550 Years of Albrecht Dürer

Selbstbildnis als Dreizehnjähriger (1484) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

21 May 1471 witnessed the birth of Albrecht Dürer, one of the greatest artists of his era. Dürer’s approximately 100 paintings, 300 printed graphics, and nearly 1,000 drawings are icons of art history. What’s more, this universally educated artist was also active as a writer.

Dürer-Werke im TiefspeicherAlbertina Museum

Dürer’s drawn oeuvre provides a thorough impression of his development as an artist. And ever since his death in 1528, nearly 140 of his most famous drawings have remained together as a collection of their own—which now represents the most valuable group of works held by Vienna’s ALBERTINA MUSEUM.

Selbstbildnis als Dreizehnjähriger (1484) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Dürer’s self-portrait as a thirteen-year-old is his earliest extant work and simultaneously the earliest known drawing by a child. According to the inscription in his own hand, Dürer drew himself here according to his image in the mirror. Working in silverpoint on grounded paper requires superlative precision and leaves those who do so little leeway to correct errors.

Entwurf für einen Tafelaufsatz oder Tischbrunnen (um oder nach 1500) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Dürer was born into a family of goldsmiths and himself produced designs for ornamental objects, pieces of jewelry, and magnificent chalices throughout his creative career. His monumental design for a table fountain embodies the quintessence of the Late Gothic era’s playful and imaginative goldsmithing.

Der Jesusknabe als Erlöser (1493) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Dürer drew this depiction of the Christ Child holding the world in his hand like a toy ball while traveling as a journeyman in 1493. The motif suggests that this work was created in the Upper Rhine region, where it was common especially in printed graphics.

Mein Agnes (1494) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

On 7 July 1494, having concluded his journeyman years, Dürer married Agnes Frey. It must have been around this time that Dürer created the small portrait drawing that he called Mein Agnes (My Agnes). He needed but a few virtuosic strokes to capture the young woman dozing at the table.

Bacchanal mit Silen (nach Mantegna) (1494) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

It was in 1494 that Dürer first had contact with Northern Italian art in the form of printed graphics. He did this drawing as a study of Andrea Mantegna’s copperplate engraving Bachanale with Silenus. To the late 15th-century Nuremberg public, such graphic works from the world of mythological creatures must have been at once shocking and fascinating.

Innsbruck von Norden (um 1495) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Dürer created this view of Innsbruck on his first journey to Italy. His view of the entire city, which shows the Hofburg, the Armorial Tower (still under construction), and the bridge over the Inn before the backdrop of snow-capped peaks, documents its appearance at the end of the 15th century.

Hof der Innsbrucker Burg (ohne Wolken) (um 1495) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Dürer’s depictions of the large inner courtyard of Innsbruck’s Hofburg (Imperial Palace) adhere to a concept that alternates between the realistic and the artificial. As part of this, the artist sacrifices individual elements in the interest of greater legibility and a better overall effect. The picturesque silhouette of the deserted Late Gothic palace complex is depicted before a neutral background, lending the scene an unreal and uncanny atmosphere.

Venezianerin (1495) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Throughout his life, Dürer also produced clothing studies. Both in his home city of Nuremberg as well as on his travels, he produced drawings to document the local dress. In many places, dress codes stipulated who had to wear what on which occasion. Adherence to such rules was monitored meticulously, with every offense punished.

Nürnbergerin im Tanzkleid (1500) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

By juxtaposing the dress of an aristocratic Venetian woman and a festive costume from Nuremberg, we can see the major differences between local clothing customs—though the material luxuriousness of both costumes indicates the patrician status of the milieus for which they were intended.

Der Flügel einer Blauracke (um 1500) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

The European roller, a migratory bird that was found all over Central Europe in Dürer’s day, fascinates with its brilliant turquoise and azure plumage. Dürer portrayed this wing on very fine parchment, showing every detail with the greatest zoological precision. Moreover, even the fact that this wing was torn off violently can be seen in the redness from the bloody wound at right.

The Large Piece of Turf, 1503 (1503) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Here, Dürer portrays a piece of turf of the kind one can find along any path through a meadow in late April or early May, after the dandelions have gone to seed. The subject matter is painted with such precision that one almost forgets how this tour de force of natural investigation was surely not done en plein air, but back at Dürer’s workshop.

