise on proportion. Although it was completed in 1523, Dürer realised that it required mathematical knowledge which went well beyond what any reader could be expected to have, so he decided to write a more elementary text. He published this more elementary treatise, in four books, in 1525 publishing the work through his own publishing company.

This treatise, Unterweisung der Messung mit dem Zirkel und Richtscheit, is the first mathematics book published in German (if one discounts an earlier commercial arithmetic book) and places Dürer as one of the most important of the Renaissance mathematicians.

In the second book he gave exact and approximate methods to construct regular polygons. Dürer's constructions of regular polygons with 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13 sides is discussed in [12]. Dürer also gave approximate methods to square the circle using ruler and compass constructions in this book. A method to obtain a good approximation to the trisector of an angle by Euclidean construction is also given.

Book three considers pyramids, cylinders and other solid bodies. The second part of this book studies sundials and other astronomical instruments. The final book studies the five Platonic solids as well as the semi-regular Archimedean solids. Also in this book is Dürer's theory of shadows and an introduction to the theory of perspective.

In 1527 Dürer published another work, this time on fortifications. There were strong reasons why he produced a work on fortifications at this time, for the people of Germany were in fear of an invasion by the Turks. Many cities, including Nürnberg, would improve their fortifications using the methods set out by Dürer in this book. Dürer's final masterpiece was his Treatise on proportion which was at the proof stage at the time of his death.

Descriptive geometry originated with Dürer in this work although it was only put on a sound mathematical basis in later work of Monge. One of the methods of overcoming the problems of projection, and describing the movement of bodies in space, is descriptive geometry. Dürer's remarkable achievement was through applying mathematics to art, he developed such fundamentally new and important ideas within mathematics itself.


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