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Albrecht Durer

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The High Renaissance & Mannerism
 
 
 
 
 
Durer - life and works
 
 
 
 
Durer's Workshop in Nuremberg, 1495-1505



Self-Portrait with Gloves
1498
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Self-Portrait with Gloves

For indications on the provenance of this work, which at one time was framed with the portrait of his father of 1497 to form a diptych, see cat. 15. It is 1498, and three years have gone by since Durer's first journey to Italy. The artist owns his own workshop and manages his own work. The series of woodcuts about the Apocalypse comes out. This portrait is from the same year: Durer appears more confident than in the earlier self-portrait (Self-portrait of Strasbourg). This one was probably painted in Strasbourg, and shows just the beginnings of a beard around the chin, and an even more refined attire.
The neutral background used in the first portrait is abandoned; the artist depicts himself, like the Haller Madonna, beside a window that looks out onto a Pre-Alpine landscape. While there is only an enclosed garden beyond the window in the Madonna painting, here one enjoys a view of a wide valley, a lake with rippling waves surrounded by leafy trees, and some houses nestled just behind. In addition, a cluster of gentle, pleasant hills leads one's gaze to the background, where high snow-capped mountains rise, crowned by a luminous but faintly clouded sky. The care that Durer dedicated to the realization of this panoramic view leads one to think that he wanted to draw attention to his abilities as a landscape artist, which he had already demonstrated by his numerous watercolors. Naturally, in the middle of this landscape, the usual wayfarer is not absent. The architecture that he creates in the background painting does not have a logical justification within the painting. It is necessary because with just the beginning of the archway sketched, it gives the head more prominence. It is here, in the head of curly hair, and in the blouse gathered in extremely fine, tiny pleats, that we have an example of the sort of precise painting at which Durer excels. He intended to distinguish himself from the rich merchant class, who are always clad in fur coats in their portraits. Afterward, in the self-portraits that accompany the altarpieces, he, too, will wear fur coats. Here, however, Durer chooses clothing characterized by an elegant color scheme: it begins with the beret, alternating in white and black, grows richer in the various shades of gray in the clothing, and finally establishes a delicate contrast with the fresh color of the skin. The white-black-gray scheme blends with the brown and purple color of the cloak, worn on the left shoulder, the white and olive green of the braided cord that holds it, and the gray of the gloves. Such refinement in the elegant harmony of the attire is not only a demonstration of a chromatic aesthetic unto itself, but is meant to introduce his new personality: that of an independent man who can choose his own social class.
Perhaps the presence of the gloves indicates this as well. Besides the portraits of his mother and father , and the Christ as Man of Sorrows, these being so psychologically intense, no other work, out of all his paintings from this time until his second trip to Italy, of such a high pictorial quality has survived.



