Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Review Essay: Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

Jeffrey Chipps Smith

Susan Foister and Peter van den Brink, eds., Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, exh. cat., National Gallery, London (London: National Gallery, distributed by Yale University Press, 2021), 304 pp., £40.

book cover image[1] On 12 July 1520, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) embarked on a year-long trip to the Low Countries. Accompanied by his wife Agnes and her maid Susanna, they voyaged down the Main and Rhine Rivers. Three weeks later they arrived in bustling Antwerp where they settled into rooms at the inn of Jobst Plankfelt. Dürer’s primary reason for the long journey was to obtain Emperor Charles V’s renewal of the annual pension that his grandfather and predecessor, Maximilian I, had awarded the artist in 1515. Yet Dürer lingered for another eight months even after the annuity was approved. As one of Europe’s most celebrated artists, Dürer was no ordinary traveller. The Nuremberg master produced an unprecedented record of this trip in the form of over one hundred extant drawings and paintings plus a remarkable travel journal. This text, known from two seventeenth-century copies, is part business account and part diary of whom he met, where he went, what he saw, and what art he made.

[2] In certain respects, Dürer’s travels to Antwerp went more smoothly than the plans for the London exhibition. The show was to open at the National Gallery on 6 March 2021 but due to the pandemic the new dates are 20 November 2021 to 27 February 2022. The emphasis of the exhibition and catalogue is, not surprisingly, on the Netherlandish trip since this show and the related exhibition at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen (see below) celebrate the 500th anniversary of Dürer’s visit to the Low Countries.

[3] The beautifully illustrated catalogue of Dürer’s Journeys offers a superb introduction to the artistic and textual evidence about the artist’s travels. In their joint opening remarks, Susan Foister and Peter van den Brink, the show’s organizers, justify concentrating on the Netherlandish journey since there have been numerous exhibitions and specialized studies about the artist’s Italian trips and about the critical importance of the city of Nuremberg for young Dürer’s career. The last major international exhibition about the Netherlandish trip was Albert Dürer aux Pays-Bas. Son voyage (1520-1521), son influence at the Palais des Beaux-Art in Brussels in 1977.

[4] Susan Foister’s essay (‘Dürer’s Early Journeys: Fact and Fiction’) provides brief yet helpful background about the artist’s Wanderjahre or journeyman sojourn in Upper Rhine between Strasbourg and Basel in the years between 1490, after completing his training with Michael Wolgemut in Nuremberg, and 1494, when he returned home to marry Agnes Frey. Foister discusses the theories about whether Dürer visited Venice (or just north Italy) in 1494-95 as well as his better documented stay in Venice from late summer 1505 to early February 1507.

[5] The catalogue is divided into five sections beginning with ‘Albrecht Dürer: Artist, Writer, Traveller.’ Andreas Beyer stresses travel as a means of self-discovery for the artist. He warns against thinking that we truly know Dürer’s character based on the wealth of autobiographical writings, self-portraits, and other personal works. Inspired perhaps by Conrad Celtis, Dürer actively engaged, both visually and textually, in self-fashioning. He was acutely self-conscious whether depicting himself as the Man of Sorrows (fig. 8) or recording the acclaim he received while abroad. Joseph Leo Koerner’s ‘Dürer in Motion’ portrays him as the ever-curious traveller whether encountering the ingenium of the creators of the Aztec objects that he saw in Brussels or his quest to view a gigantic whale that washed up in Zeeland. Koerner insightfully discusses the concept of mobilitas (mobility) less as it applied to the artist’s literal travels. Rather he discourses on the need for the mobility of mind, both in terms of ‘his curiosity and absorptiveness’ (p. 50), and the mobility of the artist’s hand that restlessly records what Dürer sees or imagines, such as how to pose St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child in nine different ways (cat. no. 17).

[6] Section II (‘Europe North and South’) follows Foister’s contribution on Dürer’s early journeys with essays by Till-Holger Borchert and Larry Silver on Dürer’s engagement with Netherlandish art and artists. Borchert surveys how Dürer’s portraits changed over his career. Since he arrived in Antwerp as a mature master, the portraits he encountered by Quinten Massys, Jan Gossaert, Bernaert van Orley, or Joos van Cleve exerted little discernible influence. While Dürer drew many lively likenesses while in the Low Countries, Borchert argues his painted portraits from 1519 on aspire to a reductive ‘timeless and classical appearance’ (p. 97). Although Dürer met most of the leading Netherlandish artists during his travels, he never encountered (or, at least, mentioned encountering) Massys, though he toured his house soon after arriving in Antwerp, and Gossaert. Silver discusses Gossaert’s frequent borrowing of figures and architectural motifs from Dürer’s prints. The Nuremberger even inspired Gossaert to make several engravings. While visiting Middelburg Abbey in Zeeland, Dürer noted in his journal that ‘Jan Gossaert has painted a great altar panel, not as good in terms of the modelling of the heads as in its use of colour’ (p. 103). This was one of his rare remarks about contemporary art.

[7] In section III (‘Court and City’), Dagmar Eichberger and Stijn Alsteens explore Dürer’s relations with Margaret of Austria, regent of the Low Countries. Eichberger recounts the evidence culled from the Netherlandish journal about the artist’s encounters with Margaret in Brussels and Mechelen. Dürer cultivated Margaret and members of her court hoping to secure support for his petition to Emperor Charles V to renew his imperial annuity. He presented her with gifts of prints and a portrait of her father, Emperor Maximilian I, who had died in 1519. The fact that she disliked the portrait and never directly reciprocated with any payment or gifts to him disappointed the artist. Yet it seems she promoted his case. Dürer enjoyed his encounters with her court artists van Orley, sculptors Jean Mone and Conrat Meit, and goldsmith Marc de Glasere. Alsteens offers the intriguing hypothesis that a group of twenty related drawings (1521-22) for an elaborate Virgin and Child with Saints composition might have been planned for a painting project that Dürer hoped Margaret might commission. These include some exquisite figure studies done in black chalk on green ground paper, such as St. Apollonia (fig. 59), as well as a series of working pen and ink sketches for the horizontally-oriented composition. Alsteens proposes the woman, kneeling in the role of donor in a drawing now in the Louvre (cat. no. 63), wears a Netherlandish-type hood and widow’s dress much like that seen in van Orley’s Portrait of Margaret of Austria (cat. no. 57). Alsteens admits the evidence is scant yet the attention Dürer devoted to his unfinished project suggests he envisioned a patron of high rank.

[8] The four essays of section IV (‘The Visual Legacy of the Netherlandish Journey’) examine Dürer’s drawings. Christof Metzger observes that Dürer listed at least 140 drawings in his journal. He often included information about when, where, and why he made the sketches. Many were portraits but others show costumes, animals, landscapes, and objects that caught his attention. These may be considered stock for study and potential future use. The careful silverpoint drawings were mostly part of a bound sketchbook. A second sketchbook held pen and ink drawings. Based on the research that he did for Albrecht Dürer, his outstanding 2019 exhibition at the Albertina in Vienna, Metzger traces the subsequent provenance of the large portions of the artist’s estate to later collectors such as Willibald Imhoff (d. 1580) of Nuremberg, Cardinal Antoine Perenot de Granvelle, Emperor Rudolf II, and Sir Hans Sloane.

[9] Arnold Nesselrath presents a very thoughtful discussion of Dürer’s silverpoint sketchbook. He argues the artist purchased a commercially-produced, bound sketchbook with prepared ground for use with a silver stylus. Dürer refers to this as his ‘Büchlein’ or small book. 15 folios survive, now scattered among different collections, from this quarto-size book. Nesselrath suggests that since three sheets were still blank when Dürer returned to Nuremberg that the booklet likely consisted of four gatherings or 16 total folios. If so, then just one folio is lost. The drawings are occasionally mentioned in his journal. The first sketches were made while the artist, as a member of Nuremberg’s delegation, attended the imperial coronation of young Charles V in Aachen. It includes meticulous renderings of Aachen’s Rathaus and famous Carolingian church. Nesselrath sensitively explains the artist’s drawing practice, including how sketches of portraits or landscapes on the same folio were sometimes made months apart. Nesselrath, like most other scholars, laments the lack of drawings and/or journal descriptions by Dürer of contemporary art. In about 1515, Dürer and Raphael exchanged works of art. His Netherlandish journal reveals his continued interest in the Italian master especially after meeting Tomasso Vincidor, a former pupil of Raphael. Vincidor was in Brabant supervising the translation of Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles tempera cartoons into a set of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. Dürer surprisingly never mentions seeing the full-size cartoons nor the tapestries then being woven in the Brussels workshop of Pieter van Aelst.

[10] Sarvenaz Ayooghi and Heidrun Lange-Krach consider his drawings and watercolors of people, landscapes, and animals. They discuss Dürer’s special fascination with clothing, which ranges from chiaroscuro studies of fabric to Agnes wearing a Netherlandish dress to the exotic regional costumes of Livonian women (cat. nos. 73-4, figs. 99-101). The artist favored pen and brown ink for rapid figure sketches. Dürer was captivated by the live lions he encountered in Ghent (figs. 94-5). The authors do make the questionable claim (pp. 201-02) that Dürer’s expressive watercolor of a walrus (fig. 112) was not executed in Zeeland or Flanders but drawn during a stop in Strasbourg(!) on his way back to Nuremberg. The town is well south of any convenient route back to Nuremberg.

[11] Peter van den Brink investigates Dürer’s portrait drawings. The artist listed around 107 sketched portraits in his journal. About 80 survive. Many were made after a meal as presents to his hosts. When he portrayed other guests, he expected a gift in kind either of money or something else of value. There are several journal entries noting his displeasure at not being compensated for his labors. Van den Brink discusses the portraits according to their media: pen and ink, silverpoint, and charcoal or black chalk. Dürer developed a distinctive formula for the charcoal-chalk portraits in which the sitter is rendered in bust-length placed against a dark background. A thin uncolored strip at the top of the sheet is inscribed with the date, Dürer’s monogram, and sometimes the individual’s age. Van den Brink observes that with the exception of a few efforts by Lucas van Leyden that none of the other Netherlandish artists followed Dürer’s example of making independent portrait drawings.

[12] Section V (‘Albrecht Dürer and Martin Luther’) begins with Jeroen Stumpel’s argument that the so-called Lutherklage or Luther lament in the Netherlandish journal is not by the artist but also is not a forgery. Rather he claims the text was authored by Jacob Prost, prior of the small Augustinian community in Antwerp. It voices a passionate response to the current rumor that Luther was captured while returning from the diet of Worms (1521) and was perhaps dead. The passages stand out distinctly from the general contents and style of the journal. Stumpel posits that since Prost was then in Wittenberg taking his university examinations, he wrote the lament to his fellow brothers in Antwerp. Dürer, a Luther sympathizer, knew the prior and had dined at their house on several occasions. Stumpel assumes that Prost’s letter, written in Latin, was quickly translated into German and somehow Dürer obtained a copy. It would strengthen the argument if there was a detailed comparison of the language of the lament with Prost’s other writings including the prior’s account of his travails published in German in 1522. Since Dürer’s journal is known only from two seventeenth-century copies, Stumpel concludes the lament was inadvertently or intentionally inserted into the text. Stumpel also speculates the growing anti-Lutheran sentiment in Antwerp prompted the artist’s departure for home.

[13] Dana E. Cowen studies the eleven surviving drawings that Dürer prepared for the Oblong Passion. Between 1520 and 1524, the artist made sketches of the Last Supper, Christ on the Mount of Olives, Procession to Calvary, and Christ carried to his Tomb as he entertained authoring a fifth Passion cycle a decade after his last efforts. Cowen sensitively examines the different drawings as well as the challenges Dürer experienced while working in a horizontal format. She concludes by relating several drawings as models for the attributed Procession to Calvary (1527, cat. no. 109), perhaps Dürer’s final painting, which also exists in two later copies (figs. 138-39).

[14] Dürer’s Saint Jerome (1521, cat. no. 110) in Lisbon is the best known of his Netherlandish paintings. Astrid Harth and Maximiliaan P. J. Martens consider the history of this picture plus Dürer’s exquisite sketches of a 93-year-old man and other preparatory drawings on grey-violet grounded paper (figs. 144-48). Dürer created this picture for his friend Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada, the Portuguese trade secretary and, from 1521 to 1540, factor in Antwerp. It inspired numerous copies and variants by Netherlandish artists (cat. nos. 111-12, figs. 141-43). Scholars debate whether Quinten Massys or Dürer invented the composition of the saint shown in half-length seated at his desk with one hand resting on a skull. Harth and Martens give precedence to Massys based on his earlier portrait of Erasmus (1517). Yet their respective treatments differ as Dürer’s rather melancholic saint turns to address his memento mori warning directly to the viewer.

[15] Several of Dürer’s figural and landscape drawings dated 1520 to 1523 were reused as models for the unfinished engraved Crucifixion in Outline (cat. no. 115, fig. 154). The print’s attribution to Dürer has long been debated. With typical care, Giulia Bartrum untangles the issue as she sensibly argues that engravings, pulled from two separate and slightly different plates of this composition, were likely made by an Antwerp artist in about 1558-64. The scene is a pastiche assembled using different drawings by the Nuremberg master (cat. nos. 117-18, figs. 158-62). Many of these drawings may have been in the collection of Cardinal Granvelle who lived in Brussels. She suggests that the Crucifixion in Outline is a product of engravers working for Hieronymus Cock’s prolific publishing house Aux Quatre Vents in Antwerp.

[16] Foister, van den Brink, and their contributors are to be congratulated for their outstanding and much needed new examination of Dürer’s Netherlandish journey. By 1520, Dürer was an international celebrity who clearly enjoyed the acclaim. The textual and visual products of this trip, both by the Nuremberg artist and those whom he encountered, are unique for this period. Other masters travelled but none left such a wealth of information about who and what they saw or about their reception. Even though Dürer is quoted briefly in many of the essays, I wish his words were included more fully in the catalogue. Whether it is a simple remark about his dinner hosts or his self-satisfaction while overlooking Ghent from the tower of St. Jan’s church (later St. Bavo’s), his observations are as revealing as his art. Keeping Andreas Beyer’s apt warning in mind about falsely assuming we know Dürer’s personality, his words nevertheless are those of someone engaging with his contemporary world. Beyond certain legal records and miscellaneous documents, we lack the ‘voices’ of almost all sixteenth-century northern European visual artists. Most of the cited quotations from Dürer utilize Jeffrey Ashcroft’s translations from his herculean two-volume Albrecht Dürer: Documentary Biography (London: Yale University Press 2017). I wish that Ashcroft, a retired German literature professor at the University of Saint Andrews, or Heike Sahm, a noted expert on Dürer’s writings at the University of Göttingen, had been commissioned to discuss both the history and linguistic characteristics of the journal. This is a missed opportunity.

[17] The London exhibition is organized in partnership with the Suermondt Ludwig Museum in Aachen. From the outset, director Peter van den Brink and his colleagues intended to focus just on the Netherlandish trip. One of the highlights of Dürer’s journey was, of course, his three-week stay in Aachen in October 1520. As originally planned, the Aachen show was to open in October 2020, precisely five hundred years after the artist’s stay in this German town. The Aachen exhibition, entitled Dürer war hier. Eine Reise wird Legende (Dürer was here. A Journey becomes Legend), ran from 18 July to 24 October 2021 before the London premiere a month later.

[18] The Aachen catalogue, in recognition of the unique opportunity of this anniversary, is considerably more ambitious than the London version. This is not intended as a negative remark about the wonderful National Gallery catalogue, which in design and length conforms to the standards of most of the museum’s major publications. It will enjoy a huge audience. Dürer war hier, edited by Peter van den Brink, includes almost all of the content of the London version but much more. It is a massive volume with 680 pages, 427 figures, and a hefty 4.5 kilos weight. It is beautifully published by Michael Imhof Verlag (Petersberg). The coverage of the theme is more comprehensive with the inclusion of ten additional essays. English translations of seven of the ten texts, but without any illustrations, were posted on the National Gallery’s website once the show opened in London. Essays that appear in both volumes are often more thoroughly illustrated in the Aachen catalogue.

[19] Dürer war hier is organized around three themes: travel, art, and reception. Alexander Markschies discusses the art and artists that Dürer encountered in the Netherlands. Thomas Schauerte critically examines Dürer’s visit to Aachen as well as the documents associated with the renewal of the artist’s imperial annuity. Birgit Ulrike Münch provides a fascinating look at how nineteenth-century artists mined the contents of Dürer’s Netherlandish journal to create new themes, such as Pierre François Noter and Félix de Vigne’s Albrecht Dürer Visiting the Ghent Altarpiece (cat. 198; c. 1840; Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede). Using infrared and ultraviolet reflectography, among other tools, Georg Josef Dietz and Annette T. Keller reconstruct a scarcely visible sketch (fig. 157) Dürer made of the interior of a room with a chimney on the reverse of his silverpoint portraits of Paul Topler and Martin Pfinzing (fig. 127) in Berlin. Marina Langner discusses the Dresden and Bergamo copies after a lost Christ Carrying the Cross composition by or in the style of Dürer. Jaco Rutgers presents the intriguing history of the Large Calvary, a composition known from the Uffizi drawing (fig. 320) by Dürer’s workshop that was repeatedly replicated by Netherlandish artists. One exquisite painting (fig. 322), also in the Uffizi, by Jan Brueghel the Elder is documented in 1628 as a showpiece framed together with the drawing in the Medici collection in Florence. Dagmar Preising addresses the impact of Dürer’s prints on Netherlandish artists. Christiaan Vogelaar looks at the relationship between Lucas van Leyden and Dürer. Similarly, Ellen Konowitz demonstrates how the Nuremberg master, especially his Apocalypse series, inspired Dirk Vellert’s stained glass designs. Finally, Joris Van Grieken considers how Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings served as a catalyst for southern Netherlandish printmakers between 1520 and 1540. Collectively, these additional essays enrich our understanding of the Nuremberg master’s trip and the impact that he had on many Netherlandish artists.

[20] The two exhibitions include 264 objects by or related to Albrecht Dürer and his 1520-21 journey to the Low Countries. As frequently happens, not all works could be exhibited at both venues. The London show contains 116 items. More were displayed in Aachen. Thankfully, Peter van den Brink compiled a comprehensive listing of all of the objects (pp. 614-48). His detailed research on the provenance and bibliography of each work will prove especially helpful to future scholars. As the world starts to emerge, however haltingly, from the pandemic, these exhibitions of Albrecht Dürer’s art offer a feast for our art-starved eyes and ample delights for anyone willing to look very closely at what the Nuremberg master’s curious mind and skilled hand have created.

University of Texas, Austin

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