Born in 1471 Dürer was the first artist to achieve European-wide fame through the use of prints. He first trained with his father, a goldsmith, before serving his apprenticeship as a painter with Michael Wolgemut. He then travelled in northern Europe and to Venice, settling back in Nuremburg in 1495. Works such as Hercules at the crossroads c1498 demonstrate Dürer’s deep interest to the Italian art he saw, in particular through the representation of the classical nude in the landscape.
By 1495 Dürer had already been producing woodcuts but he now took up engraving as well and developed both media to new levels of sophistication. He produced bound collections of prints which, unlike earlier illustrated books, offered full page illustrations with the text on the reverse of each sheet. He also set up a workshop and began taking on assistants, focusing more attention on painting. At the same time he investigated theories of the proportion of the human body and of the horse.
Between 1502-05 Dürer designed 17 woodcuts for the series The life of the Virgin, an extended illustration of intimate scenes from Mary’s life, including Joachim and the angel c1504 which portrays the life of Mary’s father. In 1505-7 he was again in Venice, where he received commissions for portraits and religious works and made a study of perspective. He probably also visited Bologna and Rome. On his return to Nuremberg he painted a few further altarpieces, though the Landauer altarpiece of 1511 (Kunsthistorishces Museum, Vienna) was to be his last. From 1512 he worked on various projects for Emperor Maximilian I, including designs for a suit of armour and other metalwork designs.
In 1513-14 he worked on the three so-called ‘Master Engravings’: Knight, Death and the Devil, Melencolia I and St Jerome in his study. Melencolia I is Dürer’s most famous and complex print, representing the artistic imagination personified as a winged female figure, dejected and bereft on inspiration, surrounded by a bewildering array of instruments relating to architecture and geometry as well as symbols of time, wealth and astronomy. In Dürer’s time, melancholy (or black bile) was understood to be one of the four cardinal humours, the others being choler (or yellow gall), phlegm and blood. These were the bodily fluids that determined the individual’s emotional or physical disposition. Associated with Saturn, melancholy was the most feared of the humours, since it not only made individuals susceptible to depression but could also lead to insanity.
Dürer made a trip to the Netherlands in 1520-1, during which he made numerous portrait drawings. On his return to Nuremberg he also started to produce engraved portraits. Towards the end of his life, Dürer began publishing the theoretical works on which he had long been working, his Four books of human proportion appearing in their entirety only after his death.