No other nation has so unanimously chosen one of its sons as its representative in art as Germany—Protestant and Catholic, North and Southhas chosen Dürer. On April 6, 1928, the four-hundredth anniversary of his death, the Reichstag in Berlin and the city council in Nuremberg put aside politics and dogmas to honor the artist whom Germany loves best. Meanwhile connoisseurs vainly offered $1,000,000 for a painting—The Feast of the Rose Garlands—for which Dürer himself received no guilders ($2,-750?).47
His Hungarian father was a goldsmith settled in Nuremberg. Albrecht was the third of eighteen children, most of whom died in infancy. In the parental studio the boy learned to draw with pencil, charcoal, and pen, and to engrave with the burin; he taught himself to observe microscopically, and to represent objects and subjects in indefatigable detail, so that in some of his portraits almost every hair seems to have received its individual stroke of the brush. The father had hoped that his son would be another goldsmith, but he yielded to the youth’s desire to widen his art, and sent him as an apprentice to Wolgemut (1486). Albrecht developed slowly; his genius lay in ambition, perseverance, patience. “God lent me industry,” he said, “so that I learned well; but I had to put up with a great deal of annoyance from his assistants.” 48 Having little opportunity to study the nude, he frequented the public baths, and drew such Apollos as he could find there. He himself was something of an Apollo in those years. A friend described him fondly:
A body remarkable in build and stature, and not unworthy of the noble mind it contained... face intelligent, eyes flashing... a long neck, broad chest, narrow waist, powerful thighs, steady legs. As to his hands, you would have said that you had never seen anything more elegant. And of his speech the sweetness was so great that one wished it would never end.49
Attracted by Schongauer’s engravings, he made his way to Colmar (1492), only to find that that master was dead. He learned what he could from Schongauer’s brothers, then passed on to Basel, where he absorbed from Grünewald the secret of intensely religious art. He was already a skilled draftsman; an edition of St. Jerome’s letters, printed at Basel in 1492, bore on its title page a portrait of the saint by Dürer; and this was so acclaimed that several publishers competed for his future work. However, his father urged him to come home and marry; a wife had been chosen for him in his absence. He returned to Nuremberg, and settled down to wedded life with Agnes Frey (1494).
A year earlier he had painted himself as a youth garbed and coiffured almost like a woman, proud yet diffident, distrusting and defying the world. In 1498, still vain of his features, and now also of his beard, he painted his portrait as a young patrician richly dressed, with tasseled cap and long brown curls; this is one of the great self-portraits of all time. In 1500 he pictured himself again, more simply costumed, the face elongated between masses of hair falling to the shoulders, the penetrating eyes mystically intent; Dürer seems here to have deliberately presented himself in an imagined likeness of Christ, not in impious bravado, but presumably in his oft-voiced opinion that a great artist is an inspired mouthpiece of God.50 Vanity was the prop of his industry. He not only multiplied self-portraits, but found room for himself in many of his pictures. At times he could be modest, and sadly conscious of his limitations. “When we are praised,” he told Pirkheimer, “we turn up our noses and believe it all; but perhaps a master mocker is laughing at us behind our backs.” 51 For the rest he was good-natured, pious, loyal, generous, and as happy as circumstances would permit.
He could not have been infatuated with his wife, for he set out for Italy shortly after his marriage, leaving her behind. He had heard of what he called the “regrowth” of the arts in Italy “after they had been in hiding for a millennium”;52 and though he never intimately shared in that resurrection of classic literature, philosophy, and art which accompanied the Renaissance, he was anxious to see at first hand what it was that had given the Italians their excellence in painting and sculpture, in prose and poetry. He stayed chiefly in Venice, where the Renaissance had not yet reached full bloom; but when he came back to Nuremberg (1495) he had somehow received the stimulus that sparked the rapid productivity of his next ten years. In 1507, with a loan of a hundred florins ($2,500?) from Pirkheimer, he went again to Italy, and this time he stayed for a year and a half. He studied the works of Mantegna and Squarcione at Padua, copied drawings humbly, and was soon recognized by the Bellini and other Venetians as an accomplished draftsman. The Feast of the Rose Garlands, which he painted for a German church in Venice, won praise even from the Italians, who still considered most Germans to be barbarians. The Venetian Signory offered him a permanent post if he would take up his residence there, but his wife and friends were importuning him to come back to Nuremberg. He noted that artists had won a much higher social standing in Italy than in Germany, and resolved to demand a similar status on his return. “Here,” he wrote, “I am a fine gentleman; at home I am a parasite”—i.e., unproductive of material goods.53
He was delighted by the excitement of art in Italy, the number and conflicts of artists, the learned and passionate discussions of art theories. When Jacopo de’ Barbari expounded to him the principles of Piero della Francesca and other Italians on the mathematical proportions of a perfect human body, Dürer remarked that he “would rather have had this explained to him than to have received a new kingdom.” 54 In Italy he became accustomed to the nude in art, if only by studying classic statuary. While his own work remained thoroughly Teutonic and Christian, he adopted with enthusiasm the Italian admiration for pagan art, and in a long sequence of writings he strove to teach his countrymen the Italian secrets of perspective, proportion, and coloring. With these two trips of Dürer to Italy the Gothic style came to an end in German painting, and the same German generation that rejected Rome in religion accepted Italy in art.