Madonna and Child (Haller Madonna)
c. 1498
National Gallery of Art, Washington


Haller Madonna

Documented in 1778 in the Praun collection, this painting passed through many hands. In 1932, it showed up in some English collections, from where it went to the Thyssen collection, to the Knoedler collection in New York, and then to the Samuel H. Kress collection. Kress donated it to the National Gallery in 1950. It is called the "Haller Madonna" for the presence in the bottom left of the coat of arms of the Nuremberg family of this name. Another coat of arms, to the right, does not have clear heraldic characteristics and has not been identified. The Madonna's face and the strong color scheme—azure, red, and green, obviously inspired by Giovanni Bellini—bear witness to how deeply the work of this great Venetian painter had made an impression on Durer during his first sojourn in Venice. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the half-length Madonna reveals the Nordic character of the painter; as does the child, who stretches on his toes on the cushion, leaning on the mother with a trusting abandon and a serene knowledge (Tietze, 1928). Similarly, the narrow internal space is typically Nordic, even if the imitation marble decorating the walls betrays a careful study of Italian models.
The same consideration holds for the view enjoyed from the framed window: an enclosed, flowerless garden, a wide road that bends around a rocky spur that is covered in trees and crowned by a castle, and a man and a horse that are crossing through. These landscape motifs are typical not only in Durer's backgrounds but in Nordic painting in general. The distant, dreamy gaze of the child, who, supported by his mother's right hand, rests against her with all his vitality, is opposed to the absorbed, sad expression on Mary, which is emphasized by the azure veil that almost completely covers her forehead. It prompts the impression of an intentional contrast between the extreme feeling of calm, further communicated by the soft fall of Mary's ample clothing, and the feeling of movement and vivacity that emanates from the brilliance of the child's body, silhouetted against the deep azure of the mother's cloak. Everything is balanced out by the intense red of the curtains in the background, which take the entire scene and confer it a grand solemnity. Durer has perhaps never managed to represent the majesty of the Madonna in such a clear and vivid manner, suspended between reality and symbolism, anywhere else.
It is certainly a sign of the inspiration he derived from his study of Venetian painting. Furthermore, in representing the child with an apple in hand, turned toward the background—as he did in the famous engraving of Adam and Eve—the painter might have also wanted to express the memory of Christ's death as the Redemption of mankind from the consequences of Original Sin. Since both sides are painted, it is assumed that the panel was part of a diptych, or
maybe even a triptych, with portraits of the donors on either side.
Private devotional panels of this kind were quite wide-spread in the Netherlands and in Italy, whereas they were unknown in Nuremberg.

 

Lot Fleeing with his Daughters from Sodom

In the far background, one can make out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, on which Yahweh rained sulfur and fire. Just slightly in front of this is Lot's wife, who has already been transformed into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters are shown fleeing in the foreground, while vapors rise from the ground "like the smoke of a furnace" (Gen. 19:23-29). Painted with a light touch, the painting has always been admired for the powerful representation of the fire.
The connection between the Madonna and Child on the anterior side of the table and the scene on the recto has not yet been definitively clarified. One possible interpretation could be of the speculum humanae salvationis as the prefiguration of Christ's descent into Purgatory. Christ became man and freely accepted human sufferings to liberate the good souls from Purgatory's tortures; likewise Lot, the good soul, was saved form the destruction of Sodom (Anzelewsky, 1991). This interpretation would also lead back to the presence of the apple in the child's hand, on the anterior side of the panel. It is monogrammed (original?) in the hollow in the field behind the daughters.


Lot Fleeing with his Daughters from Sodom
c. 1498
National Gallery of Art, Washington



The Dresden Altarpiece
1496
Gemaldegalerie, Dresden



The Dresden Altarpiece
Madonna and Child (detail)
1496
Gemaldegalerie, Dresden

Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian

Durer executed these side panels, commissioned by Frederick the Wise upon his return from his first trip to Italy; they came to the Gemaldegalerie in the eighteenth century. The recto is not painted, since these panels were firmly fixed to the central panel.
The central one, displayed with the side panels in the Gemaldegalerie, has also been attributed to Durer in the past (Tietze, 1937). In 1991, Anzelewsky rejected this notion on solid grounds and attributed it to a Dutch painter of the name Jan, who worked in Frederick's court.

The Dresden Altarpiece
Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian (side wings)
1496
Gemaldegalerie, Dresden




Portrait of Oswolt Krel
1499
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

 


