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Albrecht Dürer

German, 1471 - 1528

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Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg on 21 May 1471. His first training was as a goldsmith in his father's shop. Dürer's talent manifested itself early and both his skill as a draftsman and a self-awareness highly unusual for the time can be seen in the silverpoint Self-Portrait made in 1484 when he was thirteen years old. In 1486 Dürer became an apprentice in the workshop of the painter Michael Wolgemut where he would remain for almost four years. Toward the end of his apprenticeship he produced his first dated painting, the portrait of his father Albrecht Dürer the Elder of 1490 and the recently discovered pendant of his mother. In April of 1490 Dürer departed Nuremberg; it is not known exactly what cities he visited, but it is possible that this trip included the Netherlands, Cologne, and parts of Austria. He arrived in Colmar in the summer of 1492, and although Martin Schongauer was no longer alive, the influence of Schongauer's engravings as well as the work of the Housebook Master is evident in Dürer's early work. From Colmar he went to Basel, where he made designs for the woodcut illustrations for books, and then to Strasbourg, arriving probably in the autumn of 1493. Returning to Nuremberg in late May of 1494 Dürer married Agnes Frey on 7 July.

The outbreak of plague in Nuremberg in August of 1494 provided the impetus for the artist to leave town. Dürer travelled across the Alps to Venice, by way of Augsburg, Innsbruck, the Brenner pass, the Eisack valley and Trent. His stay, which lasted until spring of 1495, was of incalculable importance. Dürer became acquainted with artists such as Gentile and Giovanni Bellini and absorbed, often by copying, the work of Andrea Mantegna, Antonio Pollaiuolo, and Lorenzo di Credi. His awareness of and lifelong interest in the theory of human proportions also began in Venice, quite possible because of Jacopo de' Barbari.

Upon his return to Nuremberg in 1495, Dürer embarked upon a career as printmaker and painter. He was immediately successful, receiving in 1496 commissions for paintings from Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. The woodcut series, the Apocalypse, published in 1498, by reason of its innovative format, technical mastery, and the forcefulness of its imagey, made Dürer famous throughout Europe. In the works of his early maturity, from 1500 to about 1505, the northern love of the particular coexists with Italian-inspired concerns for perspective and proportion. The Large Piece of Turf of 1503 meticulously explores the minutiae of nature while the Adam and Eve engraving of 1504 and related drawings are an attempt to depict ideal, classically-porportioned nudes. The Adoration of the Magi, 1504, painted for Frederick the Wise, is a masterpiece of spatial and compositional coherence and equilibrium.

In the summer of 1505 the plague reappeared in Nuremberg and Dürer again set out for Venice. This time, however, he arrived as a well-known artist with a reputation based on his woodcuts and engravings. In fact, Dürer's graphics were being copied, and he went to court in an attempt to prevent Marcantonio Raimondi from reproducing his compositions and his monogram. The major commission of this period is the Feast of the Rose Garlands, 1506, painted for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the association of German merchants, to be installed in the church of San Bartolommeo--a work that in its solemnity and use of Venetian color and motifs silenced any criticism of Dürer's abilities as a painter. From Venice Dürer apparently went to the university city of Bologna to learn about perspective and then journeyed further south to Florence, where he saw the work of Leonardo da Vinci and the young Raphael, and to Rome. Christ Among the Doctors, 1506, was painted in Rome in five day's time and reflects the influence of Leonardo's grotesques. Dürer was back in Venice early in 1507 before returning to Nuremberg in the same year.

Except for a few short journeys, Dürer remained in Nuremberg from 1507 until 1520. Periods when painting predominated alternated with periods when graphic work received more attention. Dürer attracted the attention of the Emperor Maximilian I who had visited Nuremberg in February, 1512, and subsequently gave Dürer several commissions, including the marginal drawings for his prayerbook, to which other artists also contributed. The three so-called "Master Engravings": Knight, Death, and the Devil, of 1513, Saint Jerome in his Study, and Melancolia I both of 1514, raised the engraving technique to new heights and reflect Dürer's ongoing assimilation of Italian art and theory, and in the case of Melancolia I, Neoplatonic philosophy.

Following the death of Maxilian I, the need to have his pension confirmed by Charles V prompted Dürer to travel to the Netherlands, accompanied by his wife and a maid. Dürer arrived in Antwerp on 3 August 1520 and visited Mechelen and Brussels where he was received by Margaret of Austria. Dürer's diary, kept during his journey, is an invaluable source of information and reveals that the artist was highly esteemed and often entertained by his Netherlandish colleagues. In October, Dürer attended the coronation of Charles in Aachen and then spent several weeks in Cologne, before returning to Antwerp for the winter. The impact of Dürer's art can be seen, in part, in the numerous Netherlandish copies of the Saint Jerome painted in Antwerp in 1521. In turn, Dürer was influenced by the engravings of Lucas van Leyden. Leaving Brussels and traveling by way of Louvain, Aachen and Cologne, Dürer arrived back in Nuremberg early in August, 1521.

In his last years Dürer became increasingly involved in his theoretical writings. The Teaching of Measurements was completed in 1525 and followed by Various Instructions of the Fortifications of Towns, Castles and Large Villages of 1527. His last and most important treatise, Four Books on Human Proportion, was published posthumously on 31 October 1528. A number of painted and engraved portraits were produced in these years, but the major work is the Four Apostles, dated 1526, that was presented to the city council in Nuremberg. The Apostles John the Evangelist, Peter and Paul and the Evangelist Mark are accompanied by inscriptions warning against false prophets. It is generally agreed that the apostles personify the Four Temperaments, but there is less consensus on the degree to which the panels reflect Dürer's Lutheranism or his concern over the excesses of the Reformation.

Dürer died on 6 April 1528, possibly as a result of a malarial infection contracted in 1521 when he went to Zeeland in the hopes of seeing a stranded whale. Albrecht Dürer is the best-known and arguably the greatest German artist of the Renaissance, whose work was admired and influential throughout Europe.

[Hand, John Oliver, with the assistance of Sally E. Mansfield. German Paintings of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1993: 49-51.]

Artist Bibliography

Panofsky, Erwin. Albrecht Dürer . 2 vols. Princeton, (1943).
Anzelewsky, Fedja. Albrecht Dürer Das malerische Werk. Berlin, 1971.
Mende, Matthias. Dürer-Bibliographie. Wiesbaden, 1971.
Anzelewsky, Fedja. Dürer. His Art and Life. Translated by Heide Grieve. London, 1982.
Hand, John Oliver, with the assistance of Sally E. Mansfield. German Paintings of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1993: 49-51.

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