Dürer himself remained in a creative but confusing tension between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, between German mysticism and Italian worldliness; and the joy of life that he had seen in Italy never quite overcame in his soul the medieval meditation on death. Except for his portraits, his subjects remained almost wholly religious, and many mystical. Nevertheless his real religion was art. He worshiped a perfect line more than the imitation of Christ. Even in his religious productions he showed the artist’s driving interest in all the objects of even the most common daily experience. Like Leonardo, he drew nearly everything that he saw—rocks, streams, trees, horses, dogs, pigs, ugly faces and figures, and imaginary beings of marvelous or horrible form. He drew his left leg as seen in diverse positions, and punched a pillow into seven different shapes to be studied by his indefatigable pen. He crowded his work with a veritable menagerie of animals, and sometimes he drew a whole city as a background for a picture. He illustrated with relish and humor the life and doings of country folk. He loved the Germans, painted their enormous heads and rubicund features without protest, and introduced them into the unlikeliest environments, always richly robed like prosperous burghers, and wrapped and muffled, even in Rome or Palestine, against the German cold. His drawings are an ethnography of Nuremberg. His chief patrons were its merchant princes, whom he rescued from death with his portraits, but he received commissions also from dukes and Imperial electors, and at last from Maximilian himself. As Titian loved best to portray the nobility and royalty, Dürer was most at home in the middle class, and his woodcut of the Emperor made him look like what Louis XII had called him—the “burgomaster of Augsburg.” Once only Dürer achieved nobility in a portrait—an imaginary rendering of Charlemagne.
The thirty-six portraits are his most readily enjoyable works, for they are simple, sensual, earthy, swelling with character. Behold Hieronymus Holzschuher, the Nuremberg senator: a powerful head, stern face, thinning hair on a massive forehead, a beard trimmed to immaculate symmetry, sharp eyes as if watching politicians, yet with the beginning of a twinkle in them; here is a man with a good heart, good humor, good appetite. Or consider Dürer’s dearest friend, Willibald Pirkheimer: the head of a bull concealing the soul of a scholar, and suggesting the gastric needs of Gargantua. And who would guess, behind the creased and flattened features of the immense Frederick the Wise of Saxony, the Elector who defied a pope to protect Luther? Nearly all the portraits are fascinating: Oswolt Krell, whose earnest concentration shows even in the veins of his hands; or Bernhard von Resten, with the delicate blue blouse, the majestic overspreading hat, the meditative eyes of an absorbed artist; or Jakob Muffel, burgomaster of Nuremberg, a brown study of earnest devotion, shedding some light on the greatness and prosperity of the city; or the two portraits of Dürer’s father, weary with toil in 1490, quite worn out in 1497; or the Portrait of a Gentleman in the Prado—virility incarnate, tarnished with cruelty and greed; or Elizabeth Tucher, holding her wedding ring and gazing diffidently into marriage; or the Portrait of a Venetian Lady—Dürer had to go to Italy to find beauty as well as strength. There is seldom refinement in his male portraits, no elegance, only force of character. “What is not useful in a man,” he said, “is not beautiful.” 55 He was interested in reality and its faithful transcription, rather than in beauty of features or form. He pointed out that an artist can draw or paint a beautiful picture of an ugly object or disagreeable subject. He was a Teuton, all industry, duty, fidelity; he left beauty and grace to the ladies, and concentrated on power.
