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December 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1425

Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

Reviewed by Mark Evans

National Gallery, London (20th November 2021–27th February)

The title given to the exhibition in its iteration at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen,(1) where it was seen by this author, was Dürer was Here: A Journey becomes Legend. The ‘was here’ recalled the ‘fuit hic’ in Van Eyck’s signature on the Arnolfini Portrait (1434; National Gallery, London). The subject of the exhibition in Aachen was Albrecht Dürer’s year-long visit to the Netherlands and Aachen in 1520–21. The smaller London version also considers the artist’s other journeys to Italy and elsewhere over the course of his career. Whereas his earlier sojourn in Venice is generally considered a fulcrum in Renaissance art, his much better documented journey to the Low Countries is less celebrated. To mark its quincentenary, over forty years since the exhibition Albrecht Dürer aux Pays-Bas was held at the Palais de Beaux-Arts, Brussels, in 1977, this show offers a timely reconsideration of this major cultural episode.(2)

As staged in Aachen, the exhibition comprised three parts, dealing respectively with the artist’s journey; pictures made during it; and his influence in the Netherlands until around 1600. Ascending a ramp into a space painted an opulent imperial purple, the visitor was confronted by a ghastly anonymous deathbed likeness of Maximilian I (1519; Alte Galerie, Graz; cat. no.233) flanked by Bernard van Orley’s portraits of his successor, Charles V (c.1516; Musée du Monastère royal de Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse; no.202), and his daughter Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands (after 1518; Musée du Monastère royal de Brou; no.203). Documents (nos.250 and 259–60) related that Dürer’s annual pension of one hundred guilders lapsed on Maximilian’s death, motivating his attendance at Charles’s coronation at Aachen in October 1520, where he obtained its renewal.

In the next room the narrative leaped forward to the nineteenth century with a group of re-imaginings of Dürer’s visit by Belgian painters such as Henri Leys (1855; Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp; no.182) and a herculean marble bust of Dürer by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (c.1860–68; private collection; no.148). These historicist works were inspired by the artist’s travel journal, first published in 1828, the three hundredth anniversary of his death.

There followed a tunnel-like gallery tracing Dürer’s route to the Low Countries, via Bamberg, Frankfurt and Cologne. Reaching Antwerp on 2nd August, Dürer drew his innkeeper Jobst Plankfelt (1520; Städel Museum, Frankfurt; no.32). One of the city’s most successful painters was the so-called Master of Frankfurt, probably Hendrik van Wueluwe, represented here by an archaic 1493 group portrait of the festival of the Archers guild (1493; Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp; no.230). Dürer later claimed the Antwerp authorities offered him three hundred guilders a year, tax exemption and free accommodation to settle in their city; however, the artist’s deep admiration for Martin Luther may account for his return home just as the young Charles V was presiding over the first bonfire of Lutheran books in Antwerp.

At the heart of the exhibition, six rooms, decorated an elegant charcoal grey, housed a spectacular display of works by Dürer and his Netherlandish acquaintances. The first was dominated by two superb sheets. A watercolour of the head of a walrus (1521; British Museum, London; no.88) was long believed to have been made from an actual specimen in Zeeland. However, it was more probably copied from a lost mural by Hans Baldung Grien at Strasbourg. Less well-known is an ink drawing of the quay at Antwerp (no.33; Fig.1). Divided diagonally into two halves, this composition is one of the most radical of its time. Probably working early in the day, Dürer recorded in detail the buildings at the right, using a calligraphic shorthand to capture the essential contours of the tangled shipping at the left and boldly leaving the right foreground and sky blank. It defined the formula for countless later harbour scenes by Canaletto and others.

The most impressive display marshalled seven of Dürer’s largeformat, bust-length portraits in charcoal or black chalk. He made these either as gifts or charged one or two Rhenish guilders (for comparison, Dürer asked one guilder for eight large engravings and two for a small Virgin in distemper on canvas). Sometimes drawn by candlelight, they brilliantly capture the shifting nuances of character later described by the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicolas Hilliard in his treatise on portraiture as ‘stolen glances which suddenly like lightening pass’. These inspired similarly masterful sheets by Lucas van Leyden (no.174; Fig.2), which emphasise instead their sitters’ impassive monumentality. On the facing wall was one of Dürer’s tenderest works: his drawing of Katharina (no.62), the twenty-year-old Black servant of the Portuguese trader João Branão. Here, he eschewed the rapid effects of black chalk in favour of the more analytical technique of silverpoint to portray with intense empathy the young woman’s reflective expression with distinctive African features, with which he was unfamiliar.

In the next room were ethereal sheets from Dürer’s silverpoint sketchbook, including views of Aachen Cathedral (1520; British Museum; no.40), Bergen op Zoom (1520; Städel Museum, Frankfurt; no.47) and Burg Rheinfels (1521; Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg; no.89), as well as portraits and studies of animals. Other drawings (nos.27, 75, 81 and 92), some on green paper, were made in in 1519–22 in preparation for a Sacra Conversazione, probably for an altarpiece that was never realised. In a catalogue essay Stijn Alsteens suggests this was a speculative project Dürer proposed unsuccessfully to Margret of Austria. This seems unlikely as an altarpiece presupposes a liturgical setting and the main focus of the archduchess’s piety was distant from the Netherlands. Her husband Philibert lay buried in Savoy in the royal monastery of Brou, where she was herself later interred.

