Albrecht Dürer Shaped My Sensibility
I was 17 or so in 1971, 500 years exactly after the birth of Albrecht Dürer. I grew up in Mount Vernon, a small town named after George Washington’s estate, on the banks of the Kokosing River, amidst the rolling hills of central Ohio. We were 40 miles from Columbus, the state capital, and Woody Hayes’s Ohio State Buckeyes. They were Big 10 champions in football, and National Collegiate champions during my teenage years. I was somewhat into sports, mostly baseball. One year I batted over .400 in the Babe Ruth League, so I was pretty good at it. Football, however, was too brutal for me. One had to have a killer instinct to play that sport, which I did not. So playing football was totally out, big time.
Rather, I was into Art. I liked to look at drawings and paintings, and make my own as well. I was the editor of the Vedette, the high-school literary magazine. I went to RISD the summer between my junior and senior years. I got the Kenyon College Faculty Prize for a young and promising creative soul. I marched to the tune of a “different drummer,” and read Thoreau.
One the the books I managed to procure (and I have no idea how I did in the “sleepy hollow” of Mount Vernon), was a book of Albrecht Dürer Prints & Drawings. It had this color drawing of a wing on the front cover. I cherished the thing, hovering over it like a Bible. And though I was not in the temperament to draw in that style, I loved to gaze at Dürer’s acute attention to detail, and the remarkable intensity of his graphic work.
His Father Was a Goldsmith
Albrecht Dürer Sr. was a goldsmith. Originally from Hungary, he migrated to Nuremberg, in the Bavarian section of Germany, to practice his craft.
Dürer was born on 21 May 1471, the third child and second son of Albrecht Dürer the Elder and Barbara Holper, who married in 1467 and had eighteen children together. Albrecht Dürer the Elder (originally Albrecht Ajtósi) was a successful goldsmith who by 1455 had moved to Nuremberg from Ajtós, near Gyula in Hungary. He married Holper, his master’s daughter, when he himself qualified as a master.Wikipedia
Albrecht Dürer the Younger was one of 18 children. Now that is a busy household. His father was successful as a goldsmith, which afforded him the space to pursue the arts. Goldsmiths are meticulous people. Think about it. What you have to do with very expensive materials to create something even more jewel-like and valuable would take an attention very minutely focused. Later Albrecht Jr. would make some of the finest engravings ever made, and set the standard for printmaking for hundreds of years to come. Most likely his attention to detail came from his father, and the working of the metal plates for the engravings a simpatico action of jeweler like motions.
The boy definitely had talent. He drew this Self-Portrait when he was only 13 years old. He had great respect for the family tradition of good craftsmanship. One could say it was “in his blood.” Having a Hungarian Father and a German Mother, Albrecht the younger must have flowed forth as the better offspring of this double cultural confluence. The attention to detail of the Germanic tradition melded with the passion of the Hungarian Soul. He was a “hybrid,” one could say. There is an intensity of gaze that Dürer captures, more so than any other Northern European Renaissance painter.
The simplicity of this portrait of his Father is stunning. The subdued sanguine background roughly brushed next the the deep burnt sienna over garment have an interplay. All this sets the space for the detail of the facial features to come forth and penetrate us. The man feels like he is here and now, though 500 years ago was this masterpiece painted.
Albrecht Traveled Around
Born in Germany amidst the height of artistic development of the 15th century, Dürer came into a Renaissance that was well under-way in the world of European Arts and Culture. Young Albrecht was driven to discover the new and the bold. He was on the cutting edge of abandoning the medieval, feudal constraints for the freedoms of the newly formed Merchant Class, which subsidized painting, sculpture and architecture in a totally new and independent manner. Also, the technological advance of printing was a breakthrough, to say the least. All across the Continent, Europe was abuzz with Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the printing press. The famous Gutenberg Bibles were printed just a little more than a decade before Dürer’s birth.
Engraving that was used extensively in goldsmithing prior to the arrival of the printing press was transferred to a method of producing printed pictures from engraved copper plates. Intaglio printing was born, in which the engraved lines were filled with ink―the plate wiped clean―and then pressed with a moist paper overlaid on top. The result was a print of the engraved lines. Albrecht Dürer became proficient in this technique better than any other, due to his facile hand, his acute eye, and the skill passed to him from his master craftsman father.