Painting was not his forte, nor much to his taste. But his visits to Italy stirred him to seek color as well as line. For Frederick of Saxony and his Castle Church in Wittenberg he painted a triptych later known as the Dresden Altarpiece; here Italian modes of proportion and perspective framed figures resolutely German: a Frau as the Virgin, a professor as St. Anthony, a German acolyte as St. Sebastian; the result is not irresistible. Finer is the Paumgärtner Altarpiece in Munich: a Splendid St. Joseph and a MädchenMary against an architectural background of Roman ruins; but the foreground is littered with absurd manikins The Adoration of the Magi, in the Uffizi, is a triumph of color in the Virgin’s blue robe and the gorgeous vestments of the Oriental kings. Christ among the Doctors shows a pretty Jesus with girlish curls surrounded by bearded and wrinkled pundits—one a horrible caricature all nose and teeth. The Feast of the Rose Garlands rivaled the greatest Italian pictures of the time in its skillfully ordered composition, the loveliness of both Mother and Child, the general splendor of the color; this is Dürer’s greatest painting, but one must now venture all the way to Prague to see it. Vienna and Berlin have attractive Dürer Madonnas, and the New York Madonna and Child with St. Anne presents a tender German maiden as the Virgin, and a dark-skinned Semite as her mother. Excellent are the Prado panels of Adam and Eve; here for a moment a German artist has rendered the beauty of a healthy female nude.
Discouraged by inadequate remuneration for the labor of painting, and perhaps by the compulsion to repeat old religious themes, Dürer turned increasingly to the more gainful and original work of woodcutting and engraving; for there one plate could make a thousand copies easily carried to every market in Europe, and could provide the same illustration for a thousand printed volumes. Line was Dürer’s forte, drawing was his realm, wherein no man then alive surpassed him; there even the proud Italians marveled at his finesse. Erasmus compared him, as a draftsman, with an ancient master of line:
Apelles was aided by color.... . But Dürer, though admirable also in other respects—what does he not express in monochrome .. . proportions, harmonies? Nay, he even depicts that which cannot be depicted—fire, rays of light, thunder .... lightning... all the sensations and emotions, in fine, the whole mind of man as it reflects itself in the behavior of the body, and almost the voice itself. These things he places before the eyes in the most pertinent lines—black ones, yet so that if you should spread pigments on them you would injure the work. And is it not more wonderful to accomplish without the blandishments of color what Apelles accomplished with their aid? 56
Dürer returned the compliment by engraving a portrait of Erasmus (1526), not from the living sitter but from the painting by Massys. It did not rival that portrait, much less Holbein’s; even so it is a masterpiece of drawing in the folds and shadows of the cloak, the wrinkles of face and hands, the ruffled leaves of the open book.
Dürer has left us over a thousand drawings, most of them miracles of realistic or pious or impishly fanciful design. Some are obvious caricatures; one is age and wisdom drawn to a hair.57 Occasionally the subject is inanimate, as in The Wire-drawing Mill, or just plain vegetation, like A Piece of Turf, or an animal, like the Head of a Walrus. Usually plants and beasts crowd around living persons, as in the complex Madonna with a Multitude of Animals. The religious subjects are the least successful, but we must except and honor the remarkable Hands of a Praying Apostle. And lastly there are fine studies of classic mythology, like the Apollo or the Orpheus.
Dürer transformed some 250 of his drawings into woodcuts, and a hundred into engravings; these two groups are the most distinctive portions of his legacy. Until the turn of the century he incised the designs himself; later he delegated the woodcutting to others—only by this collaboration could he have delineated so vast an area of life. He began by illustrating books like Der Ritter von Turn and Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff; twenty years afterward he drew fascinating border figures for the Prayer Book of Maximilian. He tried his pen at nudes, and succeeded handsomely in The Men’s Bath, not so well in The Women’s Bath; in both he served as a revolutionary force in a German art that had shunned the nude as a scandal or a disillusionment. Famous were the woodcuts that portrayed the life of the Virgin and the Passion of Christ. Devout women could now contemplate, by their own hearths, a print showing the betrothal of Joseph and Mary; and practical Germans were pleased to find, in The Sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt, all the cozy details of Teutonic domesticity and industry-Mary sewing, Joseph working at his bench, and angelic children bringing in firewood without being asked. Thirty-seven small woodcuts—the “Little Passion”—and eleven larger ones—the “Great Passion”—brought the story of the sufferings and death of Christ into thousands of homes, and whetted the public appetite for Luther’s translation of the New Testament. Another series illustrated the Book of Revelation; some of these woodcuts, likeThe Four Horsemen of the Apocalypseand St. Michael Fighting the Dragon, were so vivid that for centuries the German mind thought of the Apocalypse in terms of Dürer’s prints.
