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Dürer: 1494-1528

In 1494 a young German artist, trained originally by his father as a goldsmith, arrives in Venice to improve his skills as a painter. The following year he returns to Nuremberg to open a studio in his home town, but in 1505 he is back in Venice - staying eighteen months to savour the artistic delights of this city. He is impressed above all by the aged Bellini.

The young man is Albrecht Dürer, who becomes the outstanding figure in Renaissance Germany. His achievement is enhanced by his originality in many differing fields of art.

An early example is his extraordinary self-portrait at the age of twenty-two, now in the Louvre. A young man with dishevelled blond hair, wearing exotic red headgear and lavish robes, stares moodily from the canvas. It is the first example in history of an artist presenting himself as an eye-catching figure of dramatic interest. Renaissance painters in Italy have sometimes inserted themselves as bystanders in a crowded scene. But Dürer takes centre stage, beginning a long romantic tradition of the self-portrait (carried by Rembrandt to its greatest lengths).

Five years later Dürer paints himself in even more splendid clothes, with a view of the Alps through a window. Here, he says, is a man who has travelled - to Italy.

Dürer's two trips to Italy result in other work of great originality. As he travels, he sketches in watercolour the features of the landscape which take his fancy - trees by a lake, a castle on a hill, mountain valleys. These watercolours are not preparatory work for oil paintings. They are done, it seems, purely for pleasure - beginning a rich tradition in the story of art. Dürer's astonishing skill in the medium is evident in his famous 1502 sketch of a hare.

He breaks new ground yet again, travelling to Antwerp in 1520, when he keeps the first example of a journal illustrated with sketches. Meanwhile he makes himself the most prolific Renaissance master in the new printmaking techniques of woodcut, engraving and etching.

The first artists' prints: 15th - 16th century

When the first European prints are published, in the early 15th century, they are the work of craftsmen supplying a demand for cheap holy images or for playing cards. Artists only become interested in the possibilities of the medium from the 1450s. They are first attracted by the newest technique at that time, intaglio engraving in copper.

The pioneer in the field is extremely prolific, creating more 300 engraved plates, but he is known only as Master ES from the two initials with which he sometimes signs his plates. The first two known artists to specialize in engraving begin work at the same period, the 1460s, but in different places - Mantegna in Mantua and Schongauer in Colmar.

The greatest printmaker among Renaissance artists is, like Schongauer, a German. But unlike his predecessors, he excels in woodcut and etching as well as engraving.

Albrecht Dürer, familiar with metal from his early training as a goldsmith, begins engraving copper plates in his twenties and rapidly develops a mastery of the technique. He is more unusual in tackling at the same period, the 1490s, the much more mechanical craft of the woodcut (where each area of white in the image has to be scooped from the block of wood). But Dürer's large and completely assured woodcuts immediately demonstrate that this too can be an artist's medium.

The third form of printing in which Dürer shows his originality is etching. This is a technique invented during his lifetime (the first etchings are printed, probably in Augsburg in about 1500, from iron plates at this stage rather than copper). Dürer first tries the new medium in 1515. He only etches six plates. But he is the first to demonstrate the informality of etching, which can give the artist almost the same freedom as sketching in pencil.

From the end of the 16th century etching is virtually the only form of printing to attract the artist until the arrival of aquatint and lithography. Later masters, such as Rembrandt, develop the potential first shown by Dürer.

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