In Alsace, the city of Colmar was humming with artistic innovations, particularly in the area of printing and printmaking, where Martin Schongauer was mastering the art of engraving. In 1490, only 19 years old, the young Albrecht headed out of the house of his father’s business in Nuremberg for a four year wanderlust to spread his creative wings over this Rebirth of new artistic possibilities. He traveled to Colmar to meet Schongauer. The meeting was brief because Martin died in 1491, shortly after Dürer began his adventures, but the lessons were well learned. This is an engraving by Schongauer of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” circa 1480-90. It is not hard to see the influences of this master printmaker on the young goldsmith’s son from Nuremberg.
Nearly 25 years later Dürer was well in the swing of his masterworks of engraving, having gleaned the best of what Schongauer had to offer. One can be mesmerized by the detail of this engraving―”The Knight, Death, and the Devil.”
A Master of the Woodblock Print
When A.D. was 15, he apprenticed in the studio of prominent Nuremberg painter and printmaker Michael Wolgemut. It is here that Albrecht developed his skills in drawing, painting, and the art of woodblock printing. The delicacy of Dürer’s woodblock prints are unsurpassed. Yet, one must see again and again that his ability to glean from the Master during his time of tutelage is uncannily astute. He takes into himself their skill and then excels beyond it tenfold. A hundred fold.
This woodblock of Wolgemut below, of “Peter’s Distress,” shows Jesus blessing the distressed Peter and other disciples in the boat. The simple line renderings are still very medieval, though the spatial perspective implies a more far off horizon. But by the time Dürer takes up the tools to cut his own block of “Samson Rending the Lion,” the rules have changed. Naturalistically speaking, he portrays the scene so palpably beyond Wolegut’s, his Master, with purely black line and compositional prowess.
The landscape is rendered believable. The plant life is accurately depicted, and the distant architecture creates a vast perspective. No longer are the figures merely flat pictograms of man and beast, but rather real flesh and bone creatures that come forth to grab us out of our complacency. Flesh and bone become believable in the humanistic principles that pervaded the early fifteenth century Renaissance. And in Germany, Albrecht Dürer is the upholder of a faith and skill of this newly found freedom.
Dürer The Painter
I must admit when I think of Dürer, I imagine his master drawings and prints in my mind’s eye. But the man was a principle painter as well, amongst the “old Masters” of the early Northern Renaissance. He is often known for his Self-Portraits. This Self-Portrait at Age 26 was done after extensive travels in Italy, where Albrecht met such notable painters as Leonardo DaVinci and Raphael. With a flair for the dramatic, one can imagine him dressed in these Italian clothes, meticulously arranged, with a window into the far off Alps in the background. There he sits gazing at us in his fine attire, kid gloves and all, in a most self-confident pose of narcissistic triumph.
Dürer is absolutely obsessed with detail, as are most Northern Renaissance painters. The materials, especially the fabrics and the textural depictions become paramount. He treats the brushwork like a burin as he engraves out his detail in the most delicate dance of touchable substance. One feels the threads of the garment and hairs of cascading waves catching our transfixed attentions. I can appreciate every minute stroke, just as in every engraved line of his graphic works.
Two Favorites of Mine
I must say that my two most favorite Dürer works are the Young Hare and the Conversion of Saint Eustace. The Young Hare for its beauty of humble detail and presence of divine form, and the Conversion of Saint Eustace for its dramatic depiction of a man’s epiphany of the Christ Consciousness in his life.
Dürer Lives On In Immortality
My youth was not wasted on blundering into a passion for Albrecht Dürer’s work. The book of Dürer Drawings I had when I was 17 served me well. It probably transformed my life more than any other book when I was a young man. Only Thoreau’s Walden could have rivaled this publication in my small repertoire of cherished volumes. The Spirit of Albrecht Dürer entered into me, like the epiphany of Saint Eustace.
I knew then over 50 years ago that I would join in a great crusade—one of those whom like looking at pictures—paintings and drawings in particular. Pictures spoke to me a thousand words, and Dürer’s pictures spoke a million more words of detail that blew my mind past its usual confines of small town colloquialism. Mount Vernon was a good place to have come from, affording me the safe and simple upbringing somewhat sequestered from the world, but Nuremberg and places like it, held treasures that called me to unprecedented adventure.
There I was in 1971 with genius in my hands. 500 years earlier in a distant land a child was born, a destiny was fixed, an outpouring of Faith made manifest in the drawn and painted forms of an enlightened artist, who five centuries later took root in my soul. Dürer lives on in immortality. In my immortality. There is no fallen angel here. No Melancholia can be permanent when I consider the creative contribution he made to lift my soul out of the doldrums of spiritual sleep. Wake up! His pictures would say. And look deeply at what is being transmitted in the details of every line engraved on the Destiny of our Immortal Spirit.