Portrait of Oswolt Krel

This portrait comes from the collection of the Princes Oettingen-Wallerstein, who had acquired it in 1812; it has been in its present location since 1928. It is presumed that Oswolt Krell, a merchant for the Ravensburg House in Nuremberg from 1495 to 1503, had asked the artist for a true portrait of representation. Its notable size, similar to that adopted by Durer for the portrait of his father two years earlier, and its setting, a half-length, suggests this. In this way, it differs from the Tucher portraits, which were intended for private use. The background, as in the Tucher portraits, is divided between the curtain and landscape passage, unlike those, however, it is divided rather unevenly. The bright red curtain is wide and occupies most of the space on the right; the landscape, on the left, is reduced to a foreshortening that shows a small part of a river that meanders toward the back, behind a group of tall trees. The windowsill that separated the subject from the landscape in the Tucher paintings is absent. The figure represented, set with obvious grandiosity, is found in front of the curtain, highlighted by intense color.
The large fur-lined cloak is casually placed on the right shoulder only, to show, on the left side, the rich black garment with the puffed sleeve. To the disorderly folds of the cloak correspond the parallel horizontal folds of the sleeve and the vertical ones of the garment. The three-quarter position allows the pamter to bring out the quality of the attire: the fur, silk shirt, and gold chain. The careful, fastidious representation of these meaningful details creates a powerful foundation for the setting of the head: vigorous, strong features, the pronounced nose and the strong-willed mouth, the furrowed eyebrows, as if from a sudden start or fright that makes him direct his gaze off to the side behind him. Everything works to make his face threateningly severe, which even the soft, light brown hair framing him does not attenuate. To the energetic expression of the face corresponds the nervous look of his left hand clutching his cloak and that of the contraction of the knotted fingers of the right hand that leans on an invisible window sill.
Color, form, and proportion heighten the expression of supreme resolution, an expression that is the result of a serious psychological study that Durer conducted on the merchant, who was the same age as the artist and who was later to become the mayor of Lindau, his native city. The two side panels that represent two "sylvan men" are wings to the portrait. They bear the heraldic shields of the subject and his wife, Agathe von Esendorf. They originally let the portrait be closed from the retro; one could imagine, then, that despite the large dimensions, the painting was to be conserved closed. The present frame has been made recently.


 

Portrait of Oswolt Krel (detail)
1499
Alte Pinakothek, Munich





Portrait of Oswolt Krel (detail)
"Sylvan Men" with Heraldic Shields
1499
Alte Pinakothek, Munich



Portrait of Saint Sebastian with an Arrow

This primitive portrait has been partially repainted and transformed into a Saint Sebastian with a large halo. Originally, the man wore a beret and held a broken arrow in his left hand, which rests on the window sill, as you can still see today. In the whole painting, only the landscape passage with the lake and the castle in front of the mountains have remained in its original state. The arrow is a fairly rare attribute for a portrait, although, in this case, it could become credible if Sebastian lmhoff were the person portrayed, as Thode had previously proposed when the painting was first published in 1893 (Jahrbuch der Preussischen Kunstsammlungen, 14). Sebastian lmhoff was elected to the position of consul of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice in 1493.
The painting shows many Durerian portrait characteristics of this era, such as the landscape beyond the window and the resting of the hands in the window sill; the minimum of space between the window sill and the back wall; and the curtain that partially covers it.


Portrait of St Sebastian with an Arrow
c. 1499
Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

 
 
 
 
 



Self-Portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe
1500
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Self-Portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe

Carel von Mander (1617) saw this painting in Nuremberg, and it stayed in the city hall there until 1805, the year it was sold to the gallery (Pinakothek) of Munich. Except for the background, which has been repainted, the painting has been well preserved. Many aspects of this most famous portrait, which has prompted a number of interpretations, are, to say the least, unusual. The first observation concerns the depiction of the front profile: its symmetry, evident not only in his facial features but also in the placement of the curly hair to the sides of the head, recalls the "true icon," the true image of Christ, the model for every image of the blessed face, even in his depiction of the Holy Shroud.
The fact that the portrait is almost life-size is as exceptional, for it is a dimension that artists commonly avoided. The third observation: the vanity and the self-satisfaction that the artist had persisted with in his previous portraits acquires a completely new appearance. He renounces any example of his exploits and cleverness and adopts a classical form, unusual for him. This form presupposes a serious study of proportions.
According to Winzinger's calculations (Zeitschrift fur Kunstwissenschaft 8, 1954), the portrait is constructed according to the dictates of the gold section, or, at the very least, according to precise rules, beginning with the proportions of the dimension of the portrait. The same had already occurred in the representation of the head of Christ. Undoubtedly, the source of this correspondence in Durer's thought could be the biblical affirmation that God created man in His own image. However, this does not necessarily mean that the artist intended to paint an imi-tatio Christi (Barinton, Art Bulletin 29, 1947, pp. 269 ft), even if the year 1500 was also a holy year and that this sort of idea is not to be totally dismissed. We can find a plausible motivation of this autoidentification of Durer and the image of Christ in Saint Bonaventure, who believed that the human being's creative abilities bring him closer to God. This line of thought was subsequently drawn upon by the Neoplatonic school in Florence (which Durer had come into contact with through his friend Pirckheimer). Anzelewsky's thesis is just as convincing (1991). He sustains that the window that is reflected in Durer's eyes—a detail that is frequently found in his portraits and depictions of the Madonna—does not only represent reality, but mirrors Leonardo's thought: oculi fenestrae an-imae. Camerarius's interpretation runs similarly, holding that in Durer's biography (Rupprich, 1956, p. 307), the artist transfers the figures seen internally "with the eye of the soul," in the visible reality of things.
To the reference to christoformitas is added also the allusion to the creative force of the artist.
It must be emphasized that Durer apparently follows another topos in this self-portrait, what Vasari adopts in his Vite to praise the best portraits: to seem truly alive. In fact, the artist's eyes are still moist, the flesh is so bodily it seems palpable, and the fur and the material seem real. At the same time, he was concerned about rendering a spirituality in the facial expression, lengthening the features and making the forehead higher.





Lamentation over the Dead Christ
1500
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Lamentation over the Dead Christ

This panel was dedicated by Albrecht Glimm, the goldsmith, to his first wife, Margareth Holzhausen, deceased 22 October 1500. During 1573-74, it was part of the Imhoff collection and, with the collection, was offered to Rudolph II in 1588. Between 1608 and 1613, it was acquired by Maximilian I of Bavaria. During a restoration that took place in 1924, the portraits of Glimm's second wife and of his seven children were destroyed. Durer had added these following her death, in 1518. The Durerian monogram and the date 1500 had once been on the lower edge of the sudarium. The lamentation scene, composed of nine figures under the cross, occupies almost the entire painting. This scene is framed above by a beautiful landscape in which Jerusalem can be seen off the lakeshore, atop a hill, in