"Let none be ashamed to learn, for a good work requireth good counsel."
- Albrecht Dürer, 1520
A master painter, printmaker, and goldsmith as well as art theorist, and humanist scholar Albrecht Dürer embodied the idea of the renaissance man; constantly seeking, learning, teaching and adding to his vast repetoir of knowledge in the both the arts and sciences. He was also an innovator who accomplished many firsts for the arts world. He was the first artist to create a series of self-portraits, and to paint a landscape of a specific scene. He was also the plaintiff in what was possibly the first ever-copyright infringement lawsuit, which he won. Above all Dürer was the artist who brought the Italian Renaissance to Northern Europe.
Born to a goldsmith, Dürer had 17 siblings, only two survived until adulthood. Privileged at a young age he was sent to school to learn to read and write and was subsequently apprenticed to his father’s goldsmith studio. At 15, following a developing skill and interest in painting, he began an apprenticeship in the studio of Michael Wolgemut, who at the time was Nuremberg’s top artist. The studio produced paintings, prints and stained glass. Woodcuts produced in the studio were often prepared for books that were published by Dürer’s godfather, Anton Koberger, who also had an extensive collection of books and illustrative art, both old and new, to which Dürer had access.
After a three-year apprenticeship with Wolgemut, Dürer became a journeyman, leaving Nuremberg to travel Europe working for different studio masters. During this time, he traveled to Colmar, and Basel, and it has been posited that he traveled to the Netherlands, and down the Rhine River to Cologne. Such extensive travel at a young age marked the artist, and he continued to examine and learn about the world in which he lived. Returning to Nuremberg in 1494, Dürer married Agnes Fry the daughter of a prosperous coppersmith. Knowing he had so much more to see and experience Dürer departed for Italy a few short weeks after his marriage, leaving his young bride in Nuremberg.
Venice, the gateway to the east, had a rich trade port which offered unending stimulus for the young artist. However it was the artists of Venice, and their use of colour that dramatically influenced his palette. Dürer soon impressed the Venetians with his painting, and wrote to a friend “I have stopped the mouths of all the painters who used to say I was good at engraving but as to painting, I did not know how to handle my colours”. Returning to Nuremberg he set up a successful studio, taking on apprentices and accepting many fine commissions for paintings and prints and a few for stained glass.
Dürer was an artist open to change, new opportunities, new influences and new muses. His master engraving Melancholia has been interpreted as an illustration of the Renaissance concept, which held that melancholy was a personality trait found often in great thinkers and artists. The question of human proportion, sparked during his travels in Italy, persisted throughout his career and culminated in the publication of the Manual of Measurement and The Four Books on Human Proportion, published posthumously. His study of human proportion is evident in his engraving of Adam and Eve. This engraving, among others, also reveals the artist’s spiritual side; indeed many of his works can only be fully read through an understanding of their religious iconography. His writings extended beyond the arts with Various Instructions for the Fortification of Towns, Castles, and other localities. It was through his studio, his apprentices, his commissions, his books and his travels that Dürer spread the lessons of the Italian Renaissance throughout Northern Europe