He was first an apprentice in the workshop of his father, who was a goldsmith, and then in 1486 was bound to the painter and engraver Michael Wolgemut. In 1490, he set off on a long journey that would take him all over Germany and Holland, then he went to Colmar, the home town of Martin Schongaeur, the most famous German painter and engraver of the time. Next he went to Basle, which was an important centre for the graphic arts, and finally to Strasbourg (1493). In the course of these years he produced engravings, illustrations for literary works and a few portraits. He made his first trip to Italy in 1494; in Venice he became familiar with the work of Giovanni Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio, and the engravings of Mantegna and Pollaiolo. On his return to Nuremberg the following year he executed a series of watercolours and copper engravings. In 1496, he did a portrait and two polyptychs for the church of the castle of Wittenberg (1496-97) at the request of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. In 1498, he was commissioned to execute the Paumgartner Altarpiece, which he completed in 1504 (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), the year in which he painted the Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi). Besides his painting work, he continued to do woodcuts, producing such series as the Apocalypse (1497) and the Great Passion (1498). He made a second trip to Italy in 1505, visiting Venice, Ferrara, Bologna and Rome. In Venice in 1506 he produced the Virgin of the Rose Gardens for the church of the German community in the city, San Bartolomeo di Rialto. The attention to minutiae and the realistic details made a great impression, as did the richness of the chromatic range, which created strong contrasts of warm and cold colours. Leading Venetian artists like Bellini, Giorgione and Lotto were influenced by his methods and his engravings became a rich source of compositional motifs. When he returned to Nuremberg in 1507, he worked on the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (1508) for the city council, the Heller Altarpiece, now lost, and the Adoration of the Most Holy Trinity by the Communion of Saints (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). From 1511 onwards, he dedicated himself principally to engravings: he added to the Little Passion (1509-11) series, produced the prints for Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), St Jerome in his Study (1514) and Melencolia (1514), and worked on other esoteric and erudite subjects that were a mark of his philosophical and religious culture. In 1526, he produced the large-scale panels of the Apostles (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), the dark and dramatic monumentality of which are an expression of the religious upheaval of the Reformation period.
This drawing was almost certainly a study for an engraving, probably the pendant of Men’s Bath. Inside a small public bathhouse, six women of various ages and shapes are washing themselves. Two lively children are also present. Realised in Nuremberg upon his return from his first spell in Venice, the unusual theme of this work is a mark of Dürer’s interest in the female nude and in anatomy in general. The studies of the human body underway in the workshops of Bellini and Andrea Mantegna were fundamental models for the young painter.
This woodcut was an attempt by Dürer to experiment with what he had learnt in Venice about the representation of the male nude. As Jacopo de’Barbari had not revealed to him his method for constructing the human figure, which was based on a system of proportions, here the artist followed the system adopted by Vitruvio. The figures represented are variously believed to be relatives and friends of the painter, the personification of the four humours and the embodiment of the five senses. The latter interpretations are undermined by the fact that the number of figures present is six, as in Women’s Bath.
Paumgartner Altarpiece (Nativity of Christ, San Giorgio, Sant'Eustachio)
Commissioned in 1498 for the Katharinenkirche of Nuremberg by the noble Paumgartner family, it was produced at the beginning of the 16th century, as is demonstrated by the two large figures of saints on the side panels, which reveal the influence of studies on proportion conducted by the artist between 1500 and 1504. The central panel depicts the Nativity, which is being observed by seven little donors, all members of the Paumgartner family. St. George and St. Eustace, the two saints on the side panels, have been identified as being portraits of Stephan and Lukas Paumgartner. The figures of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin on the rear side are regarded as workshop pieces.