From woodcuts he passed to the more painstaking art of engraving. Now and then he tried dry point etching, as in the chiaroscuro Holy Family; usually he worked with the burin. The Fall of Man is-sculpture on copper, in forms worthy of the Greeks, in proportion and symmetry worthy of the Italians, with Dürer’s customary profusion of fauna and flora, where nearly every item held for him and his generation a symbolical significance. Nude females of an excellence unprecedented in German art emerged from the metal in The Sea Monster and The Combat of Virtue and Pleasure, with background landscapes beautifully drawn. The sixteen engravings constituting the “Engraved Passion” are less impressive than the woodcut Passions. But the St. Eustace is a cornucopia of vivid designs: five dogs, a horse, a forest, a swarm of birds, a congeries of castles on a hill, a stag bearing a crucifix between his antlers, and persuading the handsome hunter to leave off killing and become a saint.
In 1513–14 Dürer reached his summit as a draftsman in three Meisterstiche, Master Engravings. The Knight, Death, and the Devil is a powerful version of a somber medieval theme: a stern-faced rider in full armor on a Verrocchian steed, hemmed in by ugly figures of death and Satan, but moving forward resolutely to the triumph of virtue over all; it seems incredible that such plenitude and delicacy of detail could be cut into metal. St. Jerome in His Study shows a quieter phase of the Christian victory; the old bald saint bent over his manuscript, writing apparently by the light of his halo, a lion and a dog lying peacefully on the floor, a skull sitting in silent eloquence on a window sill, and what looks for all the world like his wife’s hat hanging on the wall—the whole room drawn in the most careful perspective, with all shadows and sun rays meticulously drawn. Finally the engraving that Dürer entitled Melancholia I reveals an angel seated amid the chaos of an unfinished building, with a medley of mechanical tools and scientific instruments at her feet; a purse and keys attached to her girdle as emblems of wealth and power; her head resting pensively on one hand, her eyes gazing half in wonder, half in terror, about her. Is she asking to what end all this labor, this building and demolition and building, this pursuit of wealth and power and the mirage called truth, this glory of science and Babel of intellect vainly fighting inevitable death? Can it be that Dürer, at the very outset of the modern age, understood the problem faced by triumphant science, of progressive means abused by unchanging ends?*
So, drawing by drawing, painting by painting, with an arduous industry and patience so different from Leonardo’s procrastination and Raphael’s ease, Dürer passed into the age of Luther. About 1508 he bought the house that made Nuremberg famous; the second World War destroyed it; the tourist trade rebuilt it as a copy of the original. Its two lower stories were of stone, the third and fourth of pink stucco and half timber; and over a projecting eave two further stories crouched under the gabled roof. Here for nineteen years Dürer lived in moderate misery with his childless wife. Agnes was a simple Hausfrau who wondered why Albrecht spent so much time on unremunerative studies or with bibulous friends. He moved in circles beyond her mental reach, neglected her socially, traveled most often without her, and when he took her to the Netherlands, dined with celebrities or with his host, while leaving his wife to eat “in the upper kitchen” with their maid.58 In 1504 his widowed mother joined Dürer’s household; she persisted ten years more; his portrait of her moves our sympathy for the wife—who was not too charming herself. His friends considered Agnes a shrew incapable of sharing Dürer’s rapt intellectual life.
In his later years the Nuremberg master enjoyed a European fame as the leader and glory of German art. In 1515 the Emperor allotted him a modest pension of a hundred florins a year ($2,500?). This was irregularly paid, for Maximilian’s income never caught up with his plans. When Max died the pension stopped, and Dürer decided to visit the Netherlands and solicit its renewal from Charles V. He took with him a large assortment of drawings and paintings to sell or exchange in Holland or Flanders, and managed thereby to pay nearly all the cost of the trip. The journal that he kept of his tour (July 1520-July 1521) is almost—not quite—as intimate as those that Boswell would write two centuries later. It records his expenses, sales, purchases, visits, and honors; it reveals the burgher’s care with financial details, and the artist’s forgivable delight in the recognition of his genius. After chasing Charles through a dozen cities, Dürer obtained the renewal of his pension, and could give the rest of his journey to viewing the sights and heroes of the Lowlands. He was astonished by the wealth and beauty of Ghent, Brussels, and Bruges; by the great polyptych of the Van Eycks in St. Bavon’s, and by the Antwerp Cathedral, “the like of which I have never seen in German lands.”59 He met Erasmus, Lucas van Leyden, Bernaert van Orley, and other Netherlands worthies, and was feted in the cities by the artists’ guilds. In the mosquito swamps of Zeeland he contracted the malaria that ruined the health of his remaining years.
