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Albrecht Altdorfer

German, 1480 or before - 1538

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The exact date and place of Albrecht Altdorfer's birth are unknown, although he was associated with the Bavarian city of Regensburg for almost all of his life. He is first documented there in 1505 when he acquired citizenship rights and was called a "painter from Amberg", a small town north of Regensburg. Since one could become a citizen in Regensburg at age sixteen, it is possible for Altdorfer to have been born as late as 1488, although an earlier date, circa 1480, seems more likely. There is no record of Altdorfer's early training or travels, but it has been suggested that his father was the painter and miniaturist, Ulrich Altdorfer, last mentioned in Regensburg in 1491.

Albrecht Altdorfer's signed and dated engravings and drawings first appeared in 1506 and were followed, in 1507, by several small paintings. Woodcut production began in 1511. On or around 1509 he received a commission for the wings of an altarpiece for the monastery of Saint Florian in Linz. The series occupied Altdorfer until 1518, the date on one of the panels. Altdorfer's work reflects the influence of Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Michael Pacher. Although there is no evidence for a trip to Italy, it is evident that Altdorfer utilized Italian niello work and the engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi and Andrea Mantegna.

On the first of January, 1513, Altdorfer bought a house in Regensburg, and it was around this time that he began working for Maximilian I. He participated in group projects such as the marginal drawings in Maximilian's Prayer Book, the woodcuts of the Triumphal Portal, both c. 1515, and the woodcuts of the Triumphal Procession, c. 1517/1518. The artists and his shop also produced a series of illuminations depicting the victorious battles of Maximilian.

Throughout his life Altdorfer was involved in the municipal government of Regensburg. In 1517 he was a member of the "Ausseren Rates", the council on external affairs, and in this capacity was involved in the expulsion of the Jews, the destruction of the synagogue and in its place the construction of a church and shrine to the Schöne Maria that occurred in 1519. Altdorfer made etchings of the interior of the synagogue and designed a woodcut of the cult image of the Schöne Maria. In 1525 and 1526 he held important positions on the city councils for external and internal affairs, and was elected mayor in 1528. The town council, however, granted him time off to finish a painting promised for Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria. It is assumed that the painting in question was the Battle of Alexander dated 1529, a cosmic landscape with miniature-like figures that is probably Altdorfer's most famous work. By 1527 Altdorfer was also architect for the city of Regensburg and in 1529 designed fortifications for protection against the Turks.

Although none of his architectural projects survive, the influence of Venetian, Milanese and Lombard architecture, and to a lesser extent that of Bramante, can be seen in the prominent structure in his 1526 painting of Susanna and the Elders. In his extant works there is a nearly pantheistic synthesis of man and nature that has been compared both the writings of Paracelsus and the Neo-Platonists. His paintings assert the primacy of landscape, his figures are rarely individualized, and he produced only a handful of portraits. While Altdorfer seems to have had a large workshop, few individual members other than his brother, Erhard (c. 1480-1561), and Hans Mielich are identifiable.

On 12 February 1538 Albrecht Altdorfer died in Regensburg after making his last will and testament. The inventory of his estate, which ran to twenty pages, indicated that he was one of Regensburg's more prosperous citizens.

[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: 3-4.]

Artist Bibliography

Winzinger, Franz. Albrecht Altdorfer. Die Gemälde. Munich and Zurich, 1975.
Mielke, Hans. Albrecht Altdorfer. Zeichnungen, Deckfarbenmalerei, Druckgraphik. Exh. cat. SMPK Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin; Museen der Stadt Regensburg. Berlin, 1988.
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: 3-4.

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