A Renaissance genius – Albrecht Dürer at the Albertina

Albrecht Dürer had an impressive natural talent for life-like drawing and painting.  Born in Nuremberg in 1471 as the third son of a goldsmith, young Albrecht already painted an impressive self-portrait at the age of 13 and later in life produced astounding, almost photorealistic portraits.  The Albertina museum has a selection of over 100 drawings, a dozen paintings, personal writings, and other rare documents on view.  I finally went to see it over the Christmas holidays, and I am so glad I did, as it is really a very impressive show.


Self-Portrait drawn at the age of 13, having learned basic drafting skills in his father´s goldsmith workshop, 1484, using silverpoint on primed paper. With this technique, it is not possible to make a lot of corrections, and so the precision of this youth work is all the more impressive.

After his apprenticeship he went on the traditional journeyman´s wanderings to the Upper Rhine region, and later he travelled to Northern Italy.  Whether he saw the originals on location or back home on prints, Dürer was impressed with the works of the Italian artist Andrea Mantegna.  His version of Battle of the Sea Gods (1494, at right) mirrors Mantegna´s 1470-75 version (at left) almost exactly.

In the late 15th century, the Nuremberg public was not yet very familiar with art from classical antiquity, and scenes from mythology such as this one were rare and fascinating.

During his travels he also drew and painted cityscapes, including several images of Innsbruck, in which he documented the 15th century architecture and urban structure, though he modified some of it in accordance with his sense of aesthetics.

After his initial journeys, he began setting up his own workshop.  By 1500 Dürer´s works already encompassed around 30 engravings and as many woodcuts, produced at his own expense to interest potential buyers with his skilful technique and unusual scenes.  His book on the Apocalypse, self-produced with the help of his father in law in 1498, included 16 woodcut illustrations featuring extraordinary drama.  The composition of The Four Horsemen (below) is unusual in that the riders seem to be riding right out of the frame – and is it just me, or does the skeletal rider at left also remind you of the White Walkers of Game of Thrones?

The Four Horsemen, part of the illustrations of the Apocalypse, 1498

After a trip to Venice, Dürer made some prints based on motifs of ornamental interlace patterns that were popular in Italy around 1500.  By adapting the knot patterns and translating them into the woodcutting technique, he made these motifs available to the Northern European market.

After returning from Venice, where Dürer had proven himself not only as an outstanding master of the line, but also as a painter, his commissions for large-scale paintings increased considerably.  In Venice, he had begun working on his famous Christ among the Doctors, although he apparently it was finished at his workshop later.

The Feast of the Rose Garlands, 1606-1612
Detail from Maria mit der Birnenschnitte, 1512 – the work on the veil is amazing.

Astounding naturalistic details

I have great admiration for Dürer´s detailed drawings and etchings.  There are, of course, his naturalistic studies, such as the iconic Hare and the Left Wing of a Blue Roller, as well as the botanical illustrations of meadow flowers.  But this exhibition has so much more on offer that I was not even aware of, and it is not only showing works from the Albertina´s own collection, but also loans from major museums (the Kunsthistorische Museum Vienna, the Uffizi, the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, etc.).

His detailed composition of a common piece of meadow of the kind one would have seen around April or May at German field margins is probably put together from separate detailed studies he made of individual flowers.  He often included such natural elements in larger paintings as well.

The Great Piece of Turf, 1503
The Madonna with the Iris includes plant details from Dürer´s detailed botanical drawings, after a design by Dürer, attributed to Hans Baldung Grien from Dürer´s workshop

In his later portraits, the realism is also astounding.

Agnes Dürer (his wife) as St. Anne, 1519, brush, heightened with white, on gray prepared paper
Portrait of Dürer´s friend Jakob Muffel, 1526, oil on wood, transferred to Canvas (on loan from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

By imperial demand

The emperor Maximilian I commissioned Dürer to produce a number of projects meant to keep Maximilian´s memory alive for posterity.  Dürer became the primary and supervising artist of the so-called Triumphal Arch, a woodcut visualizing Maximilian´s life and family tree.  It is one of the largest prints ever produced (3.5 meters high and 3 meters wide, a composite made of 36 large sheets of paper (first edition in 1517/18).


A rich heritage of Northern Renaissance art

Thankfully, Dürer carefully preserved his work, almost as if he were a collector of his own art, and much of his legacy is preserved to this day.  In the 56 years of his life, Dürer produced more than 1000 drawings, 300 prints, and about 100 paintings.  He also wrote a diary about his life and travels, and produced treatises on art theory.

The famous Praying Hands are part of a series of detailed studies that Dürer prepared for the Heller Altarpiece, which was an oil on panel triptych by  Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald, executed between 1507 and 1509 — the altarpiece itself is now dismantled and spread across different institutions, one of the Dürer panels is lost, but all his studies for it have been preserved.  The Praying Hands are also known as Study of the Hands of an Apostle, and he used the technique of white heightening and black ink on (self-made) blue coloured paper.

One of Dürer´s earliest known paintings is St. Jerome Penitent (1494), painted in oil on wood (on loan from the National Gallery in London).  In his much later (1521) close-up portrait of the same saint in a completely different style, Dürer included a reference to the transience of life by showing St. Jerome pointing at a skull (on loan from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon).


Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, 1508 Oil on wood, transferred on canvas (on loan from Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)


This comprehensive exhibition left me hugely impressed, as you can probably tell.  Definite recommendation – though you will not be alone (it is not only very impressive, but also very popular).

For a few more impressions you can have a look at the slide-show gallery below (does not work on all devices).

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The exhibition is on view from 20 September 2019 until 6 January 2020 – so hurry!

Sources:  Website of the Albertina Museum, exhibition inscriptions, Wikipedia

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