the foreground. Behind the city is a mountain peak and a mountain range that disappear into the background. The city, mountains, and lake are flooded with light. A thick blanket of heavy black clouds that thins out just above the lake in the back looms over the mountains. While the presence of the black clouds is justified by the narration of the crucifixion ("and darkness came over the whole land...while the sun's light failed," Luke 23:45), and the light is explained by the words of the apocryphal gospel of Saint Peter when he describes the position ("and the sun began to shine again," 6:21), the Jerusalem that appears in the painting—a city near water, with house, towers, and fortification walls, lying against rocky mountains—is decidedly an invented, Nordic city, which does not at all reflect the actual appearance, well known at that time, of this blessed city. In the center, one sees the door that opens into the garden of Cethsemane. A little more ahead, on the right, is the entrance to the tomb in the rock, through which one can spot the uncovered sarcophagus. The first thing that strikes the spectator is the chorale composition of the sufferers around the figure of Christ. One subsequently perceives the landscape, almost as if it were a second component of the painting. At this point, the two components together make the visual field explode.
The image of the lamentation is from a Dutch, not a German, tradition (Anzelewsky, 1991). Durer interprets it in Italian terms, associating, in the composition of the scene, the figures three by three: Nicodemus, Magdalene, and Saint John the Evangelist align themselves in an ascending order under the cross. In the center, the head of the Madonna, while she wrings her hands, is joined by the heads of the other two Marys, who cry with her, the three representing three ages of life.
Last is Joseph of Arimathea, who supports the body of Christ with the sudarium. The image of the body is particularly impressive for the deathly pale color and for the complete abandon of the lifeless parts. Another Mary stands out for her clothing, fashioned from Durer's period (note the bonnet and the gold clasp, similar to those of the Tucher women). She is weeping while holding Christ's hand.
Thus, a triad is formed, be it with the head of Christ and the Madonna, or of Christ and Joseph of Arimathea. The impression of these different triads contrasts with the great chromatic variety of the clothing. However, the rhythm that characterizes the harmonious composition of the figures is not to be found in the colors, since the exaggerated dimensions of the ointment vases breaks the regularity of the proportions, which is otherwise fairly consistent. The beauty of the work lies chiefly in the depiction of the individual physiognomies and in the gradation of pain: from Magdalene's tear-stained eyes, to the expression of muted and composed suffering of almost all the rest of the figures, to the absolute desperation, shown by the gesture and wailing of the woman next to the Madonna.
The scene with the body of the dead Christ opens up toward the spectator, so that he can directly participate in the lamentation, following the Mary, clad in Renaissance attire, who lovingly clutches the hand of Christ. Since the entire scene is illuminated by a limpid "new light," the suffering of the lamentation is accompanied by a feeling of comfort, a feeling that Durer makes delicately transpire from the John and Magdalene, whose hopeful gazes are turned toward this light. This, apparently, is the Christian message of the panel. According to an enduring medieval tradition, the figures of the donors are painted, kneeling at the bottom of the scene: on the right, the position of honor, the goldsmith Albrecht Glimm with his coat of arms and two sons; to the left, the late consort with her own coat of arms and daughter. A crown of thorns lies in the middle, between the two groups. There is another painting in the Germanisches Museum of Nuremberg that is dedicated to the memory of Karl Holzschuher dated the year 1500. It comes from the same church and vaguely recalls the one described above, but it is the product of workshop.


