Albrecht Dürer’s roving Renaissance
As a new exhibition focusing on Albrecht Dürer’s extensive European travels opens at London’s National Gallery, Melissa Baksh tracks the wanderings of the Renaissance polymath and pioneering self-promoter.
In these unprecedented times, the luxury of foreign travel exists, for many, only as a memory. Before Covid-19, the world was a much smaller place than it was 500 years ago. Nevertheless, Albrecht Dürer, one of the most famous European artists of his day, travelled far and wide. He made four significant journeys: north of the Alps (1490-94), across the Alps to Venice (1494-95, 1505-07) and to the Low Countries (1520-21). That artists travelled extensively in this period may seem surprising, yet it was easier than we might think to traverse mountains such as the Alps, along routes used regularly by merchants, and rivers were like motorways then, meaning Dürer could easily travel up and down the Rhine by boat.
Dürer was born in 1471 in Nuremberg, among the strongest artistic and commercial centres of 15th- and 16th-century Europe. His father, a successful goldsmith from Hungary, had travelled to the Netherlands to learn his trade. Dürer demonstrated extraordinary skill as a draughtsman at an early age, producing his silverpoint Self Portrait (1484) when he was only 13. He trained under the tutelage of Michael Wolgemut, Nuremberg’s most successful painter and designer of woodcuts. In 1490, having completed his apprenticeship, he set out on the customary Wanderjahre, or ‘wandering years’, travelling from place to place, learning from different workshops. This tradition was crucial for the transmission of artistic styles in Europe, and is still alive in some countries today. As the upcoming National Gallery exhibition ‘Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist’ will show, his travels facilitated profound creative exchanges and increased his influence and fame.
Dürer was a polymath: a master draughtsman, printmaker and painter, but also a writer and theoretician who was deeply interested in the world around him. The National Gallery exhibition will display a wide selection of his paintings, prints, engravings and letters, in many cases for the first time in Britain. It is the first major Dürer exhibition in this country in almost 20 years, and the first to focus on the artist through his travels; it runs in partnership with an exhibition from the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, which will focus mainly on the latter part of Dürer’s career and his travels in the Low Countries. This is a rare opportunity to flesh out the context for the three early Dürer paintings owned by the National Gallery, and to get in touch with the rest of his extensive career.
We will see that Dürer, whom art historian Larry Silver calls ‘a celebrity artist’, combined the business of art with making art itself. His fervent cultivation of self-image speaks directly to the ubiquitous selfie and the hyper-individualist celebrity culture of today. Dürer very consciously promoted himself, and, by the time he was in his twenties, he had already established his name in Europe due to his unrivalled woodcut prints and engravings. These objects could be easily multiplied and disseminated far and wide due to their light and durable nature and, as a result, were seen by audiences all over Europe. His virtuosic woodcuts – such as the Apocalypse series (1497-98), comprising 15 woodcuts depicting scenes from The Book of Revelation – were well known to both artists and collectors in Italy. As National Gallery deputy director and curator Susan Foister notes, by the time he travelled to Venice, ‘his reputation as the most innovative printmaker of his time preceded him’. Such was his success that he gained recognition from artist, writer and historian Giorgio Vasari, who was notoriously scathing of artists from outside Tuscany, let alone Italy.
Adept and forward-thinking, Dürer led the way in marketing and personal branding. In signing his works with a designed version of his initials, he created his distinctive ‘AD’ monogram. This produced one of the world’s first corporate logos and set a precedent for authorial ownership. His monogram was forged by many artists, and Vasari notes that Dürer travelled to Venice to seek redress against printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi, who had been making copies of his engravings. This was a major event in the history of what we now know as intellectual property.
Dürer first travelled to Venice in 1494, where he came into contact with renowned artists such as Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna. His letters, which give a clear sense of his own commercial enterprise, suggest he may have visited Venice with the idea of creating additional income. He brought with him prints to sell – as he did later on in the Low Countries – with the hope of building on already established international distribution networks. We can therefore see this early trip not as a mere extension of the Wanderjahre, but the start of a successful business venture.
We may think of self-promotion as a distinctly modern phenomenon, only exacerbated by the internet and social media; however, as an international artist and a prolific businessman, Dürer was conscious of his reputation and public image, and his travels seem to have increased his sense of self-awareness. During his second sojourn in Italy, Dürer produced the oil painting Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506), for San Bartolomeo al Rialto, a church that served the German community in Venice. The work demonstrated Northern pictorial qualities but also a mastery of colour, showing he could beat Venetian artists at their own game. He declared: ‘I also silenced all the artists who said I was good at engraving but, as a painter, I did not know how to deal with colours. Now everyone says they have never seen more beautiful colours.’
Dürer rigorously documented his life through letters, drawings and journals. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Christof Metzger, curator at Albertina Museum in Vienna, explains that ‘virtually no other figure of the era was the subject of such concentrated and meticulous documentation, written or visual’. Through this rich range of written sources, in which Dürer contemplates life, art and his role as an artist, we can gain a unique insight into both the personality and the psyche of the man. His writings also show an interest in his physical self and body, and include fascinating everyday things, such as the foods he ate. As Foister notes: ‘His voice resonates across five centuries to speak to us today.’
