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Albrecht Durer: Biography, Paintings & Prints

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The prints of Albrecht Durer, an early Northern Renaissance artist, remain among the most prominent pieces of the period. In his travels, he spread his own fame and introduced techniques that would become crucial to the Renaissance in Northern Europe.

Biography

Albrecht Durer was born in 1471 to a family of craftsmen. For an artist, it was a lucky time to be born. To the south, the Renaissance, or rebirth of art and learning following the Middle Ages, was in full-effect in Italy, and its effects were starting to trickle north. Durer would have a considerable role to play in the Northern Renaissance.

His father, as well as his godfather, were both goldsmiths. Durer gained many skills from them that would transfer to his own career as an artist. In fact, his godfather would eventually become a printer, giving the young Albrecht even more access to his future techniques. Despite initial talent as a goldsmith, by age fifteen Durer had begun an apprenticeship with Michael Wolgemut, one of the most famous painters and printmakers of his time.

Durer Self Portrait

Durer gained accolades for his work quickly. He traveled widely, gaining more talent and more admirers with each new town. Of special note is the talent he gained in fields not immediately relating to the printmaking that he made his fame on, such as watercolor.

With time, Durer gained the attention of Maximilian I, the Austrian emperor, and with his patronage, many of the artist's greatest works were commissioned. With time, Durer's fame spread to other monarchs, namely the king of Denmark. By 1520, Durer had made a considerable fortune, and his work became markedly more religious as he began to comment quietly about his support for Protestant leader Martin Luther. In addition to Luther, Durer also maintained correspondence with other great minds of the age, such as having a particularly established friendship with philosopher Erasmus before the artist's death in 1528.

Paintings

Durer is more famous for his prints than his paintings, however that does not remove any of the man's genius with a brush. Durer's work shows a definite transition from a medieval emphasis on color to the emphasis on symbolism and form present in works of the Renaissance.

This movement can be best seen in comparing two works, Adoration of the Magi from 1504 and The Four Apostles from 1526. In these works, Durer moves from mastery of color and emphasis on pattern so embolic of medieval art to incorporations of more realistic forms in the later painting. Nowhere is this more visible than the clothes of the figures represented. In the Adoration of the Magi, the wise man's cloak has texture, but it is not necessarily natural. However, by the time of the Four Apostles, the folds of the garments use lighter and darker hues to look more realistic.

Adoration of the Magi
Adoration of the Magi

Four Apostles
Four Apostles

Printmaking

Durer was perhaps the most talented printmaker of the Northern Renaissance and was prolific in creating these copies of his work. Printmaking would experience rapid growth during the Renaissance, as the printing press finally made the work possible on a scale beyond that of small stamps and seals. His father's background as a goldsmith meant that the artist was exposed to the importance of detail from an early age, and he continued to nurture these skills as a mature artist.

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