The Four Knights
A year after his return from Venice, Dürer began the fifteen preparatory drawings for the woodcuts for the Apocalypse of St. John, which he published himself. The book appeared in 1498 in a Latin and a German version. He took as his model a number of illustrations in the Bible published by Koberger in 1493, although he reduced the number of figures and made them of a monumental size. The dramatic, rousing and crudely realistic syntax of the artist spread quickly throughout Europe. In this picture, which is the fifth in the series, he gives corporeity to the human and animal figures with a gradual pattern of hatching and deep etching of the surrounds.Iconography
Adoration of the Magi
This work was commissioned by Frederick the Wise, the Prince Elector of Saxony, for the Schlosskirche (castle church) of Wittenberg. The scene unfolds within a simple space that is framed and delimited by an arched architectural form with a highly-developed sense of perspective. The painting also includes studies of nature, above all the details of the plants and animals in the foreground. There is extraordinary skill and imagination in the rendering of the clothes, sacred furnishings and the poses. Some scholars believe the young king with the blonde locks is in fact a self-portrait of the painter.Iconography
Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand
Immediately after returning from his second trip to Italy, the period in which he reached artistic maturity, Dürer painted this work for Frederick the Wise. The decidedly original choice of iconographic theme can be explained by Frederick’s passion for collecting the reliquaries of martyrs, even those of the ten thousand killed by the Emperor Hadrian in Bithynia. In his representation of the violence of the executioners and the poses of the victims – on their knees, lying on the ground, plunging off the cliffs –, Dürer displayed a profound knowledge of the human body and its proportions, besides an understanding of the rules of perspective. The overall chromatic range is dazzling.Iconography
Knight, Death and the Devil
This work has been interpreted as a representation of the miles christianus who continues along the path of virtue ignoring the temptations of the Devil. Erasmus in Enchiridion Militis Christiani (1504) had already written of “terricula et phantasmata” (terrors and phantasms). In this engraving, Dürer represents the knight, absorbed in prayer, proceeding unmoved in the presence of Death (who stands alongside with an hour-glass in hand) and the Devil (who is coming up behind him brandishing a pike). The work is also a brilliant study of the proportions and anatomy of the horse, which occupies, no means by chance, the whole of the foreground.
St. Jerome in his Study
Jerome, known as the Doctor of the Church because he translated the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, was considered by humanists to be their patron saint. Dürer depicts him in the guise of a scholar, thereby creating a kind of allegory of the contemplative life. He displayed exceptional technical skill: with his burin he managed to perfectly render the effects of light on the non-smooth surfaces and to give material substance to the wood, the coats of the two animals and the surfaces of the various objects piled up in the room. He also creates, in an impeccable fashion and in obedience to the most modern rules of perspective, a space with different degrees of depth.Iconography
Vasari praised this work as the maximum expression of the art of engraving “with a burin”. Modern scholars, intrigued by the density of meanings in the image rather than by its formal rendering, have produced various interpretations of this work. Panofsky takes the view that it represents the saturnine “melancholic temperament” (that of artistic talent), in line with the neo-Platonic theory of the four humours of man. On this interpretation, then, it is an allegory of life and artistic inspiration. According to Calvesi, it depicts the various stages of the alchemic opus: from the phase of “melanosis” through to “sublimation”, the union of opposites alluded to by the rainbow. Whatever meanings it might contain, the work stands out amidst art works of the modern age by virtue of its rare conceptual density.
After 1511 Dürer painted almost exclusively portraits or devotional works of a portrait kind, abandoning his complex, brightly-coloured compositions. This work is indicative of this new style with which the artist sought to match the simplicity of nature. This portrait is imbued with severity and moral tension, and was part of a series intended to include all the disciples of Christ but which went no further than Apostle Philip, also housed in the Uffizi. In his rendering of the saint’s beard, Dürer displayed his mastery of microscopic detail.Iconography
On 2 March 1521, Dürer recorded in his diary that he had given the painting to Rodrigo Fernandez de Almada, the head of a Portuguese commercial mission in Antwerp, for which he had already done a portrait (now in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). The saint occupies the whole space of the panel and looks towards the viewer with a melancholic and thoughtful expression. He is depicted as the learned man who translated the Bible. Before him is an open book and he has a pen and inkpot. The index finger warns the observer of the transience of earthly things. With this work, Dürer definitively turned his back on symbolic complexity and embraced the cause of the immediate intelligibility of pictures.Iconography
Dürer had done a drawing of Erasmus in Brussels in 1520 at a time marked by great spiritual affinity and mutual esteem. Six years later he engraved this portrait of Erasmus, standing behind a desk intently writing. The inscription behind him, half in Latin and half in Greek, says that the books authored by Erasmus would do him more justice that the portrait itself. In fact, Erasmus did not like the work because he was unable to recognise his essential features in it.