www.whyville.net Dec 23, 1999 Weekly Issue

Albrecht Durer

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     Have you noticed that the streets of Myville are all named after famous scientists and artists from the Renaissance? In case these folks aren't and get to know the person on whose street you're living. This week's article is on Albrecht Dürer, the most famous artist of Reformation Germany -- known for his paintings, drawings, prints, and theoretical writings on art. A true Renaissance man, Albrecht was also a goldsmith, musician and a mathmatician.

by Lois Lee
Times Staff

Dürer was born May 21, 1471, in a small village outside of Nürnberg, Germany. He was the third son of Albrecht Dürer and Barbara Holfer. He was one of eighteen children! (That sure does make the Brady Bunch look small.) His father's family came from Hungary. At the time, the family name was Ajtos which means "door" in Hungarian. When Dürer senior and his brothers came to Germany they chose the name Türer which sounds like the German "Tür" meaning door. In order to keep food on the table for this bunch, his father, who was a jeweller, worked eighteen hours a day. Despite working such long hours, he still found time to be Albrecht junior's first art teacher.

Albrecht Dürer and his brother Albert both wanted to study art, but they knew that their father would never be able to afford the Academy of Nürnberg. The two boys worked out a deal. They would toss a coin. The loser would go down into the nearby mines and, with his earnings, support his brother while he attended the academy. Then, when that brother who had won the toss completed his studies, in four years, he would support the other brother at the academy, either with sales of his artwork or, if necessary, also by laboring in the mines. They tossed a coin on a Sunday morning after church. Albrecht Dürer won the toss and went off to Nürnberg. True to his word, Albert went down to the mines, and, for the next four years, financed his brother at the academy.

Albrecht's works were far better than his professors, and by the time he graduated, he was already making money from his artwork. When the young artist returned to his village, the Dürer family held a dinner on their lawn to celebrate Albrecht's graduation. Albrecht rose to drink a toast to his brother for the years of sacrifice. His closing words were, "And now, Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it is your turn. Now you can go to Nürnberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you." Albert rose and wiped the tears from his cheeks and said, "No, brother. I cannot go to Nürnberg. It is too late for me. Look...look what four years in the mines have done to my hands! The bones in every finger have been smashed at least once, and lately I have been suffering from arthritis so badly in my right hand that I cannot even hold a glass to return your toast, much less make delicate lines on parchment or canvas with a pen or a brush. No, my brother...for me it is too late." To honor his brother's sacrifice, Albrecht drew his brother's hands. This drawing has become one of Dürer's most well-known pieces.

Dürer, then 15, was apprenticed in 1486 to the painter and printmaker Michael Wolgemut. Dürer received instruction in making drawings for woodcut designs. After an apprenticeship of four years, Dürer had learnt all he could from Wolgemut. Wolgemut advised Dürer to travel to widen his experience and meet other artists. As was customary for young men who had finished their apprenticeships, Dürer embarked on his bachelor's journey in 1490. It was a long journey for Dürer, lasting nearly four years. He met many artists and saw many beautiful places, but after he returned to Nürnberg in 1494, he felt disappointed that he had not visited Italy. He had become convinced that new art must be based upon science, and Italy's major cities were in those days thriving centers for scientists and artists.

Before setting out for Italy in 1494, Dürer married Agnes Frey, the daughter of a wealthy man, Hans Frey. The marriage appears to have been an idea of the parent's of Agnes and Albrecht. It was a marriage which helped raise Dürer's status in Nürnberg, as well as provide him with money which helped him set up his own studio. By the end of1494, Dürer was traveling again, leaving Agnes behind in Nürnberg. Dürer, as he had done throughout his journeys, sketched scenes, visited galleries and churches, and met with the local artists.

Dürer returned to Nürnberg in 1495 where he began a serious study of mathematics. Dürer stressed geometry and measurement as the keys to understanding art. Dürer described the intricate ruler and compass constructions which he made to construct the figures. It was not only the mathematical theory of proportion which influenced Dürer's art at this period, but also his mastery of perspective through his study of geometry. From about 1507 until his death, he made notes and drawings for his best-known written work, the Four Books on Human Proportions (published in 1528, after Dürer's death). During the next ten years, Dürer produced much of his works. He also went from being an almost unknown artist to someone with a reputation as both an artist and a mathematician. His personal circumstances had also changed. His father had died in 1502 and Dürer was left to care for his sick, and nearly blind, mother. He had set up his own printing press while he, or often his wife, sold his works to buyers at local fairs. It was a difficult life and one in which Dürer's health began to suffer. He would never regain full health during the rest of his life. Dürer re-thought his religious beliefs and became a Protestant; he was the first famous Protestant painter.

From 1505 to 1507, Dürer made a second visit to Italy. It was a very different visit from his first, with Dürer now more interested in his fame than in learning about art. He was so conscious of his fame, and the threat he perceived that he might hold to the local artists, that he refused invitations to dinner in case someone might poison him.

Back in Nünberg in 1507, he, again produced many successful pieces. Dürer used new techniuqes in engraving to create tones of varying darkness and he used them to describe three-dimensional form. Beginning at least as early as 1512, Dürer worked for Maximilian I, the Holy Roman emperor, from about 1512. Maximilian, however, had little in the way of money to pay for Dürer's work and he asked the govenerment of Nürnberg to exempt Dürer from taxes as compensation and to pay Dürer on his behalf. In 1519, when Maximilian died, the officials refused to pay, saying that the new emperor would have to agree to the pension. Dürer was under a lot of pressure around this time, and it is rumored that he had a nervous breakdown in 1519. One of the engravings that Dürer made for Maximilian is shown below.

In 1520, Dürer learned that Charles V, Maximilian's successor, was scheduled to travel to Aachen from Spain to be crowned Holy Roman emperor of the Habsburg dynasty. Dürer was anxious to meet with Charles so that he could get his salary. Armed with prints and other artworks, which he sold along the way to finance his trip, Dürer journeyed to see the new emperor. He kept a diary during this time which is filled with stories of his travels. Charles was impressed and did continue to pay Dürer's salary. After returning to Nürnberg, Dürer's health became still worse. He remained in Nürnberg until his death on April 6, 1528.

The quality of Dürer's work, and his influence on artists after his death all show the importance of his position in the history of art. In his lifetime Dürer made 200 woodcuts and 100 engravings. Albrecht was a designer and studied anatomy, mathematics, proportions, perspective and he completed a manual of geometry. He also designed the first flying machine.

The Knight, Death and The Devil (KFKI Campus, Hungary)

Learn more about Dürer at
The KFKI Institute in Hungary
The Web Museum


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