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Art & artists

Albrecht Durer – star of the Northern Renaissance

— July 2011

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Cover of Albrecht Durer by Norbert Wolff


Norbert Wolff

German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) painted, drew, engraved, made prints, and theorized about art. He was also something of a mathematician. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no German artist has amassed such a large library, so the reader can be forgiven wondering whether another book is really necessary.  Moreover, the author of this richly produced Prestel volume is a professional art book writer in Munich, whose previous studies have chiefly concentrated on modern artists.  But Dürer remains the special patrimony of all Germans, and it has been a generation since the last surveys of his oeuvre were produced for English readers by two great specialists, Fedja Anzelewsky and Peter Strieder.  Thus the appearance of this large format book (with a less expensive paperback survey on the way from another specialist, American professor, Jeffrey Chipps Smith) offers a welcome opportunity to reassess the artist. It gives particular attention to the surviving catalogue of paintings, previously only accessible in Anzelewsky’s authoritative catalogue in German.

Wolf presents his material in five biographical chapters, followed by a discussion of Dürer’s art theory and his posthumous fame.  His professed goal is to produce an up-to-date analysis of the oeuvre as well as to emphasize Dürer’s achievement as a painter, since his graphic art (the subject of another, three-volume, comprehensive catalogue a decade ago by Schoch, Mende, and Scherbaum) is much more often studied and widely appreciated.  But Wolf pictures Dürer as a Renaissance man, a uomo universale, who knew and appreciated the artistic achievements of Italy while still returning to his native Germany.  This dialectic of interpretation has always coloured the vision of the artist, like Overbrook’s celebrated Nazarene picture of Italia embracing Germania (Neue Pinakothek, Munich).

The book is generously illustrated, including comparative images, from painting by his predecessors in Nuremberg painting to Durer’s own numerous watercolours to a fuller consideration of late works and theory.  The concluding catalogue (nearly 60 pages) of all surviving paintings is extremely useful, though perhaps more to be prized by scholars (or those who cannot read Anzelewsky’s German catalogue) than by novices.  One small detail should be amended for correctness: the lovely marginalia on the Idylls of Theocritus (c. 1504; figure 23 in the book) is now in the collection of the National Gallery, Washington. 

A few annoying elements mar this book.  Too often the generous details seem blown up far too large, their selection more arbitrary rather than revealing and often compromised, when spread across two pages, by the central binding of the volume.  At times the book seems lavish for its own sake, and one might wish for more reproductions of painting details, whereas prints and drawings closer to actual size would have been more useful than some of their detailed segments, which surpass magnification (though a few, especially the Adam and Eve top half across pp. 162–3, inspire awe).  Some work, especially that done for Emperor Maximilian, remains underrepresented.  Nonetheless, in a decision as unusual as it is useful, the second chapter reproduces the 1498 Apocalypse at nearly full size with all the woodcuts shown amidst text. 

While both its large format and its hefty price tag will probably keep this book out of wider circulation, it deserves the attention of any interested contemporary reader with either scholarly or general interest in Albrecht Dürer. 

Dürer by Norbert Wolf is published by Prestel Verlag 2010 £80.00/US$120.00, 300 pp., 200 colour/50 mono illus. ISBN: 978-3-7913-4426-3


Professor Larry Silver
University of Pennsylvania

Background info

Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg in Germany in 1471 and achieved fame across Europe while still in his 20s. He travelled over the Alps to Italy at the age of 23, and the watercolours he executed on the way may be the first true landscape pictures in European art. Previously, landscapes had appeared only as background in paintings of (generally) religious subjects. He seems to have visited Venice, Padua and Mantua, meeting and learning from the leading Italian artists of the day, such as Giovanni Bellini. His subsequent work, produced after his return to Nuremberg, includes both religious and secular subjects, and many portraits, including the somewhat Christ-like self-portrait shown on the cover of this new book. (Dürer does not seem to have been modest about his abilities or achievements, and these have indeed been celebrated ever since.) He made a second trip to Italy in his 30s, when among other work he painted The Adoration of the Virgin for the German church of San Bartolomeo in Venice. He also wrote extensively on geometry, the representation of the human form in art, and on aesthetics.

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