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Albrecht Dürer (/ˈdʊərər, ˈdjʊər-/; German: [ˈalbʁɛçt ˈdyːʁɐ]; 21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528) was a German painter, printmaker, mathematician, and theorist born in Nuremberg. His high-quality woodcut prints established his reputation and influence across Europe when he was still in his twenties, and he has been conventionally regarded as the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance. His vast body of work includes engravings, his preferred technique in his later prints, altarpieces, portraits and self-portraits, watercolours and books. The woodcuts, such as the Apocalypse series (1498), retain a more Gothic flavour than the rest of his work. His well-known engravings include the Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in his Study (1514) and Melencolia I (1514), which has been the subject of extensive analysis and interpretation. His watercolours also mark him as one of the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of that medium.
Dürer's introduction of classical motifs into Northern art, through his knowledge of Italian artists and German humanists, has secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance. This is reinforced by his theoretical treatises, which involve principles of mathematics, perspective and ideal proportions.
Dürer was born on 21 May 1471, third child and second son of his parents, who had between fourteen and eighteen children. His father, Albrecht Dürer the Elder, was a successful goldsmith, originally Ajtósi, who in 1455 had moved to Nuremberg from Ajtós, near Gyula in Hungary. The German name "Dürer" is a translation from the Hungarian, "Ajtósi". Initially, it was "Türer," meaning doormaker, which is "ajtós" in Hungarian (from "ajtó", meaning door). A door is featured in the coat-of-arms the family acquired. Albrecht Dürer the Younger later changed "Türer", his father's diction of the family's surname, to "Dürer", to adapt to the local Nuremberg dialect. Albrecht Dürer the Elder married Barbara Holper, the daughter of his master, when he himself became a master in 1467.
Dürer's godfather was Anton Koberger, who left goldsmithing to become a printer and publisher in the year of Dürer's birth and quickly became the most successful publisher in Germany, eventually owning twenty-four printing-presses and having many offices in Germany and abroad. Koberger's most famous publication was the Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493 in German and Latin editions. It contained an unprecedented 1,809 woodcut illustrations (albeit with many repeated uses of the same block) by the Wolgemut workshop. Dürer may well have worked on some of these, as the work on the project began while he was with Wolgemut.
Because Dürer left autobiographical writings and became very famous by his mid-twenties, his life is well documented by several sources. After a few years of school, Dürer started to learn the basics of goldsmithing and drawing from his father. Though his father wanted him to continue his training as a goldsmith, he showed such a precocious talent in drawing that he started as an apprentice to Michael Wolgemut at the age of fifteen in 1486. A self-portrait, a drawing in silverpoint, is dated 1484 (Albertina, Vienna) "when I was a child," as his later inscription says. Wolgemut was the leading artist in Nuremberg at the time, with a large workshop producing a variety of works of art, in particular woodcuts for books. Nuremberg was then an important and prosperous city, a centre for publishing and many luxury trades. It had strong links with Italy, especially Venice, a relatively short distance across the Alps.
In early 1492 Dürer travelled to Basel to stay with another brother of Martin Schongauer, the goldsmith Georg. Very soon after his return to Nuremberg, on 7 July 1494, at the age of 23, Dürer was married to Agnes Frey following an arrangement made during his absence. Agnes was the daughter of a prominent brass worker (and amateur harpist) in the city. However, no children resulted from the marriage.
Within three months of his marriage, Dürer left for Italy, alone, perhaps stimulated by an outbreak of plague in Nuremberg. He made watercolour sketches as he traveled over the Alps. Some have survived and others may be deduced from accurate landscapes of real places in his later work, for example his engraving Nemesis.
On his return to Nuremberg in 1495, Dürer opened his own workshop (being married was a requirement for this). Over the next five years his style increasingly integrated Italian influences into underlying Northern forms. Dürer's father died in 1502, and his mother died in 1513. His best works in the first years of the workshop were his woodcut prints, mostly religious, but including secular scenes such as The Men's Bath House (ca. 1496). These were larger and more finely cut than the great majority of German woodcuts hitherto, and far more complex and balanced in composition.
In Italy, he returned to painting, at first producing a series of works executed in tempera on linen. These include portraits and altarpieces, notably, the Paumgartner altarpiece and the Adoration of the Magi. In early 1506, he returned to Venice and stayed there until the spring of 1507. By this time Dürer's engravings had attained great popularity and were being copied. In Venice he was given a valuable commission from the emigrant German community for the church of San Bartolomeo. This was the altar-piece known as the Adoration of the Virgin or the Feast of Rose Garlands. It includes portraits of members of Venice's German community, but shows a strong Italian influence. It was subsequently acquired by the Emperor Rudolf II and taken to Prague. Other paintings Dürer produced in Venice include The Virgin and Child with the Goldfinch, Christ Disputing with the Doctors (supposedly produced in a mere five days), and a number of smaller works.
Despite the regard in which he was held by the Venetians, Dürer returned to Nuremberg by mid-1507, remaining in Germany until 1520. His reputation had spread throughout Europe and he was on friendly terms and in communication with most of the major artists including Raphael, Giovanni Bellini and — mainly through Lorenzo di Credi — Leonardo da Vinci.
Maximilian's death came at a time when Dürer was concerned he was losing "my sight and freedom of hand" (perhaps caused by arthritis) and increasingly affected by the writings of Martin Luther. In July 1520 Dürer made his fourth and last major journey, to renew the Imperial pension Maximilian had given him and to secure the patronage of the new emperor, Charles V, who was to be crowned at Aachen. Dürer journeyed with his wife and her maid via the Rhine to Cologne and then to Antwerp, where he was well received and produced numerous drawings in silverpoint, chalk and charcoal. In addition to going to the coronation, he made excursions to Cologne (where he admired the painting of Stefan Lochner), Nijmegen, 's-Hertogenbosch, Bruges (where he saw Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges), Ghent (where he admired van Eyck's altarpiece), and Zeeland. Having secured his pension, Dürer finally returned home in July 1521, having caught an undetermined illness—perhaps malaria —which afflicted him for the rest of his life, and greatly reduced his rate of work.
On his return to Nuremberg, Dürer worked on a number of grand projects with religious themes, including a crucifixion scene and a Sacra Conversazione, though neither was completed. This may have been due in part to his declining health, but perhaps also because of the time he gave to the preparation of his theoretical works on geometry and perspective, the proportions of men and horses, and fortification.
However, one consequence of this shift in emphasis was that during the last years of his life, Dürer produced comparatively little as an artist. In painting, there was only a portrait of Hieronymus Holtzschuher, a Madonna and Child (1526), Salvator Mundi (1526), and two panels showing St. John with St. Peter in background and St. Paul with St. Mark in the background. This last great work, the Four Apostles, was given by Dürer to the City of Nuremberg—although he was given 100 guilders in return.
Dürer died in Nuremberg at the age of 56, leaving an estate valued at 6,874 florins—a considerable sum. His large house (purchased in 1509 from the heirs of the astronomer Bernhard Walther), where his workshop was located and where his widow lived until her death in 1539, remains a prominent Nuremberg landmark. It is now a museum. He is buried in the Johannisfriedhof cemetery.