There is a well-established cliché that artists are invariably narcissists of some kind or another. Lord Byron and his romantic vanity fit the mold, as do Hollywood’s prima donnas. But when did this pattern begin? In his new book, Albrecht Dürer: Art and Autobiography, David Ekserdjian gives an account of one the modern world’s first artists alleged to have displayed this trait. Whether he was in fact the first modern artist to also be notably narcissistic seems unlikely, but what Dürer created does indeed show astonishing genius—genius that he himself was unafraid to recognize.
Ekserdjian, a professor of the history of art and film at the University of Leicester, is more concerned with Dürer’s art than he is Dürer’s personality but conveys in clear prose that these two facets are not separable. The introductory chapters describe the young Dürer not as self-obsessed, but instead enthralled by the world around him. His studies of animals, plants, buildings, and landscapes, rendered in almost unrivaled detail, testify to his incredible eye and dexterous hand, as well as to his unique and insatiable curiosity. Great Piece of Turf (1503), for example, a watercolor study depicting a bankside overgrowth of weeds and grass, is an almost photographic portrayal of a subject that most would pass by without taking any notice.
Despite painting and sculpture’s domination of the Renaissance’s Paragone debate, it is the medium of print that made Dürer’s name. Some of his greatest and most well-known works are the prints Rhinoceros (1515) and Melencolia I (1514). During his time, his woodcut series Marienleben (ca. 1500–11) and prints of other religious scenes brought him wealth and acclaim. His complete mastery of the four printmaking methods of his time (woodcut, engraving, etching, and drypoint) allowed him to go places artistically that the world of painting, narrower in its choice of subjects, wouldn’t permit; paintings of the period rarely ventured beyond grand religious or historical themes, due mostly to the nature of the medium’s patrons, but the more democratic and cheaper form of printmaking afforded greater flexibility.
One should not interpret the popularity Dürer found in printmaking as evidence of his failure with the brush and canvas: the crowning and most personal works of the artist’s career are his three painted self-portraits. Ekserdjian traces Dürer’s career through these self-portraits, alongside such highlights as Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511), the Protestant Four Apostles (1526), and a number of other magnificent altarpieces and portraits. But it is in the three surviving self-portraits that one finds the most skill. Ekserdjian writes that “Dürer painted at least four independent self-portraits, whereas most artists of the period did not execute even one.” These works, in addition to the many studies and commissions where Dürer inserted himself into the frame, reveal his novel interest in his own image. Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle (1493) shows a twenty-three-year-old Dürer gazing out at the viewer, as he does in all his self-portraits. His clothes are elegant, and yet an adolescent quality remains on his face. The Prado Self-Portrait (1498) depicts the artist as a twenty-six-year-old, this time in even finer attire, his golden hair done in tight ringlets, with any look of uncertainty now absent from his visage. Finally, the Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty-Eight (1500) is the artist’s Meisterwerk. Here, his image is merged with the iconography of Christ. These paintings display both the ingenuity and mastery with which Dürer melded artist and subject into one, thereby realizing the ideal of the self-portrait.
Another strong point of Ekserdjian’s work is his detailed treatment of Dürer’s travels. The first of these voyages was the artist’s Wanderjahre, a several-year-long venture through the Rhineland. The Wanderjahr was a great tradition of the time for artists who had completed their apprenticeships to go out into the world. His next journey was to Venice in 1494, but little is recorded of this visit. Dürer’s second Italian trip is better attested. He left Nuremberg in 1505 and traveled to Venice to execute a commission from a guild of German merchants. This work, Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506), evinces Dürer’s singular talent: Northern structure and attention to detail merges cleanly with bright Venetian color, and though it is clearly a work of the Renaissance, there is nonetheless something medieval about it.
In this section Ekserdjian also ventures into some of the more contentious realms of Dürer scholarship: the author makes the case—against the conventional opinion—that Dürer made it as far south as Florence and even Rome during his Italian tours. There are no written records of these events, but Ekserdjian puts forward several compelling examples that seem to demonstrate Dürer’s work taking clear influence from, or some cases directly copying, art found only in these regions. A notable instance is that of the horse in Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), which Ekserdjian claims to be a copy of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (ca. 181) in Rome. While the evidence is hardly conclusive, the images do bear more than a passing resemblance.
Durër traveled as well throughout the Low Countries, and his time there was of great satisfaction to him. Writing of his experience in those lands, he recorded, “In all my life, I have never seen anything that brought such joy to my heart as all these things.” This journey, which took place from 1520 to 1521, was to be the last of his great travels.
If, as some have said, it is true that the Renaissance birthed the idea of the individual, then Dürer must be seen as one of the first great romantic individuals. He may have been melancholic and vain, but his enduring fame is not the product of distinctive personality, but rather the quality of the art that character created. Ekserdjian dedicates his concluding chapter to listing some of the names that took Dürer as an influence, both north and south of the Alps, from his time to ours: among them are Caravaggio, Velàzquez, Otto Dix, and Lucian Freud. It is a list almost without parallel.