Lamentation over the Dead Christ
(detail)
1500
Alte Pinakothek, Munich



Lamentation over the Dead Christ
(detail)
1500
Alte Pinakothek, Munich



Lamentation over the Dead Christ
(detail)
1500
Alte Pinakothek, Munich




Paumgartner Altar
c. 1503
Alte Pinakothek, Munich


Paumgartner Altar

Emperor Rudolph II did not manage to acquire the painting, which in 1613-14 was removed from the church of Saint Catherine in Nuremberg, to be given to Maximilian of Bavaria.
 

Paumgartner Altar (central panel)
c. 1503
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

 

Center panel

On the left side, Durer invented, with an almost perpendicular perspective with respect to the observer, a complex of ruins made up of huge, partly broken blocks of stone.
A large round arch made of square stones is erected upon these stones and shifted toward the left. The arch, in turn, is surmounted by a large slab in an apparently precarious balance, and by a huge angular rock. From here, rising on a step along the wall beside the arch, you reach another rounded arch. This one is much higher than, and perpendicular to, the first.
It leads to another structure to the right, where two smaller arches, resting on columns with Romanic cubic capitals, delimit the stable of the ox and donkey.
The two facades, on the left and on the right, establish a perspective series toward the landscape passage in the background. This passage is contrasted with the three planks resting on the right wall and on the transversal arch, and, lower down, with the wooden roof that stretches from the right-hand wall toward the center, protecting the Madonna and the infant Jesus. This whole arrangement can be considered proof of the level Durer's abilities had reached in perspectival representation—though as yet imperfect, as far as the rules of central perspective are concerned. It is the setting of the Nativity. The characters are distributed in the open space between the two houses under the shelter of a roof, as the "golden legend" says. The Virgin is in front of the small archways on the right. She stands ahead of Joseph, who remains outside the roof cover; two shepherds appear beyond and behind the Madonna, in the distance, above a hill, is the scene of the angel appearing "in the splendor of the glory of the Lord" to the shepherds grazing their sheep, announcing the "good news." The two shepherds who enter the scene are speaking animatedly, and one of them, in a sign of devotion, has also removed his hat. However, they do not yet realize, emotional as they are, that they are so close to their destination.
The Virgin Mary is depicted on bended knee and in adoration of her son, as her gaze and her folded arms reveal. He is a little baby, held and caressed by a group of playful little angels. Jesus crosses his legs and looks tenderly at his mother, stretching his arms out toward her, a gesture and a gaze that perhaps signifies the acceptance of the task that awaits him.
The shepherds are moving toward the creche, although the panel does not represent the "adoration of the shepherds." They are too immersed in their own con versation. The central theme of the panel is surely the "adoration of Mary." An unusually large Joseph approaches the foreground and emerges from a gap in the stones. Leaning with his right hand on the socle of the roof, he looks to the Madonna. He has a saddlebag hanging from his side, and in his left hand he holds a lamp firmly, which does not, however, emit any light. The blessed night appears illuminated by a great, mysterious round light in the top left. It is, however, a fictive light, since the whole scene of the nativity is illuminated by an invisible source in the bottom left corner. According to Panofsky, Joseph's lantern would have an emblematic value (1955): it would represent the splendor materialis, which, according to Saint Brigid of Sweden, is obscured by the splendor divinus of the newborn Savior.
Joseph, in his role of putative father, is usually represented in Nordic art as a ridiculous figure. Here he enjoys an important position, without taking on a dominant role in the story. After ail, it is true that the pole supporting the roof excludes him from the principal scene. The presence of the two male figures leaning out from the left, from the shadow of the wooden beams inserted below the arch, is curious. The meaning of the plants that sprout from the ruins is obvious: they allude to the coming of the new era that has begun with the birth of Christ. Durer, unlike the other workshops of his day, produced very few altarpieces. In this panel, he apparently demonstrates much less interest for the christological content of the represented theme than for the formal problems: the architecture, light, and perspective. The latter remains his primary concern, even if, objectively, he did not succeed in resolving these problems in a totally satisfying way. But it is still possible that he did want to confront them, through the formal artistic solutions of Hugo von der Goes, who in 1483 was in Florence and whom he likely knew through his drawings (Panofsky). His patron was not a clergy man; neither do we find any reference to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for which occasion he would have commissioned the work.
The small figures of the patrons remain outside the technical and artistic problems of the painting. They were inserted a bit haphazardly wherever there was any space left over. On the left is Martin Paumgartner (died in 1478), his sons Lukas and Stephan, and perhaps Hans Schonbach, the second husband of his widow, Barbara Volkhammer (died in 1494). She is depicted on the right together with her daughters Maria and Barbara. Everyone is depicted with their coat of arms.


Paumgartner Altar (left wing)
c. 1503
Alte Pinakothek, Munich
 
 
Paumgartner Altar (right wing)
c. 1503
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Side Panels

The figures of the saints are a completely different artistic matter. They are painted in almost actual size on the side panels representing the portraits of the patrons: Saint George could be Stephan Paumgartner, and Saint Eustace, Lukas They are, according to Anzelewsky (1991), the first full-length portraits known to us, except for those of 1504 of the Stalberg spouses in the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, by the "Master of the Stalburg portraits." As for the rest, from observing the bearing of the two figures, studied carefully, and their marked plasticity and expressiveness of the physiognomies, one could argue that the side panels were painted after the central one. When the side panels would be turned slightly forward, the figures of the patrons found themselves observing the scene represented on the central panel. The panels were painted even on the back, but of these, only the left one has been preserved. It represents the Madonna of the Annunciation (Strieder, 1933) and comes from a workshop. A copy of the Paumgartner altar is located in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.

 
 
 

 
 
 
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