Before online dating, there was the Personals column. And before the Personals column, there were social dances. Before that, people had to paint loads and loads of dreamy self-portraits wearing swanky hats and wait for someone to notice.
Well, Albrecht Dürer, I may be 500 years too late, but I’m noticing.
Whether you know Albrecht Dürer as one of the most accomplished painters and printmakers of the Renaissance or “that guy who drew really good bunnies”, there is little doubt that he was, by his own account at least, pretty. Granted, the competition was fairly thin on the ground at the turn of the 16th century. If you had teeth, smelled nice and hadn’t died of the pox in childhood, you were quite the head-turner.
Born to a goldsmith in 1471, Dürer’s lifelong home was in Nuremburg (before it became a popular going-on-trial-for-war-crimes destination for semi-retired Nazis). His artistic talent was noticed early on, and he produced his first self-portrait in 1484. At age 15, he was apprenticed to local artist Michael Wolgemut, from whom he learned woodcut printing, painting and engraving.
After completing his apprenticeship, having acquired an insatiable hunger for all things arty and crafty and preferably with cherubs, Dürer travelled around France and Switzerland, sketching, designing, dabbling and other verbs that mean making pictures. It was during this journey, in 1494, that he painted another self-portrait.
By the time he arrived home in Nuremburg later that year, he had been engaged by arrangement to Agnes Frey, the daughter of a city merchant. A few weeks later they were married, and apart from a simple sketch and a cameo as St Anne in one of his paintings, Agnes doesn’t rate much of a mention in the record of Dürer’s life. It is known that Albrecht and Agnes never had children, and that Dürer left Nuremburg again, bound for Italy only a few months after his wedding. Some historians suggest that an outbreak of the plague in his home town motivated him to leave, no doubt explaining to his new wife, “Sorry honey. It’s not you, it’s my fear of growing bulbous black tumours and bleeding out of my mouth until I die.” We’ve all been there.
Italy provided Dürer with the rich stimulation of a society balls-deep in culture and beauty. He returned to Nuremburg in 1495 with his floppy hat full of ideas and new skills, opened a workshop of his own and set about making some of the most spectacular and finely detailed woodcuts, oil paintings and watercolours anyone had ever seen. He spent the next decade or so amassing a large, varied and famous body of work, throwing in the odd portrait of his own body here and there.
He bounced between Nuremburg and Italy, producing watercolours, pen drawings, tempera paintings and oil paintings, becoming famouser and famouser across the artistic capitals of Europe. Among his great works were The Sea Monster, Nemesis, Adam and Eve and the Great Passion series; and his ever-growing catalogue became known collectively as “Very Very Detailed Pictures of People and Animals Looking Either Peaceful or Uncomfortable (With Occasional Skulls and Compasses Plonked on the Floor)’.
By the second decade of the 1500s, Dürer counted Raphael, Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci amongst his friends, and in 1512 the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I became his patron. He was officially a Big Deal.
The remainder of Dürer’s life was spent mostly in Nuremburg being prolific and clever, with a final big trip through Europe in 1520 after Maximilian’s death, to secure new patronage and paint a commission or two.
After knocking out a final self-portrait in 1522 and a handful of books about mathematics, architecture and proportion, Dürer succumbed to a fever – probably malaria – and died in 1528, aged 56.
It’s clear from historical accounts of Dürer’s talent and fame that the artist was gifted and ground-breaking in many ways. But perhaps the most remarkable gift Dürer possessed was his ability to obtain a spiral perm in Renaissance Germany.