‘Here I am a gentleman, at home I am a parasite,’ he writes in 1506, during his second visit to Venice. This not only gives us a sense of how highly valued Dürer was in Italy, but how acutely he was aware of how he was perceived. As a discipline, Western art history has largely focused on the European division of north and south, with 19th- and 20th-century scholarship suggesting that Dürer’s career could only be validated through his time in Italy, and a subsequent infusion of Italian style into his art. In recent years, scholars have become more interested in the previously underestimated impact Dürer had in Italy. Dürer’s art knew no geographical boundaries, and therefore the artist cannot simply be aligned with one place. Indeed, threaded throughout the exhibition are several points of cultural contact and exchange. Through the inclusion of artists who inspired, or were inspired by, Dürer, the exhibition will show the clear two-way cultural transmission at play, in both northern and southern Europe.
In the 10 years after his return from Italy to Nuremberg (1495-1505) Dürer’s career progressed considerably, and he became official court artist to Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and his successor Charles V. He produced venerated works such as a double-sided Madonna and Child (c1496-99), held by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and on show in Britain for the first time in the National Gallery exhibition. Bellini’s influence is clear in the sculptural modelling of the figures, and the contrasting blues and reds are typically Venetian in style. Yet Mary’s placement in the corner of a room beside an open window nods to Netherlandish devotional images.
In 1500 Dürer met Venetian artist Jacopo de’ Barbari, who was working in Nuremberg at the time. This artist intrigued and inspired Dürer, who was fascinated by Jacopo’s knowledge of perspective and human proportion. Jacopo had shown Dürer how to use Vitruvian proportions to draw human figures, and his 1504 Adam and Eve engraving can be seen as his attempt to render the human body according to this idealised system. Dürer pursued this knowledge for the rest of his life, and when he arrived in the Low Countries 20 years later, he tried but, much to his frustration, failed to acquire a book of Jacopo’s secrets.
The exhibition reveals Dürer’s impressions of his second visit to Venice, expressed in letters to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer. Alongside these documents is the great Christ among the Doctors (1506), on loan from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, in Madrid. The overcrowded, dense composition recalls Italian Renaissance painter Cima da Conegliano’s rendering of the same subject. Spectacularly dynamic and full of dramatic tension, the grotesque figures of the doctors contrast with the Saviour’s youthful beauty. It is inscribed with the words ‘opus quinque dierum’, a not-so-humble brag that Dürer had completed the work in just five days. The masterpiece is joined by exquisite preparatory drawings from the Albertina collection, including Head of the 12-Year-Old Jesus and Hand of a Rabbi Holding a Book.
Dürer was also very interested in the work of Netherlandish artists such as 15th-century master Jan Van Eyck and the contemporaneous Gerard David, whose painting The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (c1510) seems to have inspired the artist. In 1520-21, Dürer journeyed to the Low Countries, where he was, on arrival, fêted as an artistic hero. His writings show that he was immensely gratified by the reception that he received from civic authorities and artists alike. During this visit he created his iconic portrait of Saint Jerome (1521), on loan from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon. This painting marks a radical departure from the visual tradition of Saint Jerome, which had typically engaged a full-length composition of the scholar in his study, writing at his desk in utmost concentration. Here, we observe him close up, as a melancholy, aged savant, pointing conspicuously to a skull. Dürer gifted the portrait to his close friend Portuguese merchant Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada. It remained in the Low Countries and was seen by many, subsequently inspiring a whole sequence of paintings of Saint Jerome by Netherlandish artists.
Another highlight is the striking Portrait of Bernhard von Reesen (1521), which depicts a merchant from Gdansk in a three-quarter profile against a red background. In keeping with Flemish pictorial tradition, his hand rests on the low border of the picture, clasping a letter, by which the sitter is identified. Also included are Dürer’s observational sketches of people, animals and townscapes from his silverpoint sketchbook, which are some of his most vivid and sensitive drawings.
Finally, the exhibition will bring to light a groundbreaking new discovery: a reassessment of the ‘Lament on Luther’, an elegy on the arrest of Martin Luther, a seminal figure of the Reformation. Art historian Jeroen Stumpel has provided compelling evidence to suggest that this important document, ostensibly written by Dürer, and published as part of his travel journal, may have, in fact, been written by a monk. This dramatically changes our view of Dürer’s connections with Luther, whose beliefs informed several of the artist’s works.
Dürer was a pioneering Renaissance artist whose artistic ability and entrepreneurial skill knew no boundaries – neither territorial nor intellectual. And while there is of course a certain poignance in an exhibition hinged on an artist’s travels, during a time when, around the world, this freedom to roam may still be restricted, this exploration into Dürer’s journeys allows viewers to accompany the artist on his Wanderjahre and beyond. In their book Anachronic Renaissance, art historians Alexander Nagel and Christopher S Wood consider the layered temporality of art and the problem with strict periodisation – grouping works of art according to a certain time or place. They suggest that, in particular, Renaissance art holds an innate ability to reach across time, into both the past and the future. In this context, Dürer is an artist who may propel us to look forwards, with hope, towards a time when the world may feel smaller once again.
A version of this article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
‘Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist’ will be on at the National Gallery, London, from 20 November 2021 to 27 February 2022. 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass.