The Walnut Essence of Albrecht Dürer
by PAUL JOHNSON
Albrecht Dürer was among the most creative individuals in history. As soon as he could hold a pen, he was drawing. A drawing of himself, done when he was thirteen, survives, showing him with long, silky hair and wearing a tassled cap, pointing earnestly to his image in a mirror.
It survives because his father loved it and kept it, and it is not only brilliant but highly accomplished: evidently the boy had been drawing for many years, probably from the age of three, which is when most natural artists begin.
It is hard to believe that he let a single day of his life pass without creating something, even when he was traveling - for Dürer discovered (as I have) that watercolors are perfect for a traveling artist, light to carry, easy to set up, and ideally suited for a quick landscape or townscape sketched while there is half an hour to spare. His topographical watercolors were the first landscapes done by a northern European and the first use of watercolor outside England; and considering the novelty of the topic and the medium they are extraordinarily accomplished.
Dürer's initiation in adopting the new medium - watercolor - so that he could record his travels and never waste a day was characteristic both of his intense, unremitting industry and of his voracious appetite for new artistic experiences. His output included 346 woodcuts and 105 engravings, most of great elaboration, scores of portraits in various media; several massive altarpieces; etchings and drypoints; and 970 surviving drawings (of many thousands). Virtually all his work is of the highest possible quality, and he seems to have worked at the limit of his capabilities all his life. Indeed he was always pushing the frontiers of art forward, and the number of firsts he scored in technical innovation is itself striking. The Leonardo of northern Europe (but with much more pertinacity and concentration), Dürer had a scientific spirit that compelled him to ask why as well as do, and to seek means of doing better all the time by incessant questing and searching.
Dürer pursued, simultaneously, the art of creating unique images in pencil, ink, and paint. He was not only at the center of the printing revolution in Germany but on the northern fringes of the Renaissance. It was centered mainly in Italy but, in its cult of humanistic recovery and study of ancient Latin and Greek texts - and of carrying their message into modern life - it was also a phenomenon throughout Europe. Dürer was a scholar as well as an artist, accumulating a sizable library, and as avid to learn more about the world by reading as to improve his art by watching the masters at work.
His closest and lifelong friend was the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, to whom he poured out his heart in noble letters, some of which survive. In 1494, when he was twenty-three, Dürer was obliged by his father to take a suitable wife, Agnes, daughter of a successful master craftsman, Hans Frey. Agnes was intelligent and played the harp well, and Dürer's drawing of her as a bride shows affection. But while we might have expected a succession of portraits (not least, one of her playing the harp) none appears to have survived. There is some evidence that they did not live happily together, and Pirckheimer, who hated Agnes, says she was cruel to him. It may well be that husband and wife differed over religion, for Dürer lived in the opening phases of the Reformation and was an admirer and supporter of Martin Luther and a friend of Luther's co-reformer Philip Melancthon, whom he portrayed splendidly. If Agnes, as I suspect, was a conservative daughter of the church, that would explain much.
However, Agnes benefited Dürer enormously in one respect. She brought with her a dowry of 200 gold crowns, and with this Dürer financed a trip to Italy, Venice especially, the first of two journeys. These travels were formative for Dürer in a number of ways. They produced his travel watercolors. They introduced him to southern light - and heat. In Germany he suffered greatly from Nuremberg's cold winters, icy springs, and uncertain summers. He wrote to Pirckheimer from Italy, rejoicing in the sunshine: "Here I live like a prince, in Germany like a beggar in rags, shivering."
Indeed, by the time Dürer returned to Venice, he found himself almost as famous there as in Germany, so much were his woodcut books admired (and copied). Modest as always, humble in his insatiable desire to acquire knowledge and skill, he found himself constituting a bridge between northern and southern art, a conduit along which flowed ideas and innovations from Italy to Germany and vice versa.
During pauses between his big woodcutting and engraving projects, Dürer drew and painted - in watercolor, tempera, and other color media - a variety of living things: plants, flowers, and above all animals, such a squirrels, foxes, and wolves. The realism with which he depicted fur amazed the Italians. Giovanni Bellini asked to borrow one of the "special brushes" Dürer used for fur. Dürer gave him a brush. "But I've got one of those already," said Giovanni. "Ah!" said Dürer.
He is best remembered not so much as an artistic celebrity but as a simple workman in art, with the tools of his trade in his hand: the sharp knives, gravers, scorpers, tint tools, spit sticks, rollers, and mallet of the woodcutter; pots of black and brown ink; chips of wood everywhere, the gravers, gougers, rockers, and roulettes of metal engraving; the needles of the etcher; drypointers and styluses, scrapers and burnishers, and literally hundreds of pens, brushes, charcoal sticks, and graphite pencils from Cumberland plumbago.
His workroom had scores of aromatic smells: linseed oil and egg white, walnut essence, sizes and glues, gesso and tempera, hog smells from the brushes, coal and carbon dust, chalk and earths for color mixing, squirrel skins for minute eye brushes, turps, and other dryers, lavender oil, waxes and resins, varnish and gypsum, powerful acids for biting into metal, and the reek of fresh canvas rolls and treated wood panels. His hands, to judge from his self-portraits, were big (like the hands of most painters) and worn by the trade, with cuts, calluses, old scars and acid stains; imperfectly washed; the nails black, or red and raw from carbolic - the hands of a man who worked with them all his painstaking life.
Paul Johnson is one of world's most honored historians and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This abridged excerpt is taken from his collection Creators, which you can purchase here.
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