(1471-1528) German artist. He was the leading figure of the northern Renaissance. He was born in Nuremberg and traveled widely in Europe. Highly skilled in drawing and a keen student of nature, he perfected the technique of woodcut and engraving, producing woodcut series such as the Apocalypse 1498 and copperplate engravings such as The Knight, Death, and the Devil 1513 and Melancholia 1514. His paintings include altarpieces and meticulously observed portraits, including many self-portraits.
He was apprenticed first to his father, a goldsmith, then 1486 to Michael Wolgemut (1434–1519), a painter, woodcut artist, and master of a large workshop in Nuremberg. At the age of 13 he drew a portrait of himself from the mirror, the first known self-portrait in the history of European art. From 1490 he traveled widely, studying Netherlandish and Italian art, then visited Colmar, Basel, and Strasbourg and returned to Nuremberg 1495. Other notable journeys were to Venice 1505–07, where he met the painter Giovanni Bellini, and to Antwerp 1520, where he was made court painter to Charles V of Spain and the Netherlands (recorded in detail in his diary).
He was the third of 15 children of a Hungarian goldsmith who had settled and married at Nuremberg. He first worked under his father, and 1486–90 studied painting under Michael Wolgemut. A silver-point drawing (Albertina) is a self-portrait at the age of 13 already characteristic of his genius. To complete his training he worked as an engraver in Basel and Colmar, seeking instruction in the studio of Martin Schongauer (whom he greatly admired), though after Schongauer's death in 1491. In Nuremberg, 1494, he married Agnes Frey, the daughter of a musician and man of wealth, and in the autumn of that year went to Italy for the first time, one result of the journey being a series of landscape studies in watercolor. He visited Italy again 1505–07, staying in Venice, and these journeys were of great importance in his career. Not only was he impressed by Mantegna, Pollaiuolo and the Bellinis; his curiosity was aroused as to the science of Renaissance artists, and his sense of an ideal beauty, as distinct from his ear
ly detailed realism, was awakened. He was employed by the Emperor Maximilian, from whom he received an allowance, and after Maximilian's death made his only other journey of note—to the Netherlands 1520—to win the patronage of Emperor Charles V. He then saw and admired the treasures of Aztec art and craftsmanship which had been brought back from the New World, and was received in Antwerp, Brussels and Bruges with every mark of respect.
In the art of Dürer there is a balance between—and sometimes a conflict of—the Gothic spirit and northern craftsmanship and the broad intellectual outlook of the Renaissance. The 15 large woodcuts of the Apocalypse, which appeared in book form 1498 with German and Latin text, were Gothic masterpieces, grim and crowded, while at the same time wonderfully imaginative. The Life of the Virgin, which belongs to the period of his second Italian journey, has a new breadth and sense of space in composition which recalls Bellini. His genius was essentially linear, and his copper engravings, woodcuts and drawings include his most famous and moving works. The Fortune, 1500, Adam and Eve, 1504, the Great Horse and Little Horse, 1505 (studies of equine proportion), the great Melencolia, 1514 (in which he seems a northern Leonardo brooding over the endless and unsatisfied quest for knowledge), and the Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513, are masterpieces of line engraving. The Great Passion, 1498–1510, and Little Passion, 15
09–11, are notable woodcut series. His portrait drawings and studies of animals and plants, for example The Hare and the Tuft of Grass (Albertina), are superb.
Painting was never to the same extent his métier, though the self-portraits of 1493 (Louvre), 1498 (Prado) and 1504 (Munich) have an impressive place in his work, and the Adam and Eve of the Prado is a beautiful product of his Italian studies. His paintings include a number of altarpieces, among his best religious works being the Adoration of the Trinity, 1511 (Vienna), the Adoration of the Magi, 1504 (Uffizi) and the Four Apostles, 1526 (Munich). His final works were his three books, on measurement and perspective, 1525, the fortification and construction of towns, 1527, and human proportion, 1528.