The perspective chosen here is quite low. Dürer thus allows the observer to assume the place of a small animal or insect, and one can indeed almost smell the grass and the fresh, moist earth.

Hase (1502) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Dürer shows this animal, posed comfortably and with its ears upraised, in such an artful and lively manner that it feels as if one could reach out and touch every little hair of its fluffy coat. In the hare’s eye, the reflection of a window can be seen—but its place of repose remains undefined:

the animal’s shadow falls on the blank background at right. By doing so, Dürer sought to demonstrate how his artistry could cause the animal to materialize on the paper before our eyes as if it were alive.

Mary among a Multitude of Animals, c. 1503 (c. 1503) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Albrecht Dürer’s The Virgin with a Multitude of Animals shows Mary engrossed in a book and the Christ Child leaning far out to the side to pick a flower for his mother. In keeping with the tradition of the Hortus conclusus, a mystical pictorial theme of the late Middle Ages, they sit amidst a paradisiacal garden with flowers and animals of many kinds. This graphical work was created around 1506 during Dürer’s second stay in Venice, perhaps in preparation for a painting.

Kopf des Laute spielenden Engels (Detail aus dem "Rosenkranzfest") (1506) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

For the studies that he created in Venice in 1506, Dürer frequently used blue Venetian paper. This let the artist use his brush to define lighter and darker areas starting from the paper’s hue.

Kopf des Jesusknaben (Detail aus "Christus unter den Schriftgelehrten") (1506) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

These head studies, so artfully balanced with each other, were originally composed on a single sheet of paper.

Praying Hands, 1508 (1508) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

In 1507, Dürer began working on an altarpiece for the Frankfurt merchant Jakob Heller. The final work showed Mary being assumed into heaven as the Apostles look on in wonderment. Several sketches for the Heller Altarpiece have been preserved. In their technique and style, they take after the studies produced on blue paper in Venice but are executed in a far more refined and detailed manner. In the altarpiece itself, the most important work among these Heller sketches—Praying Hands—was used for the apostle kneeling to the right of the empty sarcophagus.

Bildnis eines Afrikaners (1508) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Dürer drew portraits in chalk, charcoal, ink, and silverpoint, always aiming to exhaust all of the possibilities offered by his chosen technique.

In this portrait of an African man created 1508, he used a sharpened piece of chalk in order to capture the details of his subject’s face, head, and beard in clear lines. To model the face, he then smudged the chalk in order to lend the skin a satiny luster.

Kaiser Maximilian I. (1459-1519) (1518) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Maximilian I was Albrecht Dürer’s most prominent patron. The only documented encounter between the artist and the ruler took place on 28 June 1518 during the Imperial Diet in Augsburg. On this occasion, Dürer produced a spontaneous portrait drawing on which he recorded in writing that he had portraited the Emperor in his “kleinen stüble” (small chamber).

In this rendering, he did without the attributes of imperial power and concentrated on capturing the monarch’s personality.

Der Hafen von Antwerpen beim Scheldetor (1520) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

On 12 July 1520, Dürer set off towards the Netherlands to take part in the coronation of Charles V. He ended up staying in Antwerp for several months. His view of the harbor overlooks the boats moored side by side at the jetty with their jungle of masts and rigging.

Employing his strokes with the greatest efficiency, Dürer gives rise here to an impression of spatial depth and atmosphere.

Head of an Old Man, 1521 (1521) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

In early 1521, Dürer painted a Portrait of Saint Jerome. He realized Jerome’s head based on a study he had done previously, on which he had noted that it portrays a vigorous 93-year-old man from Antwerp. Brushed drawings represented an opportunity for Dürer to explore painterly values, the textures of various materials, and compositional solutions.

Lesepult mit Büchern (Detail aus dem Gemälde "Der Heilige Hieronymus") (1521) by Albrecht DürerAlbertina Museum

Dürer’s work on St. Jerome was accompanied by further light-dark studies in which he worked out his pictorial idea with a degree of precision that ended up almost exceeding the final painting. In the diary of his journey to the Netherlands, he describes such pages as done in “half-colors”, which makes clear their position at the threshold of being paintings in their own right.

Credits: Story

Concept: Dr. Christof Metzger

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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