It is rare for a museum to lend the heart of its most prized collection to another museum, but the Albertina in Vienna has done just that by shipping almost a hundred watercolors and drawings by Albrecht Dürer to the National Gallery of Art here for an exhibition.
Dürer, a German born in Nuremberg in 1471, is the great master of the Northern European Renaissance, akin to Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo of the Italian Renaissance. Dürer’s greatness, according to Andrew Robison of the National Gallery, curator of the show, is based on his watercolors, drawings and prints, just as Da Vinci and Raphael are identified with painting and Michelangelo with sculpture.
Klaus Albrecht Schröder, director of the Albertina, said at a recent press preview that the world identified his museum with Dürer because his works were its “most famous holdings.” The collection includes such pieces as the watercolor “The Great Piece of Turf” and the drawing “Praying Hands,” both part of the loan to the National Gallery.
The Albertina, which owns about 120 authentic Dürer drawings and watercolors, sent 91 to Washington. As a result, the exhibition, according to the National Gallery, “is the largest gathering of drawings and watercolors by Dürer ever in the United States.” The show, “Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints From the Albertina,” opened last week, will close June 9 and will not be shown anywhere else.
The Albertina augmented its loan with 27 engravings and woodcuts, and the National Gallery added works of its own, enabling Robison to lay out the show in a chronological way that reflects the entire artistic career of Dürer.
Although an artist of great ambitions, Dürer was afflicted by self-doubts for much of his life. However, those feelings that he was continually falling short dissipated in the last years of his life as he accepted that there were always limits to achieving great art. He elevated printmaking to the level of painting as an art form. His influence was profound; his series of books on human proportion, teaching artists how to draw the human body, were published after his death and used for centuries..
Dürer’s fame and fortune came from his woodcuts and engravings, not from the drawings and watercolors that are the main interest of the exhibition. Some woodcuts and engravings are included in the show but only to demonstrate how Dürer transformed the figures and background of his drawings and watercolors into the subject matter of these prints.
Robison, however, refuses to call the drawings and watercolors “studies” for the prints. Dürer, according to the curator, signed and dated his drawings and watercolors and regarded them as distinct works of art.
The earliest piece in the show is a self-portrait drawn when Dürer was 13. It was set down in silverpoint — drawn meticulously on paper with a silver stylus. Dürer was training then to become a goldsmith like his father. But the remarkable self-portrait revealed he had artistic talents greater than those for crafting goblets and candlesticks out of precious metals. In a couple of years, his father agreed to let him apprentice to the workshop of a painter.
In 1492, when he was 21, Dürer began a tour of artist workshops in Northern Europe to complete his studies. Returning to Nuremberg two years later, he found that his father had arranged his marriage to Agnes Frey, the daughter of a wealthy metalworker. Using pen and black ink, Dürer drew his pensive fiancée in an affectionate portrait that he titled “Mein Agnes” (My Agnes).
The marriage brought him a dowry of 200 guilders, enough to establish a workshop. Agnes took charge of the production and sales of prints from the workshop while Dürer, in an unusual step for a northern European artist at that time, embarked on lengthy trips to Venice in the mid-1490s and a decade later to hone his mastery of drawing and printmaking.
However, even before his second trip to Venice, Dürer’s workshop was already flourishing and his fame had spread throughout Europe. The public had rarely seen woodcuts and engravings so lifelike and detailed.
“A Venetian Lady,” done in gray, black and brown inks in 1494, demonstrates how Dürer incorporated a drawing into his prints. She is the key figure in his woodcut of “The Babylonian Whore” (1496-98), but her pose and demeanor have changed considerably from the drawing. She is even facing a different direction. Dürer did not simply copy his original drawing, but there is no doubt the woman is the same.
In the early 16th century, the artist used watercolor to capture scenes of nature, with his best known, “The Great Piece of Turf,” completed in 1503. Another work in the exhibition is “Praying Hands,” probably Dürer’s most familiar drawing. He created the thin, elongated hands in 1508 by applying gray and white inks with a brush to blue paper he had made himself. He drew “Head of an Apostle Looking Up” on the same sheet of paper, but the two drawings were cut apart afterward. They are adjacent in the exhibition.
In 1512, Maximilian I, the Holy Roman emperor, became Dürer’s major patron. The artist prepared the enormous brown ink and watercolor “The Triumphal Chariot of Maximilian I” four years later, but the emperor died before it was transformed into a woodcut. Although Dürer was still based in Nuremberg, he traveled to the German city of Augsburg to draw a bust of the emperor and consult court officials about future projects.
With gray, black and white inks on gray paper, Dürer drew a portrait of his wife, “Agnes Dürer as Saint Anne,” in 1519. His childless wife looks saddened — for she is portraying the grandmother of Christ — but it is as affectionate a portrait as the first one 25 years earlier.
After Maximilian’s death, Dürer and Agnes traveled to Amsterdam to the court of the emperor’s successor, Charles V, to plead for continuance of his pension. Not only was the pension not denied, but Dürer was also hailed and feted as the great artist of Northern Europe. But while in Amsterdam, he was stricken by an illness — likely malaria — and the Dürers returned to Nuremberg. He never fully recovered and died there in 1528 at age 56.