Home Magazine Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries - when travel was difficult, dangerous and often doomed to failure - the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer took the common European practice of journeying as a way of experiencing the world and improving his craft. Thus, he exchanged ideas with Netherlandish artists and integrated Italian influences into underlying Northern forms.The exhibition “Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist” at the National Gallery in London (opening scheduled for 6th March 2021) will be the first to track the importance of Dürer's excursions. His reputation had spread throughout Europe and he was in communication with most of the major artists including Raphael and Titian.   

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The life of Albrecht Dürer (Nuremberg 1471 - 1528) -  the most innovative printmaker of Northern Renaissance and a precocious talent in drawing and goldsmithing - is punctuated by numerous travels. He never stayed still. 

As a journeyman in his early twenties, Dürer embarked on the “Wanderjahre”: four years of apprenticeship with artists in other European areas. Because Dürer left autobiographical writings and did record his adventures, we know that he travelled to Frankfurt, the Netherlands and Basel to meet the brother of the most important printmaker north of the Alps, Martin Schongauer (1450 - 1491). In 1493, Dürer went to Strasbourg to experience the stone and wood sculpture of Nikolaus Gerhaert (1420 - 1473). There, he painted his first self-portrait as an engagement present for Agnes Frey, his fiancée backin Nuremberg. Portrait of the Artist holding a Thistle, originally oil on vellum, with its excellent almost metallic graphic details, contains an elegant message of “husband’s fidelity”. The artist’s inscription “Things happen to me as it is written on high” reveals the philosophical and Christian intention of the work.


Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of the Artist holding a Thistle, 1493, Oil on vellum (transferred to canvas ca. 1840), 56.5 cm × 44.5 cm (22.2 in × 17.5 in), Courtesy Louvre, Paris.


And things kept happening to the indefatigable traveler Dürer. On his first journey to Italy (1494 - 1495), he went to Venice, Padua and Mantua. The long stretches of Italian rural landscapes and alps allowed Dürer to make topographically oriented watercolors and small sketches in silverpoint of people, plants and animals.

Italian Renaissance painters Giovanni Bellini (1430 - 1516), his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506) and Jacopo de Barberi (c. 1460 - 1516) had the greatest influence on him. From them, he learned much about the new developments in human proportions and anatomy, geometry andperspective. 

After his return to Nuremberg in 1493, Dürer produced, in his own workshop, some spectacular and original copper engravings, notably Nemesis (1502), The Sea Monster (1498), and Saint Eustace (c. 1501). With a highly detailed landscape background and animals, which captured the fairytale atmosphere, Dürer sought to synthesize different sources: the Milanese headdress of the nymph; some elements of the Nuremberg’s castle structure; the Greek mythological motif of the water-god. 


Albrecht Dürer, The Sea Monster, 1498, Medium: Engraving sheet: 9 3/4 x 7 7/16 in. (24.8 x 18.9 cm) trimmed on plate line, Fletcher Fund, 1919, Courtesy The Met, New York.


One key work in the UK exhibition will be Christ Among the Doctors (1506) from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, produced during Dürer’s second sojourn in Italy (1505–1507). The oil painting - Opus Quinque Dierum, "Made in five days” - in its composition of half-length figures around a focal point, clearly echoes contemporary Italian masterpieces.


Albrecht Dürer,Christ Among the Doctors, 1506, Oil on poplar panel, 65 cm × 80 cm (26 in × 31 in), Courtesy Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.


Between 1507 and 1514, Dürer worked on some of his most celebrated paintings, such as the idealistic Adam and Eve - the first full-scale nude subjects in German painting -,and the esoteric and indecipherable Melencolia I  - “the first representation in which the concept of melancholy was transplanted from the plane of scientific and pseudo-scientific folklore to the level of art”, in the words of art historian Erwin Panofsky.


Albrecht Dürer,Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving, 9 7/8 x 7 7/8in. (25.1 x 20cm), Fletcher Fund, 1919, Courtesy The Met, New York. 


Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, engraving, Plate: 9 7/16 × 7 5/16 in. (24 × 18.5 cm), Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1943, Courtesy The Met, New York.


To secure his pension, in July 1520, Dürer made his fourth and last major journey to the Netherlands with his wife and her maid. Via the river Rhine, he visited Cologne, Bruges -where he saw Michelangelo’s marble sculpture Madonna of Bruges - , Antwerp - where he produced numerous drawings in silverpoint, chalk and charcoal - and Ghent - where he admired Van Eyck’s Gent Altarpiece. 

However, in his final years in Nuremberg, little was produced and a Sacra Conversazione (Holy Conversation) was never completed due to an undetermined illness - perhaps malaria. One of the many terrible fates that could kill the life and art of a daredevil traveler.   


Cover images: Albrecht Dürer, The Sea Monster, 1498, Medium: Engraving sheet: 9 3/4 x 7 7/16 in. (24.8 x 18.9 cm) trimmed on plate line, Fletcher Fund, 1919, Courtesy The Met, New York.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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