One entry in his journal reads: “I have bought Luther’s tract for five white-pennies, and have given one for the Condemnation of that mighty man.” 60 At Antwerp (May 1521) a rumor reached him that Luther had been “treacherously seized” on leaving the Diet of Worms. Dürer did not know that this abduction had been arranged to protect the Reformer; and fearing that Luther had been killed, he wrote in his journal a passionate defense of the rebel, and an appeal to Erasmus to come to the aid of his party:
So this man, enlightened by the Holy Ghost to be the continuer of the true faith, has disappeared.... If he has suffered it is for the Christian truth against the unchristian papacy, which works against the freedom of Christ, exacting from us our blood and sweat therewith to nourish itself in idleness while the peoples famish. O God! never were men so cruelly put down under human laws as under those of the Roman See.... . Everyone sees how clear is the doctrine announced in Luther’s books, and how it conforms to the Holy Gospel. We must preserve these books from being burned; rather let us throw into the fire the books written to oppose him.... . All you pious Christians, deplore with me the loss of this man, and pray the Lord that he will send another guide. O Erasmus of Rotterdam, where wilt thou remain? Wilt thou see the injustice and blind tyranny of the powers now ruling? Hear me, knight of Christ, ride by the side of Our Lord XS; old as thou art .... thou too mayst win the martyr’s crown.... Make thy voice heard!... O Erasmus, may God thy Judge be glorified in thee! 61
When Dürer returned to Nuremberg he devoted himself almost wholly to religious art, and with new emphasis on the Gospels. In 1526 he completed his greatest group of paintings—The Four Apostles—improperly named, since Mark the Evangelist was not one of the Twelve; but perhaps that very error pointed to the Protestant idea of returning from the Church to the Gospels. The two panels are among the proudest possessions of that Haus der Kunst in which war-wounded Munich has regathered her famous collections of art. One panel pictures John and Peter, the other Mark and Paul—all four in gorgeously colored robes hardly befitting fishermen communist saints; in these vestments Dürer bowed to Italian idealization, while in the broad and massive heads he asserted his German environment. Probably these majestic figures had been intended to form the wings of a triptych for a Catholic church. But in 1525 the municipal council of Nuremberg declared for the Reformation. Abandoning the plan for an altarpiece, Dürer presented the panels to the city, and affixed to each panel inscriptions strongly stressing the importance of the Gospels. Despite the keys in Peter’s hand—usually taken as representing the divine establishment and powers of the Church—these paintings could be interpreted as Dürer’s Protestant testament.
He had now only two more years to live. Periodic attacks of malarial fever broke both his health and his spirit. Even in 1522 he had drawn his final self-portrait as the Man of Sorrows, naked, disheveled, haggard, sickly, in pain, holding in his hands the scourge and whip of the Passion of Christ. Nevertheless he worked to the end. When he died (April 6, 1528), aged fifty-seven, he left enough drawings, woodcuts, and engravings—besides 6,000 florins—to support his widow in somber comfort for the remainder of her life. Pirkheimer, who mourned him as “the best friend I have had in my life,” wrote a simple epitaph for the tomb:
QUICQUID ALBERTI DURERI MORTALE
FUIT SUB HOC CONDITUR TUMULO
—“Whatever was mortal of Albrecht Dürer lies under this mound.”
He missed supreme stature as an artist by sacrificing the greatest task o art to a lesser one: he was so charmed to see the passing shapes of persons, places, and things take lasting life under his hands that he absorbed himself chiefly in representing the real—lovely or ugly, significant or meaningless—and only occasionally fused the scattered elements of sense perception to form in creative imagination, and then in line or color, ideal beauties to give us goals to aim at, or revealing visions to offer understanding or peace. But he rose to the call of his time. He cut into wood or copper a biography of his expectant and generative generation; his pen or pencil, burin or brush evoked the hidden souls of the forceful men who trod the stage of the age; he made that epoch live for us, across four centuries, in all its enthusiasms, devotions, fears, superstitions, protests, dreams, and wonderment. He was Germany.