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Albert Duerer

      It has been given to some men to be not only great in the domain of art by reason of that which they have themselves succeeded in producing, but by reason of that which they have inspired other men to produce. They have been not merely artists, but teachers, who by precept and example have moulded the whole current and drift of artistic thought in the ages and lands to which they have belonged. Among these lofty spirits, who live through the centuries not only in what their hands once fashioned, but still more in what they have inspired others to do, undoubtedly one of the greatest is Albert Duerer. Justly reckoned as the representative artist of Germany, he has the peculiar honor of having raised the craft of the engraver to its true position, as one of the fine arts. As a painter not unworthy to be classified with Titian and Raphael, his contemporaries upon Italian soil, he poured the wealth of his genius into woodcuts and copperplates, and taught men the practically measureless capacity of what before his day had been a rudimentary art.

      Duerer was born in Nuremberg on May 21, 1471. The family was of Hungarian origin, though the name is German, and is derived from Thuerer, meaning a maker of doors. The ancestral calling of the family probably was that of the carpenter. Albert Duerer, the father of the great artist, was a goldsmith, and settled about 1460 in Nuremberg, where he served as an assistant to Hieronymus Holper, a master goldsmith, whose daughter, Barbara, he married in 1468. He was at the time forty years of age, and she fifteen. As the result of the union eighteen children were born into the world, of whom Albrecht was the second. The lad, as he grew up, became a great favorite with his father, who appeared to discern in him the promise of future ability. The feeling of attachment was reciprocated in the most filial manner, and there are extant two well-authenticated portraits of the father from the facile brush of the son, one in the Uffizi at Florence, the other in the possession of the Duke of Northumberland. It was the original intention of the father of the artist that he should follow the craft of the goldsmith, but after serving a period as an apprentice in his father's shop, his strong predilection for the calling of the painter manifested itself to such a degree that the father reluctantly consented to allow the boy to follow his natural bent, and placed him under the tutelage of Michael Wohlgemuth, the principal painter of Nuremberg. Wohlgemuth was a representative artist of his time, who followed his calling after a mechanical fashion, having a large shop filled with apprentices who, under his direction and with his assistance, busied themselves in turning out for a small consideration altar-pieces and pictures of martyrdoms, which were in vogue as necessary parts of decoration in churches. Numerous examples of the work of Wohlgemuth and his contemporaries survive, attesting, by the wealth of crudities and unintended caricatures with which they abound, the comparatively low stage of development attained by the art of the painter in Germany at that day. According to Duerer, the period of his apprenticeship to Wohlgemuth was spent profitably, and resulted in large acquisitions of technical skill. The period of his preliminary training being ended, he set forth upon his "Wanderjahre," and travelled extensively. Just what points he visited cannot with certainty be determined. It is ascertained beyond doubt that he visited Colmar, where he was hospitably entertained by the family of Martin Schongauer, the greatest painter of his time on German soil, but who had died shortly before the visit of Duerer. He also visited Strasburg, and it is thought by many that he extended his journeyings as far as Venice. In 1494 he returned to Nuremberg, and in the month of July was married to Agnes Frey, the daughter of a prosperous merchant of the city. He was twenty-three years of age, and she somewhat younger. They lived together happily, though no children were born to them, and it has been proved that the reputation which has been given her, of being little better than a common scold, who imbittered his life by her termagancy, is the creation of the ill temper of one of the testy friends of Duerer, Willibald Pirkheimer, who, in the spirit of spitefulness, besmirched her character in a letter which unfortunately survives to this day, and in which he accuses her of having led her husband a mad and weary dance by her temper. The reason for this ebullition on the part of Pirkheimer appears to have been that, after Duerer's death, she refused to give him a pair of antlers which had belonged to her husband, and which Pirkheimer had set his heart upon having.

Albert Duerer's Wedding.

      The first eleven years of the married life of Duerer were spent in Nuremberg, where he devoted himself with unremitting assiduity to the prosecution of his art. During these years his powers unfolded rapidly, and there are extant two notable pictures, which were undoubtedly produced at this time, the triptych in the Dresden Gallery, and an altar-piece which is in the palace of the Archbishop of Vienna, at Ober St. Veit. These compositions, while remarkable in many respects, still reveal the influence of his master, Wohlgemuth, and give evidence of having been in part executed with the assistance of apprentices. In fact, the peak-gabled house at the foot of the castle-mound in Nuremberg was a picture factory like that of Wohlgemuth, in which, however, work of a higher order than any hitherto produced in Germany was being turned out. We know the names of four or five of those who served as apprentices under Duerer at this time and they are stars of lesser magnitude in the constellation of German art. But Duerer was not contented simply to employ his talents in the production of painted altar-pieces, and we find him turning out a number of engravings, the most noticeable among which are his sixteen great wood-cuts illustrating the Apocalypse, which were published in 1498. The theme was one which had peculiar fascinations for all classes at the time. The breaking up of all pre-existing systems, the wonderful stirrings of a new life which were beginning to be felt everywhere with the close of the Middle Age and the dawning of the Renaissance, had filled the minds of men with wonder, and caused them to turn to the writings of the Apocalyptic Seer with keenest interest. A recent critic, commenting upon his work as represented in these engravings, says: "The energy and undismayed simplicity of his imagination enable him, in this order of creations, to touch the highest point of human achievement. The four angels keeping back the winds that they blow not, the four riders, the loosing of the angels of the Euphrates to slay the third part of men--these and others are conceptions of such force, such grave or tempestuous grandeur, in the midst of grotesqueness, as the art of no other age or hand has produced."

      At this period Duerer was also engaged in experimenting upon the art of copper-plate engraving, in which he restricted himself mainly to reproducing copies of the works of other artists, among them those of Jacopo de Barbari, a painter of the Italian school, who was residing in Nuremberg, and who among other things gave the great artist instruction in plastic anatomy. The influence of his instructor is plain, when we compare engravings executed about 1504 with those published at a previous date, and especially when we examine his design of the Passion of our Lord painted in white upon a green ground, commonly known as "The Green Passion," which is treasured in the Albertina at Prague. He also during these twelve years finished seven of the twelve great wood-cuts illustrating the passion, and sixteen of the twenty cuts which compose the series known as "The Life of the Virgin." The activities of Duerer in Nuremberg were temporarily interrupted by a journey to Italy, which he undertook in the fall of the year 1505. What the immediate occasion for undertaking this journey may have been is not plain, though it seems most likely that one of his objects was to enable him to recuperate from the effects of a protracted illness, from which he had suffered during the summer of this year, and also incidentally to secure a market for his wares in Venice, the commercial relationships of which with Nuremberg were very close at this period. A German colony, composed largely of Nuremberg factors and merchants, was located at this time in Venice, and they had secured the privilege of dedicating a great painting in the church of St. Bartholomew. The commission for the execution of this painting was secured by Duerer. It represents the adoration of the Virgin, but has been commonly known under the name of "The Feast of the Rose Garlands." After having undergone many vicissitudes, it is preserved to-day in a highly mutilated condition in the monastery of Strachow, near Prague. Duerer's stay in Venice was signalized not only by the production of this painting, but of three or four other notable works which still exist, and which reflect the great influence upon him of the Italian school of painting, with which he had attained familiarity. His stay in Venice lasted about a year. In the fall of 1506, he returned to Nuremberg, and there remained for the next fourteen years, engaged in the practice of his art. These years were years of success and prosperity. His name and fame had spread over the whole of Europe, and the greatest artists of the day were glad to do him homage. Raphael said of him, when contemplating some of his designs, "Truly this man would have surpassed us all, if he had the masterpieces of ancient art constantly before his eyes as we have." A friendly correspondence was maintained between the immortal Italian and his German contemporary, and in his own country, all men, from the emperor to the peasant, delighted to do honor to his genius, the products of which were found alike in church and palace, and through his printed designs in the homes of the humble poor.

      The proud old imperial city of Nuremberg had gathered within its battlemented walls a multitude of men who were distinguished not only for their commercial enterprise and wealth, but many of whom were the exponents of the literary and artistic culture of the time. Among the men with whom Duerer found congenial companionship were Adam Krafft, the sculptor; Veit Stoss, whose exquisite carvings in wood may reflect in some measure in the wild luxuriance of the imagination which they display, the restless, "dare-devil" spirit with which his biographers invest him; Peter Vischer, the bronze founder; and last but not least. Hans Sachs, the cobbler poet, whose quaint rhymes are a source of delight to this day, and were a mighty force in the great work of the Reformation, by which the fetters of mediaeval traditions and ecclesiastical abuse were thrown off by the German people.

      Of the personal appearance of Duerer at this time, we are not left in ignorance. A portrait of himself from his own hands has been preserved and is well known. His features reveal refinement and great intellectuality, united with grace, and his attire shows that he was not oblivious to matters of personal adornment. After the fashion of the time, his hair was worn in long and graceful ringlets, which fell in heavy masses about his shoulders.

      The first six years which followed his return from Venice were almost wholly given to painting, and his productions give evidence of the fact that he had dismissed from his employment the retinue of assistants and apprentices, whom he had employed in his earlier years. From this period date most of his great masterpieces, which are still preserved, among them the "Adam and Eve," in the Pitti Palace; the "Ten Thousand Martyrs of Nicomedia," in the Imperial Gallery, at Vienna; the "Adoration of the Trinity," at the Belvedere, in Vienna; and "The Assumption of the Virgin," the original of which was destroyed by fire more than three hundred years ago, but of which a good copy is preserved at Frankfort. To this period belong the portraits of Charlemagne and of the Emperor Sigismund, which are preserved in the National German Museum at Nuremberg.

      But while prosecuting the work of the painter, he did not neglect the art of the engraver, and in 1511, brought out in complete form his great book of woodcuts in folio, and began to develop that marvellous art of etching which is indissolubly connected with his name. Among the products of the etcher's needle which attest his activity in this direction are those masterpieces which have for centuries been at once the delight and the puzzle of artistic minds: the "Melancholia," "The Knight and the Devil," and "St. Jerome in his Cell." The most reasonable explanation of these weird fancies is that they were intended to represent in allegorical style the three temperaments--the melancholic, the sanguine, and the phlegmatic. The Diet of Augsburg, which was convened in 1518, gave Duerer a passing opportunity to depict the lineaments of the Emperor Maximilian, who gave him several sittings, and who manifested great interest in the painter. The death of the emperor in the following year, the outbreak of an epidemic in Nuremberg, together with the coronation of Charles V. at Aix-la-Chapelle, led Duerer to undertake a journey to the Low Countries, in which he was accompanied by his faithful wife. He was present at the coronation and was one of the distinguished civilians whose appearance added dignity to the occasion. His diary, in which he recounts his experiences upon this journey, and which is accompanied by a multitude of wayside sketches, is still preserved, and contains, besides the dry entries of his current expenditures, most entertaining allusions to the distinguished people whom he met, and who received him with the utmost cordiality. Intermingled with these narrative details are outbursts of feeling, which are provoked by passing political and ecclesiastical events, in which he took a profound interest, though he never appears to have committed himself with positive openness to the party of reform. His sympathies are, however, clearly shown by his writings, as well as by his works of art, to have been with the Reformers, and he lived on terms of intimacy with Erasmus and Melancthon, of both of whom we have portraits from his hand.

      Duerer returned from the Netherlands in 1521, about the middle of July, and the remaining years of his life were spent in the prosecution of the art of the engraver, in painting, and in the effort to elucidate the sciences of perspective, geometry, and fortification, upon all of which he has left treatises.

      His labors, though they had not brought with them great wealth, had secured for him a competency, and the latter years of his life were devoted more and more to labors which, while dignified, did not tend to add greatly to his already magnificent reputation. These labors were prosecuted in spite of ever-failing health. While in the Netherlands he had contracted a malarial fever, the effects of which clung to him, in spite of the best treatment which could be secured, and left him the wreck of his former self. On April 6, 1528, death suddenly overtook him. There was not even time to summon his friends to his side before his spirit had fled. The city which had been his home from childhood was filled with mourning. They took up his remains and gently laid them to rest in the burial vault of his wife's family in the graveyard of the Church of St. John, where the setting sun pours its last glowing beams at evening over the low Franconian hill-tops. The vault has since been changed and the last resting-place of the remains of the Raphael of the North is a lowly mound, reverently approached by all who visit the quaint imperial city, upon which is a slab, covered with a bronze tablet upon which are the words:

Quicquid Alberti Dureri Mortale
Fuit Sub Hoc Conditum Tumulo.
Emigravit VIII Idus Aprilis, MDXXVIIL

"Emigravit is the inscription on the tombstone where he lies;
Dead he is not, but departed--for the artist never dies.
Fairer seems the ancient city, and the sunshine seems more fair,
That he once has trod its pavement, that he once has breathed its air!"

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