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Who was Albrecht Dürer?

Albrecht Dürer, German renaissance artists

Here is some art trivia for you. Enjoy!

Albrecht Dürer (b. 1471 – d. 1528) is widely considered to be one of Germany’s greatest Renaissance artists, most famous for his paintings and woodcuts. A woodcut, as the name suggests, is a picture cut into a block of wood, which can then be used to create prints of the image by applying ink to the block and simply pressing it unto a sheet of paper.

Dürer was born and grew up in the city of Nuremberg. His family had originally come from Hungary and his father ran a successful workshop as a goldsmith. Young Albrecht started off as an apprentice at his father’s shop, but after a while began to concentrate his efforts on painting.

Albrecht Dürer’s ‘Selfportrait’ (1500, oil)

After his apprenticeship Dürer travelled parts of Europe as a journeyman, which eventually lead him into northern Italy, the hub of Renaissance art at the time. Renaissance literally means ‘re-birth’ and in its broadest sense describes an era when artists of all trades, painters, sculptors and architects, began to extensively study works from the classical era once again.

Pieces of art from the Roman Empire and ancient Greece, the geographic centers of the most powerful works from the classical era, were copied and used as models by Renaissance artists to revive the learning of the old masters. One of those Renaissance artists is Michaelangelo, whose work illustrates two common Renaissance features: an expertise in perfect human physiology and a love for clear structures and design.

Michaelangelo - Creation of Adam
Michaelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ (1511, fresco) is a popular example of High Renaissance painting

Dürer’s genius now lies not so much in the fact that he carried the rediscovered Renaissance techniques across the Alps into central Europe. It is rather the fact that he, with some other artists, developed a distinctly new style and became an advocacy for what we today call the ‘Northern Renaissance’. His achievement is the combination of the previously existing gothic art with the new-found images and practices of the Southern Renaissance in Italy.

Dürer’s Young Hare (1502), which you can see here, shows the painter’s appreciation for minute detail. One can easily feel the great effort that went into this painting when inspecting the whiskers and carefully brushed hair of the body. The playful application of great detail is one of those features of Gothic art. Only think of the ornamental detail of gothic churches.

Dürer Young Hare
Dürer’s ‘Young Hare’ (1502, watercolor)

If we now take both elements (Renaissance and Gothic) into consideration and view Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) with our new set of glasses, we can appreciate what Dürer was trying to do and indeed see his creative accomplishment.

Dürer's Adam and Eve
Dürer’s ‘Adam and Eve’ (1504, engraving)

The two prominent figures of Adam and Eve clearly resemble the Renaissance artists’ quest for bringing human anatomy to perfection. However, Dürer was not merely trying to copy what he had seen in Italy, like many of his contemporaries did. Check out what is going on in the Garden of Eden, in the background of the engraving.

At the bottom we see two carefully placed animals, a mouse and a cat, next to each other in perfect harmony, previous to the imminent Fall of Man. The parrot next to Adam’s head seems not to be afraid of human movement, neither do the goat and rabbit positioned between Adam and Eve. The bark of the trees and the leaves are all carefully placed and constructed.

In this work we see both Renaissance and Gothic features merged. Although the human form is not as perfectly captured as in Southern Renaissance painting, Dürer’s main creative accomplishment is how he brought the two conflicting styles into a harmonious whole.

If you would like to explore this aspect a bit further, I recommend checking out the Works by Albrecht Dürer in the Wikimedia Commons. There is quite a lot and it is also where I found the images for my own little exploration here.

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