The Danzig merchant Bernhard von Reesen paid Dürer eight guilders for his half-length oil portrait (1521; Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden; no.10). This debonair likeness set against a vivid red background provided the centrepiece of an oval room at the mid-point of this section of the exhibition representing ‘Faces of a Journey’. It was flanked by an impressive group of portraits by Michel Sittow, Jan Gossaert, Quinten Massys, Joos van Cleve, Van Orley, Jan Mostaert and Lucas van Leyden. Dürer carefully studied the works of his Netherlandish contemporaries, taking from them the repoussoir function of the sitters’ hands.

The climax to this section showcased the Lisbon St Jerome in his study (no.9; Fig.3), which Dürer gave to a friend, the Portuguese merchant Rodrigo de Almada. Based on studies of a ‘sane and healthy’ ninetythree-year-old, this poignant image emphasises Erasmian self-knowledge and advocates penitence. Its novel iconography was rapidly imitated by Lucas in an drawing not exhibited here (1521; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), and Joos van Cleve, whose painting (c.1521; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA; no.152) overwhelms its subject with extraneous added details, such as still-life objects and a background landscape. Marinus van Reymerswale’s more considered variant (c.1545; private collection; no.210) portrays the saint bathed in Caravaggesque light and shade, suggestive of spiritual illumination. The immense development in Dürer’s style since the start of his career was underlined here by the presence of his St Jerome in penitence (National Gallery; no.1), probably painted around 1494.

Dürer was here concluded with a suite of four rooms coloured dark green that traced the enduring influence of his prints in the Netherlands. By 1507 Dürer’s artistic duel with Lucas (as it was later reported by Vasari) was under way. Soon after, his engraved Fall of man (1504; no.18) was reprised in paint by Gossaert (c.1510; Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza; no.159) and in carved boxwood by Conrad Meit (c.1510–14; Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha; no.194). Dürer’s prints also inspired stained glass by Dirk Vellert as well as panel paintings by Jan de Beer, Joos van Cleve and Van Orley. Even their small details could be magnified to make independent compositions, as when Marinus enlarged twentyfold a minor figure from a Dürer woodcut in his painting of a moneychanger (c.1535–45; Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp; no.208).

The exhibition strangely omitted Hendrik Goltzius’s virtuoso engraving of the Circumcision made in 1594 in emulation of Dürer’s master prints, and drew to a close with Jan Brueghel the elder’s Large Mount Calvary (1604; Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence; no.145). This minutely detailed oil painting was copied after a large grisaille drawing from Dürer’s workshop, which was then thought to be autograph. Made in Prague, Breughel’s panel is a spectacular product of the so-called ‘Dürer Renaissance’ at the court of the Emperor Rudolph II, a great nephew of Charles V.

Unlike many recent exhibition publications, the catalogue text of Dürer was here mirrors the exhibits on display in the show, even if these were not especially visual. An example is Dürer’s famous ‘lament for Luther’, identified by Jeroen Stumpel in his catalogue essay as a separate text by another hand, interpolated into a later recension of Dürer’s travel journal. Of the twenty-five essays in the substantial catalogue, attention ought also to be drawn to those of Arnold Nesselrath on Dürer’s silverpoints, Peter van den Brink on his portrait drawings, Till-Holger Borchert on Dürer’s relationship to Flemish portraiture, Astrid Harth and Maximiliaan Martens on his Lisbon St Jerome and Giulia Bartrum on the legacy of the Crucifixion in outline.

One of the most significant contributions to Northern Renaissance studies for several decades, the exhibition highlights Dürer’s immense influence on sixteenth-century Netherlandish art. It coincided with another cultural epiphany: the arrival of the Raphael Cartoons in Brussels, where they set a new standard for tapestry design. Dürer’s encounter with Raphael’s assistant Tommaso da Vincidor, whose now lost portrait of Dürer is recorded in a later engraving (1629; no.217), linked these equally transformative events.

That a medium-sized museum without a Dürer collection was able to mount this epic show speaks volumes for its curatorial team, led by Van den Brink, who recently retired as director of the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum. To paraphrase its Aachen subtitle, this exhibition will become legendary.

1. The exhibition was shown at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen (18th July–24th October).

2. Catalogue: Dürer war hier: Eine Reise wird Legende. Edited by Peter van den Brink. 688 pp. incl. 437 col. ills. (Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum with the National Gallery, London, and Michael Imhof Verlag, 2021), €49.95. ISBN 978–3–7319–1136–4. English catalogue: Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist. Edited by Susan Foister and Peter van den Brink. 304 pp. incl. numerous col. ills. (National Gallery, London, 2021), £40. ISBN 978–1–85709–667–05.