10 Mar 2014

Albrecht Dürer, landscapes and portraits

It has been almost 2 months since I posted an article on this blog, so maybe a few regular readers have been wondering what on earth I have been up to. Too much else going on, mainly work, and so insufficient time to write about and find illustrations for several subjects that have occupied my mind recently. The 6 nations rugby tournament is in full swing here in Europe, but that is only part of the story and I will come to that subject when all five matches have been completed, in a week's time. So far, given the hammering the English cricket team took in Australia recently, that country can be proud of their rugby team who, so far, have looked the best of the lot, along with the Irish. Ireland is my favourite to win though, as their points average is way ahead of England's, and they should beat France in Paris next weekend. Yet both these teams, together with France (who have not looked good at all but have managed to scrape 3 narrow and lucky victories) are contenders for final victory in the tournament, each having lost just one game. All this has nothing to do with today's subject, which is the work of that very great German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer. Would Dürer have played rugby? 

This article will be followed by another, concerning other aspects of this fascinating artist's work

The excellent Städel Museum, on the river Main, in Frankfurt, which also houses a good restaurant with a fine wine list.

I made the trip from Paris to Frankfurt-am-Main one weekend in January this year especially to see the very considerable collection of Dürer's work that had been put together by that city's Städel Museum. Frankfurt, almost totally destroyed in the second world war, is not an attractive city today as it must have been before in its medieval-based organisation. But it is a great city for museums, as they are all lined up alongside the river and one can hop from one to another in no time at all.

I have always admired Dürer's work, mostly at a distance as it were, via illustrations, and in any case sporadically, like when I have come across the occasional work in a museum somewhere. These have been paintings, engravings or drawings, or even other objects since Dürer was as eclectic as he was prolific. And clearly very successful, business-wise, but more on that in the second article perhaps. So this was the first time that I had seen a large number of all kinds of his work together, and very impressive it was too.

The Wire-Drawing Mill, c.1489 (watercolour)

One of Dürer's first known paintings (above) is a watercolour which dates from 1489. It appears both slightly gauche and surprisingly modern. One has to bear in mind that his first trade was that of his father's: a gold and silversmith, which probably goes some way to explaining his quite extraordinary precision and sureness as an engraver. Although afterwards he did not paint many landscapes (at least that have survived) Dürer did, as most of his Renaissance contemporaries, use landscape extensively in the backgrounds of many of his religious subjects. But there are a few others and they clearly show, at least to me, something that foreshadows later German romanticism, if one may allow me this anchronism!

View of Arco, 1495 (watercolour). This was painted on Dürer's return from his first trip to Italy

Willow Mill c.1496/8 (watercolour). 

This painting, made near his home town of Nuremberg, includes the same mill as in the first painting shown above, but Dürer has moved on in his manner and preoccupations. This work is more about mood and less about precise topography. But if landscape played a minor part in Dürer's work, portraits, as singular works and not just a part of epic or religious paintings, were very significant, 

Self-portrait aged 22, 1493 (oil on linen)

By the time the last two watercolour landscapes shown above had been painted, Dürer was already a master of the portrait in oils: in this case the self-portrait. Symbolism was very often an element that told a story in portraits at this time, and this one is no exception: the artist holds in his right hand a sprig of sea-holly, whose German name signifies "man's fidelity". In addition the plant was also considered to have aphrodisiac qualities and some commentators therefore consider that this painting was intended as a gift for his future wife, Agnes Frey, whom he married the following year.

Self-portrait at 28, 1500 (oil on wood panel) 

Dürer made three self-portraits (apart from drawings, including a remarquable nude one that I will show later), which is a lot less than Rembrandt. They are all masterly. The one above is the last of the three and bears on it this purely factual inscription, in Latin : "Thus I, Albrecht Dürer from Nuremburg, painted myself with indelible colours at the age of 28 years."  The enigmatic and Christ-like image of the artist intrigues. Indeed Jesus Christ was often represented like this in mediaeval art, looking straight ahead and with one hand showing. But the clothing is contemporary for 1500, so there is no anachronism that could lend confusion as to the painter's intention. The theory about this image is not that Dürer took himself for God, but that it was a statement of his faith: that his talent was a gift from God. Not being either a believer or an expert in such matters, I have no idea whether this was the case, but it is plausible. 

Portrait of the artist's father, 1490. (oil on panel)

Dürer's first oil painting, and, as far as we know, his first portrait, was this one of his father. He also portrayed his mother at about the same time. Dürer has served an appreticeship under his father, who was a goldsmith. Sobriety and realism, toned by a form of humility, seem to be the key notes of this painting.

 Portrait of Hieronymous Holzschuher, 1526 (oil on panel)

This much later portrait shows Dürer's total mastery of the genre. This work was not in the Frankfurt exhibition, but I saw it more recently in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, on a wall with at least three other Dürer portaits that are equally impressive. The subject was a close friend of the artist and his social and economic status shows clearly in his clothing of fine fur. Holzschuher has been a mayor of Nuremberg, Dürer's home town and this portrait was kept by the subject's family until the late 19th century. The detail of the face is almost hyer-realistic and a close zoom in to look at the facial hair, or the fur of his coat, and then back at the overall impression, shows how the incredible precision of Dürer's look and touch was never detrimental to the power of the picture as a whole. Another thing that is impressive in Dûrer's portraits is how simply direct they are. No clutter or confusion in the background. The head is the focus and the clothing, when shown, has significance and acts as a support.  

Portrait of a young Venetian woman, 1505 (oil on panel)

Dürer's portraits of women although less numerous, are just as good as those of men. This earlier work was done in Venice, during the artist's second visit to that city. It is probably unfinished, although one may not notice that from this reproduction.  Nobody knows who the young lady was, and the painting, currently in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was discovered in a private collection in Lithuania in 1923.

You may have noticed that most of the illstrations that I have used come from a single source. It is remarquable and very useful that there is a full collection of images this artist's work available here: 


Go and have a look there for yourselves. I will be doing another article on Albrecht Dürer quite soon, this time more focused on his drawings and engravings. I will perhaps leave the religious works to others as I mst admit to being saturated with that stuff.

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