Albrecht Dürer, famous for his prolific Italian-style art and scientific writing, is considered the greatest German artist of the Renaissance. He traveled to Italy twice during his lifetime and produced a variety of works, including paintings, etchings, woodcuts, drawings and graphics. Dürer’s life is one of the best documented of his time, especially due to his correspondence with friends.
He was born the third son of a Hungarian goldsmith on May 21, 1471, in Nürnberg, Germany. Dürer began as an apprentice in his father’s goldsmith workshop, and created “a remarkable self-portrait” in 1484, when he was just 13. At 15, he became an apprentice to Michael Wohlgemuth, a painter and woodcut illustrator, and after three years in Wohlgemuth’s workshop, Dürer left for a period of travel. This travel probably took him to the Netherlands, Alsace and Basel, Switzerland. In May 1494, Dürer returned to Nürnberg and soon married Agnes Frey, a merchant’s daughter.
Dürer’s two trips to Italy in 1494 and 1505 and his belief in the Italian Renaissance aristocratic ideal heavily influenced his work. Dürer "absorbed the Italian idea of the artist as important to society.” His work even eventually influenced the Italian artists that had originally sparked his own inspiration.
In his Four Books on Human Proportions, Dürer wrote, “I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.” While he is most famous for his portraits, Dürer also was known as a pioneer in painting landscapes. “It was Durer who developed landscape as a recollected image and autonomous work of art, as a theme of its own without reference to other works… Centuries had to pass before such drawings occurred again in this absolute formulation.” His bold watercolors dealt with realistic subjects from the Alps from his Italian journeys. Dürer used “predominantly unmixed cool, sombre colours” in his landscape paintings.
Though Dürer made a variety of works, he made only five etchings, in which he attempted to imitate the “formal, premeditated quality” of etchings. These engravings show that the spontaneous and flowing lines popular in Italy were not yet appreciated in northern Europe.
Above all, Dürer is most famous for his paintings, particularly his self-portraits. Dürer, like other Renaissance artists, attempted to portray the inner character of a person through their representation. A self-portrait created in 1500 portrays Dürer as a Christ-like figure. One of Dürer’s most famous works, the “Four Apostles” (St. John, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Mark), created in 1526, marks his highest achievement in painting. By this time, he had also solidified his style, which had vacillated since 1500 between a Gothic sensibility and the style of the Italian Renaissance artists. Dürer also introduced “idealized nude figures” into German art.
Dürer’s primary Italian influences were specifically Venetian, though he was most influenced by Antonio Pollaiuolo of Florence, who created “sinuous, energetic line studies of the human body in motion." Other influential artists were Andrea Mantegna, a Venetian who was preoccupied with classical themes and precise representation of the human body, and Jacopo de’ Barbari, a minor Venetian painter who was “seeking a geometric solution to the rendering of human proportions."
Dürer was not merely a painter or printmaker: he also published books on geometry, the techniques of perspective, civil defense, and the measurements of the human body. He attempted to explain “idealized beauty” as well as ugliness, and differences in “human personality and appearance.” He is described as “the only Northern artist who fully absorbed the sophisticated Italian dialogue between scientific theory and art." His book on proportion, published in 1528, would continue to aid and influence realist artists for years to come.