Through a selection of prints, drawings, paintings and journal entries, the National Gallery’s exhibition in London, "Dürer’s Journeys - Travels of a Renaissance Artist", chronicles the artist’s travels across Europe, during which he accumulated knowledge, disseminated his work and established his fame.
Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving, 25.1 × 19.2 cm/9.8 x 7.5 in.
Image courtesy of the National Gallery London, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (RP-P-OB-1155) © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Early Years and Travels to the Alps and Italy, 1490s
Familiarizing himself with the tools and materials in the workshop of his goldsmith father in Nuremberg, and as an apprentice to local printer Michael Wolgemut, Dürer soon embarked on the customary Wanderjahre (“wandering years”) undertaken by aspiring craftsmen, journeying to Alsace, across the Brenner frontier, and into Italy. Of this journey, the first room of the exhibition displays several watercolors produced by Dürer, topographical studies of rock formations and landscapes that are virtually unprecedented in their subject and en plein air creation.
In Italy, Dürer’s technical facility imbibed the theoretical knowledge of Italian art and classical antiquity. In the exhibition, we see Dürer returning to Nuremberg and experimenting in his journal with ideal human body proportions according to the principles of Roman architect Vitruvius, whose treaties gained prominence during Italy’s Quattrocento, as expressed in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1490). By 1504, with his famous engraving Adam and Eve, Dürer displays a growing mastery of the human form.
By the time Dürer arrived in Venice for the second time, his reputation as the most innovative printmaker of the time preceded him; Dürer’s effect on Italian art, and particularly his perennial manual On Human Proportion (1528) was significant enough as to oblige Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) to register the talent and influence of the German in his seminal Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. However, at this stage, his prestige did not transcend the confines of the black and white medium. Eager to impress upon his Italian counterparts his virtuosic command of composition and Venetian colore, Dürer created the altarpiece Feast of the Rose Garlands (on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). “They have never seen a more sublime and lifelike painting”, Dürer boasted to his dear friend and patron Willibald Pirckheimer in a letter from September 23, 1506.
Unlike almost any other artist in the early modern era, Dürer self-consciously claims individuality and seeks contemporaneous and posthumous recognition with his diaries, clearly marked authorship, and self-portraits. Whilst the exhibition lacks Dürer’s three most lavish and narcissistic portraits (testaments to the artist’s vanity, anxieties, and ambivalent sexuality that the exhibition rather skirts), his ostentatious mark nevertheless pervades: in the right hand of the Feast of the Rose Garlands you will see Dürer’s self-portrait gazing admiringly at his own work amidst a main of thick, golden hair, whist his idiosyncratic monogram “AD” is present upon the majority of the works. Indeed, still regarded as craftsmen in Northern Europe, in Italy we see artistic authorship gain celebrity as artists become increasingly synonymous with the humanistic and intellectual acumen of their liberal art counterparts. Dürer expressed envy at the esteemed social standing enjoyed by artists in Venice: “Here I am a gentleman, at home, I am a parasite”, he writes to Pirckheimer.
Return to Nuremberg and the Low Countries, 1520-21
Frustrated at the slowness and therefore less profitable nature of painting, Dürer’s interest diminished; rather, the medium of woodcutting and the recently created Gutenberg printing press in 1440 facilitated the dissemination of his work, making Dürer something of a celebrity among this nascent consumer culture. The exhibition presents three of his masterpieces created during this period: The Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), St Jerome in His Study (1514), and the cryptic, hugely influential Melencolia I (1514). Indeed, ever the shrewd entrepreneur, Dürer exploited the market already established by his mother and wife Agnes (of whom relatively little is mentioned in the exhibition, and who were instrumental figures in Dürer’s economic enterprise) on his journey to the Low Countries in the 1520s. Assiduously recorded in his journal, Dürer sold 116 portraits of varying mediums in return for gifts and invitations, of which several are displayed in room three, along with the only surviving page of the journal Dürer left of his travels in 1520-21.
In the international trade port of Antwerp, Dürer’s journal attests to the expansion of a global perspective amidst a period of change and discovery. There, he witnesses the arts of the New World (“the subtle ingeniousness of humans in strange lands”) the traditional attires of Livonian women, and exotic animals for the first time, all of which he documents with scientific precision. Meanwhile, in his influential portrait St Jerome (1520-21, on loan from the Museo Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), painted as a gift for Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada of Antwerp’s Portuguese trading establishment, we witness the influence of both Desiderius Erasmus’ humanism, and Martin Luther’s piety. Unlike typical depictions of Jerome (even his own 1514 print, St Jerome in His Study, found in the third room of the exhibition), Dürer eschews the iconographical motifs of cardinal attire and rosary beads, instead highlighting the mortality of his ascetic sitter, along with the importance of Erasmus’ concept of self-knowledge. The portrait is, to some extent, an intellectual exchange of ideas, a Reformation dialog prompted with his Roman Catholic patron de Almada.
Dürer’s sketch of the lion in the Low Countries is significant. Compare this meticulously accurate drawing with his ill-proportioned, anthropomorphic watercolor Lion (1494, likely painted from sepulchral statues in San Marco, Venice) shown earlier in the National Gallery’s exhibition, and one begins to ascertain the meaning of "Dürer’s Journeys"; travel fueled the accrual of theoretical and intellectual knowledge to accurately depict such sights. But, perhaps more importantly, travel promoted the economic enterprise inherent to Dürer’s work whilst simultaneously establishing his fame; this has, in turn, ensured the vast legacy of Dürer, both intellectual and physical, permitting the wealth of such exhibitions as the National Gallery’s.