Master of German Renaissance

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Albrecht Durer was a German painter and printmaker who made a name for himself in the late 15th century and early 16th century. He lived a relatively short life of 56 years but his work of art gained him reputation and recognition that many art critics are still in awe of his creations even after four centuries.

Durer hailed from a big family. His father was Albrecht Durer Sr. and his mother was Barbara Holper. The Durer Sr. family had 18 children and Durer was born on 21 May 1471 in Nuremberg in then Holy Roman Empire, as the third child and the second son to the family. His father was a successful goldsmith who made his fortunes in silver mining. In fact, he met Holper – the mother of his 18 children – through his trade. Holper was a daughter of his master under whom Durer Sr. learnt the goldsmith trade. He asked the hand of Holper from his master when he himself became a master and was granted his wish.

Durer studied his father’s trade as well as painting simultaneously during his childhood. He showed talent in both trades but preferred to paint. His father – Durer Sr. – preferred Durer to get into gold trade but in the end allowed Durer to follow his passion after realising his son’s potential.

At the age of 16, he was first sent to Michael Wolgemut – a renowned painter and a printmaker in Nuremberg – to study painting. As the apprentice of Wolgemut Durer learnt a great deal about painting and printmaking. Wolgemut was the most popular painter in Nuremberg at the time with many workshops and print shops in the area but he is now known not necessarily for his work but as the master of the talented German Renaissance painter Durer.

After finishing his apprenticeship under Wolgemut, Durer joined another art institute in Nuremberg to study art more and then followed the common German custom of taking wanderjahre (a sabbatical) to study art more as a wandering artist who travels while learning art and traditions of different areas.

Soon after he returned to Nuremberg, Durer married Agnes Frey. Durer was 23 years old at the time and he had a little say in the marriage since it was all pre-arranged by the two families. Predictably, his marriage was not a happy one. He left to Italy alone three months after his marriage to study art. While many think Durer did so because he disliked married life, some are under the belief that he might have done so to avoid the plague which was spreading fast in Nuremberg at the time.

His niche was to do paintings of religious themes in watercolours and oil painting. He sketched the Andes as he was travelling to Italy. In Italy, he went to Venice and was greatly influenced by the work of the artists; Antonio Del Pollaiuollo, Lorenzo di Credi, Andrea Mantegna, and Giovanni Bellini. After making the most of his trip to Italy Durer returned to Nuremberg as a complete artist; a painter and a wood sculptor. He also liked to make prints using copper sheets. He opened a workshop in Nuremberg and his work showed clear influences of the Italian Renaissance. In 1505 he returned to Italy, this time with his wife, to be engaged in painting, full time. His second trip to Italy was a successful one as it gave birth to many popular and high-quality works of art such as Paumgartner Altarpiece, The Adoration of the Magi, Saint Jerome in his Study, and Melencolia I.

His paintings were detailed and intricate, and were advanced in quality. They depicted the deep understanding Duerer had in both painting and in religion. He had once said that his style of painting is partly aided by the blessings of god. He was a devoted Christian and most of his paintings reflected his religious beliefs.

In July 1520, Durer made his fourth and last major journey to the Netherlands. He spent a year in the Netherlands and spent most of his time there to meet people and hold solo exhibitions. He documented everything he experienced in the Netherlands and sketched landscapes wherever he visited. He was battling arthritis at the time and feared that his, “Sight and freedom of hand,” was increasingly affected.  

He returned to Nuremberg and was involved in a few large-scale projects before his death on 6 April 1528. Despite the rough patches in his marriage, Durer was a devoted family man who passionately looked after his family and his parents. His large house can still be seen in Nuremberg and is a prominent landmark and a popular tourist attraction of the city.

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera