Albert Durer by T. Sturge Moore

Produced by Steve Schulze and PG Distributed Proofreaders. Page images generously provided by the CWRU Preservation Department Digital Library. ALBERT DÜRER BY T. STURGE MOORE PREFACE When the late Mr. Arthur Strong asked me to undertake the present volume, I pointed out to him that, to fulfil the advertised programme of the Series he was
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Produced by Steve Schulze and PG Distributed Proofreaders. Page images generously provided by the CWRU Preservation Department Digital Library.

[Transcriber’s note: The printing errors of the original have been retained in this etext.]





When the late Mr. Arthur Strong asked me to undertake the present volume, I pointed out to him that, to fulfil the advertised programme of the Series he was editing, was more than could be hoped from my attainments. He replied, that in the case of Dürer a book, fulfilling that programme, was not called for, and that what he wished me to attempt, was an appreciation of this great artist in relation to general ideas. I had hoped to benefit very largely by my editor’s advice and supervision, but this his illness and death prevented. His great gifts and brilliant accomplishments, already darkened and distressed by disease, were all too soon to be utterly quenched; and I can but here express, not only my sense of personal loss in the hopes which his friendly welcome and generous intercourse had created and which have been so cruelly dashed by the event, but also that of the void which his disappearance has left in the too thin ranks of those who, filled with reverence and enthusiasm for the great traditions of the past, seem nevertheless eager and capable of grappling with the unwieldy present. Let and restricted had been the recognition of his maturing worth, and now we must do without both him and the impetus of his so nearly assured success.

The present volume, then, is not the result of new research; nor is it an abstract resuming historical and critical discoveries on its subject up to date. Of this latter there are several already before the British public; the former, as I said, it was not for me to attempt. Nor do I feel my book to be altogether even what it was intended to be; but am conscious that too much space has been given to the enumeration of Dürer’s principal works and the events of his life without either being made exhaustive. Still, I hope that even these parts may be found profitable by those who are not already familiar with the subjects with which they deal. To those for whom these subjects are well known, I should like to point out that Parts I. and IV. and very much of Part III. embody my chief intention; that chapter 1 of Part I. finds a further illustration in division iii. of chapter 4, Part II.; and that division vi., chapter 1, Part II., should be taken as prefatory to chapter 1, Part IV.

Should exception be taken to the works chosen as illustrations, I would explain that the means of reproduction, the degree of reduction necessitated by the size of the page, and other outside considerations, have severely limited my choice. It is entirely owing to the extreme kindness of the Dürer Society–more especially of its courteous and enthusiastic secretaries, Mr. Campbell Dodgson and Mr. Peartree–that four copper-plates have so greatly enhanced the adequacy of the volume in this respect.

I have gratefully to acknowledge Sir Martin Conway’s kindness in permitting me to quote so liberally from his “Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer,” by far the best book on this great artist known to me. Mr. Charles Eaton’s translation of Thausing’s “Life of Dürer,” the “Portfolios of the Dürer Society,” and Dr. Lippmanb “Drawings of Albrecht Dürer,” are the only other works on my subject to which I feel bound to acknowledge my indebtedness. Lastly, I must express deep gratitude to my learned friend, Mr. Campbell Dodgson, for having so generously consented, by reading the proofs, to mitigate my defect in scholarship.
















Apollo and Diana, Metal Engraving
Water-colour drawing of a Hare
Pilate Washing his Hands. Metal Engraving Agnes Frey
“Mein Angnes”
Wilibald Pirkheimer
Hans Burgkmair
Adoration of the Trinity
St. Christopher
Assumption of the Magdalen
Dürer’s Mother
Frederick the Wise
Silver-point Portrait
Drawing of a Lion
Lucas van der Leyden
Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate. Metal Engraving St. George and St. Eustache
Martyrdom of Ten Thousand Saints
Road to Calvary
Portrait of Dürer
Portrait of Dürer
Albert Dürer the Elder
Gswolt Krel
Portrait at Hampton Court
Portrait of a Lady
Michel Wolgemuth
Hans Imhof
“Jakob Muffel”
Study of a Hound
Memento Mei
Silver-point Portrait
Portrait in Black Chalk
Cherub for a Crucifixion
Apollo and Diana
An Old Castle
Detail from “The Agony in the Garden” Angel with Sudarium
The Small Horse
The Great Fortune, or Nemesis
Silver-point Drawing
St. Michael and the Dragon
Detail from “The Meeting at the Golden Gate” Detail from “The Nativity”
Dürer’s Armorial Bearings
Christ haled before Annas
The Last Supper
Saint Antony, Metal Engraving
“In the Eighteenth Year”
“Una Vilana Wendisch”
Charcoal Drawing






Ich hab vernomen wie der siben weysen aus kriechenland ainer gelert hab das dymass in allen dingen sitlichen und naturlichen das pest sey.

DÜRER, British Museum MS., vol. iv., 82a.

I have heard how one of the Seven Sages of Greece taught that measure is in all things, physical and moral, best.

La souveraine habileté consiste à bien connaitre le prix des choses. LA ROCHEFOUCAULD, III. 252.

Sovereign skill consists in thoroughly understanding the value of things.

The attempt that the last quarter century has witnessed, to introduce the methods of science into the criticism of works of art, has tended, it seems to me, to put the question of their value into the background. The easily scandalous inquiries, “Who?” “When?” “Where?” have assumed an impertinent predominance. When I hear people very decidedly asserting that such a picture was painted by such an one, not generally supposed to be the author, at such a time, &c. &c., I often feel uneasy in the same way as one does on being addressed in a loud voice in a church or a picture gallery, where other persons are absorbed in an acknowledged and respected contemplation or study. I feel inclined to blush and whisper, for fear of being supposed to know the speaker too well. It is an awkward moment with me, for I am in fact very good friends with many such persons. “Sovereign skill consists in thoroughly understanding the value of things”–not their commercial value only, though that is sovereign skill on the Exchange, but their value for those whose chief riches are within them. The value of works of art is an intimate experience, and cannot be estimated by the methods of exact science as the weight of a planet can. There are and have been forgeries that are more beautiful, therefore more valuable, than genuine specimens of the class of work which they figure as. I feel that the specialist, with his special measure and point of view, often endangers the fair name and good repute of the real estimate; and that nothing but the dominion and diffusion of general ideas can defend us against the specialist and keep the specialist from being carried away by bad habits resulting from his devotion to a single inquiry.

There was one general idea, of the greatest importance in determining the true value of things, which preoccupied Dürer’s mind and haunted his imagination: the idea of proportion. I propose therefore to attempt to make clear to myself and my readers what the idea of proportion really implies, and of what service a sense for proportion really is; secondly, to determine the special use of the term in relation to the appreciation of works of art; thirdly, in relation to their internal structure;–before proceeding to the special studies of Dürer as a man and an artist.


I conceive the human reason to be the antagonist of all known forces other than itself, and that therefore its most essential character is the hope and desire to control and transform the universe; or, failing that, to annihilate, if not the universe, at least itself and the consciousness of a monster fact which it entirely condemns. In this conception I believe myself to be at one with those by whom men have been most influenced, and who, with or without confidence in the support of unknown powers, have set themselves deliberately against the face of things to die or conquer. This being so, and man individually weak, it has been the avowed object of great characters–carrying with them the instinctive consent of nations–to establish current values for all things, according as their imagination could turn them to account as effective aids of reason: that is, as they could be made to advance her apparent empire over other elemental forces, such as motion, physical life, &c. This evaluation, in so far as it is constant, results in what we call civilisation, and is the only bond of society. With difficulty is the value of new acquisitions recognised even in the realm of science, until the imagination can place them in such a light as shall make them appear to advance reason’s ends, which accounts for the reluctance that has been shown to accept many scientific results. Reason demands that the world she would create shall be a fact, and declares that the world she would transform is the real world, but until the imagination can find a function for it in reason’s ideal realm, every piece of knowledge remains useless, or even an obstacle in the way of our intended advance. This applies to individuals just as truly as it does to mankind. And since man’s reason is a natural phenomenon and does apparently belong to the class of elemental forces, this warfare against the apparent fact, and the fortitude and hope which its whole-hearted prosecution begets, appear as a natural law to the intelligence and as a command and promise to the reason.

The alternative between the will to cease and the will to serve reason, with which I start out, may not seem necessary to all. “Forgive their sin–and if not, blot me I pray thee out of thy book,” was Moses’ prayer; and to me it seems that only by lethargy can any soul escape from facing this alternative. The human mind in so far as it is active always postulates, “Let that which I desire come to pass, or let me cease!” Nor is there any diversity possible as to what really is desirable: Man desires the full and harmonious development of his faculties. As to how this end may most probably be attained, there is diversity enough to represent every possible blend of ignorance with knowledge, of lethargy with energy, of cowardice with courage.

“So endless and exorbitant are the desires of men, whether considered in their persons or their states, that they will grasp at all, and can form no scheme of perfect happiness with less.”[1] So writes the most powerful of English prose-writers. And this hope and desire, which is reason, once thrown down, the most powerful among poets has brought from human lips this estimate of life–

“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

No one knows whether reason’s object will or can be attained; but for the present each man finds confidence and encouragement in so far as he is able to imagine all things working together for the good of those who desire good–in short, for “reasonable beings.”[2] The more he knows, the greater labour it is for him to imagine this; but the more he concentrates his faculties on doing good and creating good things, the more his imagination glows and shines and discovers to him new possibilities of success: the better he is able to find–

“Sermons in stones and good in everything;” “And make a moral of the devil himself.”

But how is it that reason can accept an imagination that makes what in a cold light she considers her enemy, appear her friend? All things impress the mind with two contradictory notions–their actual condition and their perfection. Even the worst of its kind impresses on us an idea of what the best would be, or we could not know it for the worst. Reason, then, seizes on this aspect of things which suggests their perfection, and awards them her attention in proportion as such aspect makes their perfection seem near, or as it may further her in transforming the most pressing of other evils. All life tends to affirm its own character; and the essential characteristic of man is reason, which labours to perfect all things that he judges to be good, and to transform all evil. Ultimate results are out of sight for all human faculties except the early-waking eyes of long-chastened hope; but reason loves this visionary mood, though she prefer that it be sung, and find that less lyrical speech brings on it something of ridicule; for such a rendering betrays, as a rule, faint desire or small power to serve her in those who use it.

The sense of proportion, then, is that fineness of susceptibility by which we appreciate in a given object, person, force, or mood, serviceableness in regard to reason’s work; in other words, by which we estimate the capacity to transform the Universe in such a way that men may ultimately be enabled to give their hearty consent to its existence, which at present no man rationally can.


Now, art appeals to fine susceptibilities; for, as I have explained elsewhere,[3] the value of works of art depends on their having come as “real and intimate experiences to a large number of gifted men”–men who have some kinship to that “finely touched and gifted man, the [Greek _heuphnaes_] of the Greeks,” to use the phrase of our greatest modern critic. And in so far as we are able to judge between works successfully making such an appeal, we must be governed by this sense of proportion, which measures how things stand in regard to reason; that is, not merely intellect, not merely emotion, but the alliance of both by means of the imagination in aid of man’s most central demand–the demand for nobler life.

Perhaps I ought to point out before proceeding, that this position is not that of the writers on art most in view at the present day. It is the negation of the so-called scientific criticism, and also of the personal theory that reduces art to an expression of, and an appeal to, individual temperaments; it is the assertion of the sovereignty of the aesthetic conscience on exactly the same grounds as sovereignty is claimed for the moral conscience. Æsthetics deals with the morality of appeals addressed to the senses. That is, it estimates the success of such appeals in regard to the promotion of fuller and more harmonious life. Flaubert wrote:

“Le génie n’est pas rare maintenant, mais ce que personne n’a plus et ce qu’il faut tacher d’avoir, c’est la conscience.”

(“Genius is not rare nowadays, but conscience is what nobody has and what one should strive after.”)

To-day I am thinking of a painter. Painting is an art addressed primarily to the eye, and not to the intelligence, not to the imagination, save as these may be reached through the eye–that most delicate organ of infinite susceptibility, which teaches us the meaning of the word light–a word so often uttered with stress of ecstasy, of longing, of despair, and of every other shade of emotion, that the sound of it must soon be almost as powerful with the young heart, almost as immediate in its effect, as the break of day itself, gladdening the eyes and glorifying the earth. And how often is this joy received through the eye entrusted back to it for expression? For the eye can speak with varieties, delicacies, and subtle shades of motion far beyond the attainment of any other organ. “This art of painting is made for the eyes, for sight is the noblest sense of man,”[4] says Dürer; and again:

“It is ordained that never shall any man be able, out of his own thoughts, to make a beautiful figure, unless, by much study, he hath well stored his mind. That then is no longer to be called his own; it is art acquired and learnt, which soweth, waxeth, and beareth fruit after its kind. Thence the gathered secret treasure of the heart is manifested openly in the work, and the new creature which a man createth in his heart, appeareth in the form of a thing.”[5]

Yes, indeed, the function of art is far from being confined to telling us what we see, whatever some may pretend, or however naturally any small nature may desire to continue, teach, or regulate great ones. All so-called scientific methods of creating or criticising works of art are inadequate, because the only truly scientific statements that can be made about these inquiries are that nothing is certain–that no method ensures success, and that no really important quality can be defined; for what man can say why one cloud is more beautiful than another in the same sky, any more than he can explain why, of two men equally absorbed in doing their duty, one impresses him as being more holy than the other? The degrees essential to both kinds of judgment escape all definition; only the imagination can at times bring them home to us, only the refined taste or chastened conscience, as the case may be, witnesses with our spirit that its judgment is just, and bids us recognise a master in him who delivers it. As the expression on a face speaks to a delicate sense, often communicating more, other, and better than can be seen, so the proportion, harmony, rhythm of a painting may beget moods and joys that require the full resources of a well-stored mind and disciplined character in order that they may be fully relished–in brief, demand that maturity of reason which is the mark of victorious man.

Such being my conception, it will easily be perceived how anxious I must be to truly discern and express the relation between such objects as works of art by common consent so highly honoured, and at the same time so active in their effect upon the most exquisitely endowed of mankind. Especially since to-day caprice, humour and temperament are, by the majority of writers on art, acclaimed for the radical characteristic of the human creative faculty, instead of its perversion and disease; and it is thought that to be whimsical, moody, or self-indulgent best fits a man both to create and appraise works of art, whereas to become so really is the only way in which a man capable of such high tasks can with certainty ruin and degrade his faculties. Precious, surpassingly precious indeed, must every manifestation of such faculty before its final extinction remain, since the race produces comparatively few endowed after this kind.

Perhaps a sufficient illustration of this prevalent fallacy may be drawn from Mr. Whistler’s “Ten O’Clock,” where he speaks of art:

“A whimsical goddess, and a capricious, her strong sense of joy tolerates no dulness, and, live we never so spotlessly, still may she turn her back upon us.”

“As from time immemorial, she has done upon the Swiss in their mountains.”

Here is no proof of caprice, save on the witty writer’s part; for men who fast are not saved from bad temper, nor have the kindly necessarily discreet tongues. The Swiss may be brave and honest, and yet dull. Virtue is her own reward, and art her own. Virtue rewards the saint, art the artist; but men are rewarded for attention to morality by some measure of joy in virtue, for attention to beauty by some measure of joy in works of art. Between the artist and the Philistine is no great gulf fixed, in the sense that the witty “master of the butterfly” pretends to assume, but an infinite and gentle decline of persons representing every possible blend of the virtues and faults of these two types. Again, an artist is miscalled “master of art.” “Where he is, there she appears,” is airy impudence. “Where she wills to be, there she chooses a man to serve her,” would not only have been more gallant but more reasonable; for that “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the spirit,” and that “many are called, few chosen,” are sayings as true of the influence which kindleth art as of that which quickeneth to holiness. Art is not dignified by being called whimsical–or capricious. What can a man explain? The intention, behind the wind, behind the spirit, behind the creative instinct, is dark. But man is true to his own most essential character when, if he cannot refrain from prating of such mysteries, he qualifies them as hope would have him, with the noblest of his virtues; not when he speaks of the unknown, in whose hands his destiny so largely rests, slightingly, as of a woman whom he has seduced because he despised her–calling her capricious because she answered to his caprice, whimsical, because she was as flighty as his error. It is not art’s function to reward virtue. But, caprices and whimseys being ascribed to a goddess, it will be natural to expect them in her worshipper; and Mr. Whistler revealed the limitations of his genius by whimseys and caprice. Though it was in their relations to the world that this goddess and her devotee claimed freedoms so far from perfect, yet this, their avowed characteristic abroad, I think in some degree disturbed their domestic relations, Though others have underlined the absurdity of this theory by applying themselves to it with more faith and less sense, I have chosen to quote from the “Ten O’Clock,” because I admire it and accept most of the ideas about art advanced therein. The artist who wrote it was able, in Dürer’s phrase, “to prove” what he wrote “with his hand.” Most of those who have elaborated what was an occasional unsoundness of his doctrine into ridiculous religions are as unable to create as they are to think; there is no need to record names which it is wisdom to forget. But it may be well to point out that Mr. Whistler does not succeed in glorifying great artists when he declares that beauty “to them was as much a matter of certainty and triumph as is to the astronomer the verification of the result, foreseen with the light granted to him alone.” No, he only sets up a false analogy; for the true parallel to the artist is the saint, not the astronomer; both are convinced, neither understands. Art is no more the reward of intelligence than of virtue. She permits no caprice in her own realm. Loyalty is the only virtue she insists on, loyalty in regard to her servant’s experience of beauty; he may be immoral in every other way and she not desert him; but let him turn Balaam and declare beauty absent where he feels its presence–though in doing this he hopes to advance virtue or knowledge, she needs no better than an ass to rebuke him. Nothing effects more for anarchy than these notions that art derives from individual caprice, or defends virtue, or demonstrates knowledge; for they are all based on those flattering hopes of the unsuccessful, that chance, rules both in life and art, or that it is possible to serve two masters.

Doctrines often repeated gain easy credence; and, since art demands leisure in order to be at all enjoyed, ideas about it, in so fatiguing a life as ours has become, take men off their guard, when their habitual caution is laid to sleep, and, by an over-easiness, they are inclined to spoil both their sense of distinction and their children. Yes, they consent to theatres that degrade them, because they distract and amuse; and read journals that are smart and diverting at the expense of dignity and truth–in the same way as they smile at the child whom reason bids them reprove, and with the like tragic result; for they become incapable of enjoying works of art, as the child is incapacitated for the best of social intercourse. To prophesy smooth things to people in this condition, and flatter their dulness, is to be no true friend; and so the modern art-critic and journalist is often the insidious enemy of the civilisation he contents.

Nothing strikes the foreigner coming to England more than our lack of general ideas. Our art criticism is no exception; it, like our literature and politics, is happy-go-lucky and delights in the pot-shot. We often hear this attributed admiringly to “the sporting instinct.” “If God, in his own time, granteth me to write something further about matters connected with painting, I will do so, in hope that this art may not rest upon use and wont alone, but that in time it may be taught on true and orderly principles, and may be understood to the praise of God and the use and pleasure of all lovers of art.”[6]

Our art is still worse off than our trade or our politics, for it does not even rest upon use and wont, but is wholly in the air. Yet the typical modern aesthete has learnt where to take cover, for, though destitute of defence, he has not entirely lost the instinct for self-preservation; and, when he finds the eye of reason upon him, he immediately flies to the diversity of opinions. But Dürer follows him even there with the perfect good faith of a man in earnest.

“Men deliberate and hold numberless differing opinions about beauty, and they seek after it in many different ways, although ugliness is thereby rather attained. Being then, as we are, in such a state of error, I know not certainly what the ultimate measure of true beauty is, and cannot describe it aright. But glad should I be to render such help as I can, to the end that the gross deformities of our work might be and remain pruned away and avoided, unless indeed any one prefers to bestow great labour upon the production of deformities. We are brought back, therefore, to the aforesaid judgment of men, which considereth one figure beautiful at one time and another at another….

“Because now we cannot altogether attain unto perfection, shall we therefore wholly cease from learning? By no means. Let us not take unto ourselves thoughts fit for cattle. For evil and good lie before men, wherefore it behoveth the rational man to choose the good.”[7]

A man may see, if he will but watch, who is more finely touched and gifted than himself. In all the various fields of human endeavour, on such men he should try to form himself; for only thus can he enlarge his nature, correct his opinions. Something he can learn from this man, something from that, and it is rational to learn and be taught. Are we to be cattle or gods? “Is it not written in your law, I said, ‘Ye are gods?'” Reason demands that each man form himself on the pattern of a god, and God is an empty name if reason be not the will of God. Then he whom reason hath brought up may properly be called a son of God, a son of man, a child of light. But it is easier to bob to such phrases than to understand them. However, their mechanical repetition does not prevent their having meant something once, does not prevent their meaning being their true value. It is time we understood our art, just as it is time we understood our religion. Docility, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is one of the marks of genius. Dürer’s spirit is the spirit of the great artist who will learn even from “dull men of little judgment.”

“Let none be ashamed to learn, for a good work requireth good counsel. Nevertheless, whosoever taketh counsel in the arts, let him take it from one thoroughly versed in those matters, who can prove what he saith with his hand. Howbeit any one may give thee counsel; and when thou hast done a work pleasing to thyself, it is good for thee to show it to dull men of little judgment that they may give their opinion of it. As a rule they pick out the most faulty points, whilst they entirely pass over the good. If thou findest something they say true, thou mayst thus better thy work.”[8]

Those who are thoroughly versed in art are the great artists; we have guides then, and we have a way–the path they have trodden–and we have company, the gifted and docile men of to-day whom we see to be improving themselves; and, in so far as we are reasonable, a sense of proportion is ours, which we may improve; and it will help us to catch up better and yet better company until we enjoy the intimacy of the noblest, and know as we are known. Then: “May we not consider it a sign of sanity when we regard the human spirit as … a poet, and art as a half written poem? Shall we not have a sorry disappointment if its conclusion is merely novel, and not the fulfilment and vindication of those great things gone before?”[9] For my own part, those appear to me the grandest characters who, on finding that there is no other purchase for effort but only hope, and that they can never cease from hope but by ceasing to live, clear their minds of all idle acquiescence in what could never be hoped, and concentrate their energies on conquering whatever in their own nature, and in the world about them, militates against their most essential character–reason, which seeks always to give a higher value to life.


When we speak of the sense of proportion displayed in the design of a building, many will think that the word is used in quite a different sense, and one totally unrelated to those which I have been discussing. But no; life and art are parallel and correspond throughout; ethics are the Esthetics of life, religion the art of living. Taste and conscience only differ in their provinces, not in their procedure. Both are based on instinctive preferences; the canon of either is merely so many of those preferences as, by their constant recurrence to individuals gifted with the power of drawing others after them, are widely accepted.

The preference of serenity to melancholy, of light to darkness, are among the most firmly established in the canon, that is all. The sense of proportion within a design is employed to stimulate and delight the eye. Ordinary people may fear there is some abstruse science about this. Not at all; it is as simple as relishing milk and honey, and its development an exact parallel to the training of the palate to distinguish the flavours of teas, coffees and wines. “Taste and see” is the whole business. There are many people who have no hesitation in picking out what to their eye is the wainscot panel with the richest grain: they see it at once. So with etchings; if people would only forget that they are works of art, forget all the false or ill-understood standards which they have been led to suppose applicable, and look at them as they might at agate stones; or choose out the richest in effect: the most suitable for a gay room, or a hall, or a library, as though they were patterned stuffs for curtains; they would come a thousand times nearer a right appreciation of Dürer’s success than by making a pot-shot to lasso the masterpiece with the tangle of literary rubbish which is known as art criticism.

The harmonies and contrasts of juxtaposed colours or textures are affected by quantity, and a sense of proportion decides what quantities best produce this effect and what that. The correctness or amount of information to be conveyed in the delineation of some object, in relation to the mood which the artist has chosen shall dominate his work, is determined by his sense of proportion. He may distort an object to any extent or leave it as vague as the shadow on a wall in diffused light, or he may make it precise and particular as ever Jan Van Eyck did; so only that its distortion or elaboration is so proportioned to the other objects and intentions of his work as to promote its success in the eyes of the beholder.

There are no fallacies greater than the prevalent ones conveyed by the expressions “out of drawing” or “untrue to nature.” There is no such thing as correct drawing or an outside standard of truth for works of art.

“The conception of every work of art carries within it its own rule and method, which must be found out before it can be achieved.” “Chaque oeuvre à faire a sa poétique en soi, qu’il faut trouver,” said Flaubert. Truth in a work of art is sincerity. That a man says what he really means–shows us what he really thinks to be beautiful–is all that reason bids us ask for. No science or painstaking can make up for his not doing this. No lack of skill or observation can entirely frustrate his communicating his intention to kindred natures if he is utterly sincere. An infant communicates its joy. It is probable that the inexpressible is never felt. Stammering becomes more eloquent than oratory, a child’s impulsiveness wiser than circumlocutory experience. When a single intention absorbs the whole nature, communication is direct and immediate, and makes impotence itself a means of effectiveness. So the naïveties of early art put to shame the purposeless parade of prodigious skill. Wherever there is communication there is art; but there are evil communications and there is vicious art, though, perhaps, great sincerity is incompatible with either. For an artist to be deterred by other people’s demands means that he is not artist enough; it is what his reason teaches him to demand of himself that matters, though, doubtless, the good desire the approval of kindred natures.

A work of art addresses the eye by means of chosen proportions; it may present any number of facts as exactly as may be, but if it offend the eye it is a mere misapplication of industry, or the illustration of a scientific treatise out of place; and those that choose ribbons well are better artists than the man that made it. Or again it may overflow with poetical thought and suggestion, or have the stuff to make a first-rate story in it; but, if it offend the eye, it is merely a misapplication of imagination, invention or learning, and the girl who puts a charming nosegay together is a better artist than he who painted it. On the other hand, though it have no more significance than a glass of wine and a loaf of bread, if the eye is rejoiced by gazing on the paint that expresses them, it is a work of art and a fine achievement. Still, it may be as fanciful as a fairy-tale, or as loaded with import as the Crucifixion; and, if it stimulates the eye to take delight in its surfaces over and above mere curiosity, it is a work of art, and great in proportion as the significance of what it conveys is brought home to us by the very quality of the stimulus that is created in return for our gaze. For painting is the result of a power to speak beautifully with paint, as poetry is of a power to express beautifully by means of words either simple things or those which demand the effort of a welltrained mind in order to be received and comprehended. The mistake made by impressionists, luminarists, and other modern artists, is that a true statement of how things appear to them will suffice; it will not, unless things appear beautiful to them, and they render them beautifully. It will not, because science is not art, because knowledge is a different thing from beauty. A true statement may be repulsive and degrading; whereas an affirmation of beauty, whether it be true or fancied, is always moving, and if delivered with corresponding grace is inspiring–is a work of art and “a joy for ever.” For reason demands that all the eye sees shall be beautiful, and give such pleasure as best consists with the universe becoming what reason demands that it shall become. This demand of reason is perfectly arbitrary? Yes, but it is also inevitable, necessitated by the nature of the human character. It is equally arbitrary and equally inevitable that man must, where science is called for, in the long run prefer a true statement to a lie. From art reason demands beautiful objects, from science true statements: such is human nature; for the possession of this reason that judges and condemns the universe, and demands and attempts to create something better, is that which differentiates human life from all other known forces–is that by which men may be more than conquerors, may make peace with the universe; for

“A peace is of the nature of a conquest; For then both parties nobly are subdued And neither party loser.”

Of such a nature is the only peace that the soul can make with the body–that man can make with nature–that habit can make with instinct–that art can make with impulse. In order to establish such a peace the imagination must train reason to see a friend in her enemy, the physical order. For, as Reynolds says of the complete artist:

“He will pick up from dunghills, what, by a nice chemistry, passing through his own mind, shall be converted into pure gold, and under the rudeness of Gothic essays, he will find original, rational, and even sublime inventions.”[10]

It is not too much to say that the nature both of the artist and of the dunghills is “subdued” by such a process, and yet neither is a “loser.” Goethe profoundly remarked that the highest development of the soul was reached through worship first of that which was above, then of that which was beneath it. This great critic also said, “Only with difficulty do we spell out from that which nature presents to us, the _DESIRED_ word, the congenial. Men find what the artist brings intelligible and to their taste, stimulating and alluring, genial and friendly, spiritually nourishing, formative and elevating. Thus the artist, grateful to the nature that made him, weaves a second nature–but a conscious, a fuller, a more perfectly human nature.”

[Illustration: Water-colour drawing of a Hare]


[Footnote 1: Swift, “Contests and Dissensions in Athens and Rome.”]

[Footnote 2: It may be urged that diversities of opinion exist as to what good is. The convenience of the words “good” and “evil” corresponds to a need created by a common experience in the same way as the convenience of the words “light” and “darkness” does. A child might consider that a diamond generated light in the same way as a candle does. He would be mistaken, but this would not affect the correctness of his application of the word “light” to his experience; if he confused light with darkness he must immediately become unintelligible. Good and light are perceived and named–no one can say more of them; the effects of both may be described with more or less accuracy. To say that light is a mode of motion does not define it; we ask at once, What mode? And the only answer is, that which produces the effect of light. A man born blind, though he knew what was meant by motion, could never deduce from this knowledge a conception of light.]

[Footnote 3: The Monthly Review, October 1902, “Rodin.”]

[Footnote 4: “Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer,” p. 177.]

[Footnote 5: Ibid. p. 247.]

[Footnote 6: “Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer,” p. 252.]

[Footnote 7: “Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer,” pp, 244 and 245.]

[Footnote 8: “Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer,” p. 180.]

[Footnote 9: The Monthly Review, April 1901, “In Defence of Reynolds.”]

[Footnote 10: Sixth Discourse.]




There are some artists of whom one would naturally write in a lyrical strain, with praise of the flesh, and those things which add to its beauty, freshness, and mystery–fair scenes of mountain, woodland, or sea-shore; blue sky, white cloud and sunlight, or the deep and starry night; youth and health, strength and fertility, frankness and freedom. And, in such a strain, one would insist that the fondness and intoxication which these things quicken was natural, wise, and lovely. But, quite as naturally, when one has to speak of Dürer, the mind becomes filled with the exhilaration and the staidness that the desire to know and the desire to act rightly beget; with the dignity of conscious comprehension, the serenity of accomplished duty with all the strenuousness and ardour of which the soul is capable; with science and religion.

It is natural to refer often to the towering eminence of these virtues in Michael Angelo; both he and Dürer were not only great artists, and active and powerful minds, but men imbued with, and conservative of, piety. And it seems to me, if we are to appreciate and sympathise deeply with such men, we must try to understand the religion they believed in; to estimate, not only what its value was supposed to be in those days, but what value it still has for us. Surely what they prized so highly must have had real and lasting worth? Surely it can only be the relation of that value to common speech and common thought which has changed, not its relation to man’s most essential nature? Therefore I will first try to arrive at a general notion of the real worth of their ideas,–that is, the worth that is equally great from their point of view and ours.

The whole of that period, the period of the so belauded Renascence, had within it (or so it seems to me) an incurable insufficiency, which troubles the affections of those who praise or condemn it; so that they show themselves more passionate than those who praise or condemn the art and life of ancient Greece. This insufficiency I believe to have been due to the fact that Christian ideas were more firmly rooted in, than they were understood by, the society of those days. And to-day I think the same cause continues to propagate a like insufficiency, a like lack of correspondence between effort and aim. Certain ideas found in the reported sayings of Jesus have so fastened upon the European intellect that they seem well-nigh inseparable from it. We are told that the effort of the Greek, of Aristotle, was to “submit to the empire of fact.” The effort of the Jew was very similar; for the prophets, what happened was the will of God, what will happen is what God intends. Now it is noteworthy that Aristotle did not wish to submit to ignorance, though it and the causes which produce it and preserve it in human minds are among the most horrible and tremendous of facts; and it is the imperishable glory of the prophets, that, whatever the priest the king, the Sadducee or Pharisee might do, _they_ could not rest in or abide the idea that God’s will was ever evil; no inconsistency was too glaring to check their indignation at Eastern fatalism which quietly supposed that as things went wrong it was their nature to do so;–vanity, vanity, all is vanity!–or that if men did wrong and prospered, it was God’s doing, and showed that they had pleased Him with sacrifices and performances.


‘Wherever poetry, imagination, or art had been busy, there had appeared, both in Judea and Greece, some degree of rebellion against the empire of fact.. When Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” he recognised that the human reason was the antagonist of all other known forces, and he declared war on the god of this world and prophesied the downfall of–the empire of the apparent fact;–not with fume and fret, not with rant and rage, as poets and seers had done, but mildly affirming that with the soul what is best is strongest, has in the long run most influence; that there is one fact in the essential nature of man which, antagonist to the influence of all other facts, wields an influence destined to conquer or absorb all other influences. He said: “My Father which is in heaven, the master influence within me, has declared that I shall never find rest to my soul until I prefer His kingdom, the conception of my heart, to the kingdoms of earth and the glory of the earth.” ‘We have seen that Dürer describes the miracle; the work of art, thus:

“The secret treasure which a man conceived in his heart shall appear as a thing” (see page 10).

And we know that he prized this, the master thing, the conception of the heart, above everything else.

Much learning is not evil to a man, though some be stiffly set against it, saying that art puffeth up. Were that so, then were none prouder than God who hath formed all arts, but that cannot be, for God is perfect in goodness. The more, therefore, a man learneth, so much the better doth he become, and so much the more love doth he win for the arts and for things exalted.

The learning Dürer chiefly intends is not book-learning or critical lore, but knowledge how to make, by which man becomes a creator in imitation of God; for this is of necessity the most perfect knowledge, rivalling the sureness of intuition and instinct.


“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Every one knows how anxious great artists become for the preservation of their works, how highly they value permanence in the materials employed, and immunity from the more obvious chances of destruction in the positions they are to occupy. Michael Angelo is said to have painted cracks on the Sistina ceiling to force the architect to strengthen the roof. When Jesus made the assertion that his teaching would outlast the influence of the visible world of nature and the societies of men–the kingdoms of earth and the glory of the earth–he did no more than every victorious soul strives to effect, and to feel assured that it has in some large degree effected; the difference between him and them is one of degree. It may be objected that different hearts harbour and cherish contradictory conceptions. Doubtless; but does the desire to win the co-operation and approval of other men consist with the higher developments of human faculties? Is it, perhaps, essential to them? If so, in so far as every man increases in vitality and the employment of his powers, he will be forced to reverence and desire the solidarity of the race, and consequently to relinquish or neglect whatever in his own ideal militates against such solidarity. And this will be the case whether he judge such eccentric elements to be nobler or less noble than the qualities which are fostered in him by the co-operation of his fellows. Jesus, at any rate, affirmed that the law of the kingdom within a man’s soul was: “Love thy neighbour as thyself”; and that obedience to it would work in every man like leaven, which is lost sight of in the lump of dough, and seems to add nothing to it, yet transforms the whole in raising up the loaf; or as the corn of wheat which is buried in the glebe like a dead body, yet brings forth the blade, and nourishes a new life.

So he that should follow Jesus by obeying the laws of the kingdom, by loving God (the begetter or fountainhead of a man’s most essential conception of what is right and good) and his neighbour, was assured by his mild and gracious Master that he would inherit, by way of a return for the sacrifices which such obedience would entail, a new and better life. (Follow me, I laid down my life in order that I might take it again. He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life _for_ my _sake_–as I did, in imitation of me–shall find it.) For in order to make this very difficult obedience possible, it was to be turned into a labour of love done for the Master’s sake. As Goethe said:

“Against the superiority of another, there is no remedy but love.”

Is it not true that the superiority of another man humiliates, crushes and degrades us in our own eyes, if we envy it or hate it instead of loving it? while by loving it we make it in a sense ours, and can rejoice in it. So Jesus affirmed that he had made the superiority of the ideal his; so that he was in it, and it was in him, so that men who could no longer fix their attention on it in their own souls might love it in him. He was their master-conception, their true ideal, acting before them, captivating the attention of their senses and emotions. This is what a man of our times, possessed of rare receptivity and great range of comprehension, considered to be the pith of Jesus’ teaching. Matthew Arnold gave much time and labour to trying to persuade men that this was what the religion they professed, or which was professed around them, most essentially meant. And he reminded us that the adequacy of such ideas for governing man’s life depended not on the authority of a book or writings by eye-witnesses with or without intelligence, but on whether they were true in experience. He quoted Goethe’s test for every idea about life, “But is it true, is it true for me, now?” “Taste and see,” as the prophets put it; or as Jesus said, “Follow me.” For an ideal must be followed, as a man woos a woman; the pursuit may have to be dropped, in order to be more surely recovered; an ideal must be humoured, not seized at once as a man seizes command over a machine. This _secret of success was_ was only to be won by the development of a temper, a spirit of docility. To love it in an example was the best, perhaps the only way of gaining possession of it.


As we are placed, what hope can we have but to learn? and what is there from which we might not learn? An artist is taught by the materials he uses more essentially than by the objects he contemplates; for these teach him “how,” and perfect him in creating, those only teach him “what,” and suggest forms to be created. But for men in general the “what” is more important than the “how”; and only very powerful art can exhilarate and refine them by means of subjects which they dislike or avoid.

Every seer of beauty is not a creator of beautiful things; and in art the “how” is so much more essential than the “what,” that artists create unworthy or degrading objects beautifully, so that we admire their art as much as we loathe its employment; in nature, too, such objects are met with, created by the god of this world. A good man, too, may create in a repulsive manner objects whose every association is ennobling or elevating.

“The kingdom of heaven is within you,” but hell is also within.

“Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed In one self place; for where we are is hell And where hell is, must we for ever be: And, to conclude, when all the world dissolves, And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that are not heaven,”

as Marlowe makes his Mephistophilis say: and the best art is the most perfect expression of that which is within, of heaven or of hell. Goethe said:

“In the Greeks, whose poetry and rhetoric was simple and positive, we encounter expressions of approval more often than of disapproval. With the Romans, on the other hand, the contrary holds good; and the more corrupted poetry and rhetoric become, the more will censure grow and praise diminish.”

I have sometimes thought that the difference between classic and more or less decadent art lies in the fact that by the one things are appreciated for what they most essentially are–a young man, a swift horse, a chaste wife, &c.–by the other for some more or less peculiar or accidental relation that they hold to the creator. Such writers lament that the young are not old, the old not young, prostitutes not pure, that maidens are cold and modest or matrons portly. They complain of having suffered from things being cross, or they take malicious pleasure in pointing that crossness out; whereas classical art always rebounds from the perception that things are evil to the assertion of what ought to be or shall be. It triumphs over the Prince of Darkness, and covers a multitude of sins, as dew or hoar frost cover and make beautiful a dunghill. Dunghills exist; but he who makes of Macbeth’s or Clytemnestra’s crimes an elevating or exhilarating spectacle triumphs over the god of this world, as Jesus did when he made the most ignominious death the symbol, of his victory and glory. Little wonder that Albert Dürer, and Michael Angelo found such deep satisfaction in Him as the object of their worship–his method of docility was next-of-kin to that of their art. Respect and solicitude create the soul, and these two pre-eminently docile passions preside over the soul’s creation, whether it be a society, a life, or a thing of beauty.


Here, when art was still religion, with a simple, reverent heart, Lived and laboured Albrecht Dürer, the Evangelist of Art.

These jingling lines would scarcely merit consideration but that they express a common notion which has its part of truth as well as of error. Let us examine the first assertion (that art has been religion.) Baudelaire, in his _Curiosités Esthétiques_ says: _La première affaire d’un artiste est de substituer l’homme à la nature et de protester contre elle_. (“The first thing for an artist is to substitute man for nature and to protest against her.”) The beginners and the smatterers are always “students of nature,” and suppose that to be so will suffice; but when the understanding and imagination gain width and elasticity, life is more and more understood as a long struggle to overcome or humanise nature by that which most essentially distinguishes man from other animals and inanimate nature. Religion should be the drill and exercise of the human faculties to fit them and maintain them in readiness for this struggle; the work of art should be the assertion of victory. A life worthy of remembrance is a work of art, a life worthy of universal remembrance is a masterpiece: only the materials employed differentiate it from any other work of art. The life of Jesus is considered as such a masterpiece. Thus we can say that if art has never been religion, religion has always been and ever will be an art.

Now let us examine the second assertion that Dürer was an evangelist. What kind of character do we mean to praise when we say a man is an evangelist? Two only of the four evangelists can be said to reveal any ascertainable personality, and only St. John is sufficiently outlined to stand as a type; but I do not think we mean to imply a resemblance to St. John. The bringer of good news, the evangelist par excellence, was Jesus. He it was who made it evident that the sons of men have power to forgive sins. Victory over evil possible–this was the good news. No doubt every sincere Christian is supposed to be a more or less successful imitator of Jesus; and as such, Dürer may rightly be called an evangelist. But more than this is I think, implied in the use of the word; an evangelist is, for us above all a bringer of good news in something of the same manner as Jesus brought it, by living among sinners for those sinners’ sake, among paupers for those paupers’ sake; to see a man sweet, radiant, and victorious under these circumstances, is to see an evangelist. Goethe’s final claim is that, “after all, there are honest people up and down the world who have got light from my books; and whoever reads them, and gives himself the trouble to understand me, will acknowledge that he has acquired thence a certain inward freedom”; and for this reason I have been tempted to call him the evangelist of the modern world. But it is best to use the word as I believe it is most correctly employed, and not to yield to the temptation (for tempting it is) to call men like Dürer and Goethe evangelists. They are teachers who charm as well as inform us, as Jesus was; but they are not evangelists in the sense that he was, for they did not deal directly with human life where it is forced most against its distinctive desire for increase in nobility, or is most obviously degraded by having betrayed it.'[11]


I have often heard it objected that Jesus is too feminine an ideal, too much based on renunciation and the effort to make the best of failure. No doubt that as women are, by the necessity of their function, more liable to the ship-wreck of their hopes, the bankruptcy of their powers, they have been drawn to cling to this hope of salvation in greater numbers, and with more fervour; so that the most general idea of Jesus may be a feminine one. It does not follow that this is the most correct or the best: every object, every person will appear differently to different natures. And it still remains true that there have been a great many men of very various types who have drawn strength and beauty from the contemplation and reverence of Jesus. That this ideal is too much based on making the best of failure is an objection that makes very little impression on me, for I think I perceive that failure is one of the most constant and widespread conditions of the universe, and even more certainly of human life.


It remains now to see in what degree these ideas were felt or made themselves felt through the Romanism and Lutheranism of the Renascence period. Perhaps we English shall best recognise the presence of these ideas, the working of this leaven–this docility, the necessary midwife of ‘genius, who transforms the difficult tasks which the human reason sets herself into labours of love–in an Englishman; so my first example shall be taken from Erasmus’ portrait of Dean Colet.

It was then that my acquaintance with him began, he being then thirty, I two or three months his junior. He had no theological degree, but the whole University, doctors and all, went to hear him. Henry VII took note of him, and made him Dean of St. Paul’s. His first step was to restore discipline in the Chapter, which had all gone to wreck. He preached every saint’s day to great crowds. He cut down household expenses, and abolished suppers and evening parties. At dinner a boy reads a chapter from Scripture; Colet takes a passage from it and discourses to the universal delight. Conversation is his chief pleasure, and he will keep it up till midnight if he finds a companion. Me he has often taken with him on his walks, and talks all the time of Christ. He hates coarse language, furniture, dress, food, books, all clean and tidy, but scrupulously plain; and he wears grey woollen when priests generally go in purple. With the large fortune which he inherited from his father, he founded and endowed a school at St. Paul’s entirely at his own cost– masters, houses, salaries, everything.

He is a man of genuine piety. He was not born with it. He was naturally hot, impetuous and resentful–indolent, fond of pleasure and of women’s society–disposed to make a joke of everything. He told me that he had fought against his faults with study, fasting and prayer, and thus his whole life was in fact unpolluted with the world’s defilements. His money he gave all to pious uses, worked incessantly, talked always on serious subjects, to conquer his disposition to levity; not but what you could see traces of the old Adam when wit was flying at feast or festival. He avoided large parties for this reason. He dined on a single dish, with a draught or two of light ale. He liked good wine, but abstained on principle. I never knew a man of sunnier nature. No one ever more enjoyed cultivated society; but here, too, he denied himself, and was always thinking of the life to come.

His opinions were peculiar, and he was reserved in expressing them for fear of exciting suspicion. He knew how unfairly men judge each other, how credulous they are of evil, how much easier it is for a lying tongue to stain a reputation than for a friend to clear it. But among his friends he spoke his mind freely.

He admitted privately that many things were generally taught which he did not believe, but he would not create a scandal by blurting out his objections. No book could be so heretical but he would read it, and read it carefully. He learnt more from such books than he learnt from dogmatism and interested orthodoxy.[12]

Some may wonder what Colet could have found to say about Christ which could not only interest but delight the young and witty Erasmus; and may judge that at any rate to-day such a subject is sufficiently fly-blown. The proper reflection to make is, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Whether we say Christ or Perfection does not matter, it is what we mean which is either enthralling or dull, fresh or fusty; “there’s nothing in a name.”

“When Colet speaks I might be listening to Plato,” says Erasmus in another place, at a time when he was still younger and had just come from what had been a gay and perhaps in some measure a dissolute life in Paris: not that it is possible to imagine Erasmus as at any time committing great excesses, or deeply sinning against the sense of proportion and measure.

Success is the only criterion, as in art, so in religion: the man that plucks out his eye and casts it from him, and remains the dull, greedy, distressful soul he was before, is a damned fool; but the man who does the same and becomes such that his younger friends report of him, “I never knew a sunnier nature,” is an artist in life, a great artist in the sense that Christ is supposed to have been a great master; one who draws men to him, as bees are drawn to flowers. Colet drew the young Henry the Eighth as well as Erasmus. “The King said: ‘Let every man choose his own doctor. Dean Colet shall be mine!'” Though no doubt charlatans have often fascinated young scholars and monarchs, yet it is peculiarly impossible to think of Colet as a charlatan.


Next let us take a sonnet and a sentence from Michael Angelo:

Yes! hope may with my strong desire keep pace, And I be undeluded, unbetrayed;
For if of our affections none finds grace In sight of heaven, then, wherefore hath God made The world which we inhabit? Better plea Love cannot have than that in loving thee Glory to that eternal peace is paid,
Who such divinity to thee imparts, As hallows and makes pure all gentle hearts. His hope is treacherous only whose love dies With beauty, which is varying every hour; But in chaste hearts, uninfluenced by the power Of outward change, there blooms a deathless flower, That breathes on earth the air of paradise.[13]

It is very remarkable how strongly the conviction of permanence, and the preference for the inward conception over external beauty are expressed in this fine sonnet; and also that the reason given for accepting the discipline of love is that experience shows how it “hallows and makes pure all gentle hearts.” In such a love poem–the object of which might very well have been Jesus–I seem to find more of the spirit of his religion, whereby he binds his disciples to the Father that ruled within him, till they too feel the bond of parentage as deeply as himself and become sons with him of his Father;–more of that binding power of Jesus is for me expressed in this fine sonnet than in Luther’s Catechism. The religion that enables a great artist to write of love in this strain, is the religion of docility, of the meek and lowly heart. For Michael Angelo was not a man by nature of a meek and lowly heart, any more than Colet was a man naturally saintly or than Luther was a man naturally refined. But because Michael Angelo thus prefers the kingdom of heaven to external beauty, one must not suppose that he, its arch high-priest, despised it. Nobody had a more profound respect for the thing of beauty, whether it was the creation of God or man. He said:

“Nothing makes the soul so pure, so religious, as the endeavour to create something perfect; for God is perfection, and whoever strives for perfection, strives for something that is God-like.”

Now we can perceive how the same spirit worked in a great artist, not at Nuremberg or London, but at Rome, the centre of the world, where a Borgia could be Pope.


Erasmus, the typical humanist, the man who loved humanity so much that he felt that his love for it might tempt him to fight against God, travelled from the one world to the other; passed from the society of cardinals and princes to the seclusion of burgher homes in London, or to chat with Dürer at Antwerp. He belonged perhaps to neither world at heart; but how greatly his love and veneration of the one exceeded his admiration and sense of the practical utility of the other, a comparison of his sketch of Colet with such a note as this from his New Testament makes abundantly plain:

“I saw with my own eyes Pope Julius II. at Bologna, and afterwards at Rome, marching at the head of a triumphal procession as if he were Pompey or Cæsar. St. Peter subdued the world with faith, not with arms or soldiers or military engines. St. Peter’s successors would win as many victories as St. Peter won if they had Peter’s spirit.”

But we must not forget that the book in which these notes appeared was published with the approval of a Pope, and that he and others sought its author for advice as to how to cope best with their more hot-headed enemy Martin Luther. We must also remember that we are told that Colet “was not very hard on priests and monks who only sinned with women. He did not make light of impurity, but thought it less criminal than spite and malice and envy and vanity and ignorance. The loose sort were at least made human and modest by their very faults, and he regarded avarice and arrogance as blacker sins in a priest than a hundred concubines.” This spirit was not that of the Reformation which came to stop, yet it existed and was widespread at that time; it was I think the spirit which either formed or sustained most of the great artists. At any rate it both formed and sustained Albert Dürer. Yet the true nature of these ideas, derived from Jesus, could not be understood even by Colet, even by Erasmus. For them it was tradition which gave value and assured truth to Christ’s ideas, not the truth of those ideas which gave value to the traditions and legends concerning him. The value of those ideas was felt, sometimes nearer, sometimes further off; it was loved and admired; their lives were apprehended by it, and spent in illustrating and studying it, as were also those of Albert Dürer and Michael Angelo. To understand the life and work of such men, we must form some conception of the true nature and value of those ideas, as I have striven to do in this chapter. Otherwise we shall merely admire and love them, as they admired and loved Jesus; and it has now become a point of honour with educated men not only to love and admire, but to make the effort to understand. Even they desired to do this. And I think we may rejoice that the present time gives us some advantage over those days, at least in this respect.


And lastly, in order to bring us back to our main subject, let us quote from a stray leaf of a lost MS. Book of Dürer’s, which contains the description of his father’s death.

… desired. So the old wife helped him up, and the night-cap on his head had suddenly become wet with drops of sweat. Then he asked to drink, so she gave him a little Reinfell wine. He took a very little of it, and then desired to get into bed again and thanked her. And when he had got into bed he fell at once into his last agony. The old wife quickly kindled the candle for him and repeated to him S. Bernard’s verses, and ere she had said the third he was gone. God be merciful to him! And the young maid, when she saw the change, ran quickly to my chamber and woke me, but before I came down he was gone. I saw the dead with great sorrow, because I had not been worthy to be with him at his end.

And thus in the night before S. Matthew’s eve my father passed away, in the year above mentioned (Sept. 20, 1502) –the merciful God help me also to a happy end–and he left my mother an afflicted widow behind him. He was ever wont to praise her highly to me, saying what a good wife she was, wherefore I intend never to forsake her. I pray you for God’s sake, all ye my friends, when you read of the death of my father, to remember his soul with an “Our Father” and an “Ave Maria”; and also for your own sake, that we may so serve God as to attain a happy life and the blessing of a good end. For it is not possible for one who has lived well to depart ill from this world, for God is full of compassion. Through which may He grant us, after this pitiful life, the joy of everlasting salvation–in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, at the beginning and at the end, one Eternal Governor. Amen.

The last sentences of this may seem to share in the character of the vain repetitions of words with which professed believers are only too apt to weary and disgust others. They are in any case commonplaces: the image has taken the place of the object; the Father in heaven is not considered so much as the paternal governor of the inner life as the ruler of a future life and of this world. The use of such phrases is as much idolatry as the worship of statue and picture, or as little, if the words are repeated, as I think in this case they were, out of a feeling of awe and reverence for preceding mental impressions and experiences, and not because their repetition in itself was counted for righteousness. Their use, if this was so, is no more to be found fault with than the contemplation of pictures or statues of holy personages in order to help the mind to attend to their ensample, or the reading of a poem, to fill the mind with ennobling emotions. Idolatry is natural and right in children and other simple souls among primitive peoples or elsewhere. It is a stage in mental development. Lovers pass through the idolatrous stage of their passion just as children cut their teeth. It is a pity to see individuals or nations remain childish in this respect just as much as in any other, or to see them return to it in their decrepitude. But a temper, a spirit, an influence cannot easily be apprehended apart from examples and images; and perhaps the clearest reason is only the exercise of an infinitely elastic idolatry, which with sprightly efficiency finds and worships good in everything, just as the devout, in Dürer’s youth, found sermons in stones, carved stones representing saint, bishop, or Virgin. And Dürer all his life long continued to produce pictures and engravings which were intended to preach such sermons.

Goethe admirably remarks:

“_Superstition_ is the poetry of life; the poet therefore suffers no harm from being _superstitious_.” (Aberglaube.)

Superstition and idolatry are an expenditure of emotion of a kind and degree which the true facts would not warrant; poetry when least superstitious is a like exercise of the emotions in order to raise and enhance them; superstition when most poetical unconsciously effects the same thing.

This glimpse he gives of the way in which death visited his home, and how the visitation impressed him, is coloured and glows with that temper of docility which made Colet school himself so severely, and was the source of Michael Angelo’s so fervent outpourings. And all through the accounts which remain of his life, we may trace the same spirit ever anew setting him to school, and renewing his resolution to learn both from his feelings and from his senses.


As I took a sentence from Michael Angelo, I will now take a sentence from Dürer, one showing strongly that evangelical strain so characteristic of him, born of his intuitive sense for human solidarity. After an argument, which will be found on page 306, he concludes: “It is right, therefore, for one man to teach another. He that doeth so joyfully, upon him shall much be bestowed by God.”[14] These last words, like the last phrases of my former quotation from him, may stand perhaps in the way of some, as nowadays they may easily sound glib or irreverent. But are we less convinced that only tasks done joyfully, as labours of love, deserve the reward of fuller and finer powers, and obtain it? When Dürer thought of God, he did not only think of a mythological personage resembling an old king; he thought of a mind, an intention, “for God is perfect in goodness.” Words so easily come to obscure what they were meant to reveal; and if we think how the notion of perfect goodness rules and sways such a man’s mind, we shall not wonder that he did not stumble at the omnipotency which revolts us, cowed as we are by the presence of evil. The old gentleman dressed like a king;–this was not the part of his ideas about God which occupied Dürer’s mind. He accepted it, but did not think about it: it filled what would otherwise have been a blank in his mind and in the minds of those about him. But he was constantly anxious about what he ought to do and study in order to fulfil the best in himself, and about what ought to be done by his town, his nation, and the civilisation that then was, in order to turn man’s nature and the world to an account answerable to the beauty of their fairer aspects. God was the will that commanded that “consummation devoutly to be wished.” Obedience to His law revealed in the Bible was the means by which this command could be carried out; and to a man turning from the Church as it then existed to the newly translated Bible texts, the commands of God as declared in those texts seemed of necessity reason itself compared with the commands of the Popes; were, in fact, infinitely more reasonable, infinitely more akin to a good man’s mind and will. Luther’s revolt is for us now characterised by those elements in it which proved inadequate–were irrational; but then these were insignificant in comparison with the light which his downright honesty shed on the monstrous and amazingly irrational Church. This huge closed society of bigots and worldlings which arrogated to itself all powers human and divine, and used them according to the lusts and intemperance of an Alexander Borgia, a Julius II., and a Leo X., was that farce perception of which made Rabelais shake the world with laughter, and which roused such consuming indignation in Luther and Calvin that they created the gloomy puritanical asylums in which millions of Germans, English, and Americans were shut up for two hundred years, as Matthew Arnold puts it. But Dürer was not so immured: even Luther at heart neither was himself, nor desired that others should be, prevented from enjoying the free use of their intellectual powers. It was because he was less perspicacious than Erasmus that he did not see that this was what he was inevitably doing in his wrath and in his haste.


Erasmus was, perhaps, the man in Europe who at that time displayed most docility; the man whom neither sickness, the desire for wealth and honour, the hope to conquer, the lust to engage in disputes, nor the adverse chances that held him half his life in debt and necessitous straits, and kept him all his life long a vagrant, constantly upon the road–the man in whom none of these things could weaken a marvellous assiduity to learn and help others to learn. He it was who had most kinship with Dürer among the artists then alive; for Dürer is very eminent among them for this temper of docility. It is interesting to see how he once turned to Erasmus in a devout meditation, written in the journal he kept during his journey to the Netherlands. His voice comes to us from an atmosphere charged with the electric influence of the greatest Reformer, Martin Luther, who had just disappeared, no man knew why or whither; though all men suspected foul play. In his daily life, by sweetness of manner, by gentle dignity and modesty, Dürer showed his religion, the admiration and love that bound his life, in a way that at all times and in all places commands applause. The burning indignation of the following passage may in times of spiritual peace or somnolence appear over-wrought and uncouth. We must remember that all that Dürer loved had been bound by his religion to the teaching and inspiration of Jesus, and had become inseparable from it. All that he loved–learning, clear and orderly thought, honesty, freedom to express the worship of his heart without its being turned to a mockery by cynical monk, priest, or prelate;–these things directly, and indirectly art itself, seemed to him threatened by the corruption of the Papal power. We must remember this; for we shall naturally feel, as Erasmus did, that the path of martyrdom was really a short cut, which a wider view of the surrounding country would have shown him to be likely to prove the longest way in the end. Indeed the world is not altogether yet arrived where he thought Erasmus could bring it in less than two years. And Luther himself returned to the scene and was active, without any such result, a dozen years and more.

Oh all ye pious Christian men, help me deeply to bewail this man, inspired of God, and to pray Him yet again to send us an enlightened man. Oh Erasmus of Rotterdam, where wilt thou stop? Behold how the wicked tyranny of worldly power, the might of darkness, prevails. Hear, thou knight of Christ! Ride on by the side of the Lord Jesus. Guard the truth. Attain the martyr’s crown. Already indeed art thou a little old man, and myself have heard thee say that thou givest thyself but two years more wherein thou mayest still be fit to accomplish somewhat. Lay out the same well for the good of the Gospel, and of the true Christian faith, and make thyself heard. So, as Christ says, shall the Gates of Hell in no wise prevail against thee. And if here below thou wert to be like thy master Christ, and sufferest infamy at the hands of the liars of this time, and didst die a little sooner, then wouldst thou the sooner pass from death unto life and be glorified in Christ. For if thou drinkest of the cup which He drank of, _with Him shalt thou reign and judge with justice those who_ HAVE _dealt unrighteously_. Oh! Erasmus! cleave to this, that God Himself may be thy praise, even as it is written of David. For thou mayest, yea, verily thou mayest overthrow Goliath. Because God stands by the Holy Christian Church, even as He alone upholds the Roman Church, according to His godly will. May He help us to everlasting salvation, who is God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost, one eternal God! Amen!!

“With Him shalt thou reign and judge with justice those that have dealt unrighteously.” This will seem to many a mere cry for revenge; and so perhaps it was. Still it may have been, as it seems to me to have been, uttered rather in the spirit of Moses’ “Forgive their sin–and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book”; or the “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” of Jesus. If the necessity for victory was uppermost, the opportunity for revenge may scarcely have been present to Dürer’s mind.

It is now more generally recognised than in Luther’s day that however sweet vengeance may be, it is not admirable, either in God or man.

The total impression produced by Dürer’s life and work must help each to decide for himself which sense he considers most likely. The truth, as in most questions of history, remains for ever in the balance, and cannot be ascertained.


I have called docility the necessary midwife of Genius, for so it is; and religion is a discipline that constrains us to learn. The religion of Jesus constrains us to learn the most difficult things, binds us to the most arduous tasks that the mind of man sets itself, as a lover is bound by his affection to accomplish difficult feats for his mistress’ sake. Such tasks as Michael Angelo and Dürer set themselves require that the lover’s eagerness and zest shall not be exhausted; and to keep them fresh and abundant, in spite of cross circumstances, a discipline of the mind and will is required. This is what they found in the worship of Jesus. The influence of this religious hopefulness and self-discipline on the creative power prevents its being exhausted, perverted, or embittered; and in order that it may effect this perfectly, that influence must be abundant not only within the artist, as it was in Michael Angelo and Dürer, but in the world about them.

This, then, is the value of religious influence to creative art: and though we to-day necessarily regard the personages, localities, and events of the creed as coming under the category of “things that are not,” we may still as fervently hope and expect that the things of that category may “bring to nought the things that are,” including the superstitious reverence for the creed and its unprovable statements; for has not the victory in human things often been with the things that were not, but which were thus ardently desired and expected? To inquire which of those things are best calculated to advance and nourish creative power, and in what manner, should engage the artist’s attention far more than it has of late years. For what he loves, what he hopes, and what he expects would seem, if we study past examples, to exercise as important an influence on a man’s creative power as his knowledge of, and respect for, the materials and instruments which he controls do upon his executive capacity.

The universe in which man finds himself may be evil, but not everything it contains is so: then it must for ever remain our only wisdom to labour to transform those parts which we judge to be evil into likeness or conformity to those we judge to be good: and surely he who neglects the forces of hope and adoration in that effort, neglects the better half of his practical strength? The central proposition of Christianity, that this end can only be attained by contemplation and imitation of an example, is, we shall in another place (pp. [305-312]) find, maintained as true in regard to art by Dürer, and by Reynolds, our greatest writer on aesthetics. These great artists, so dissimilar in the outward aspects of their creations, agree in considering that the only way of advancement open to the aspirant is the attempt to form himself on the example of others, by imitating them not slavishly or mechanically, but in the same spirit in which they imitated their forerunners: even as the Christian is bound to seek union with Christ in the same spirit or way in which Jesus had achieved union with his Father–that is, by laying down life to take it again, in meekness and lowliness of heart. Docility is the sovran help to perfection for Dürer and Reynolds, and more or less explicitly for all other great artists who have treated of these questions.


[Footnote 11: Of course all that may have been meant by the phrase “the Evangelist of Art” is that Dürer illustrated the narrative of the Passion; but by this he is not distinguished from many others, and the phrase is suggestive of far more.]

[Footnote 12: Froude’s “Life of Erasmus,” Lecture vi.]

[Footnote 13: Wordsworth’s Translation,]

[Footnote 14: “Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer,” p. 176.]







Who was Dürer? He has told us himself very simply, and more fully than men of his type generally do; for he was not, like Montaigne, one whose chief study was himself. Yet, though he has done this, it is not easy for us to fully understand him. It is perhaps impossible to place oneself in the centre of that horizon which was of necessity his and belonged to his day, a vast circle from which men could no more escape than we from ours; this cage of iron ignorance in which every human soul is trapped, and to widen and enlarge which every heroic soul lives and dies. This cage appeared to his eyes very different from what it does to ours; yet it has always been a cage, and is only lost sight of at times when the light from within seems to flow forth, and with its radiant sapphire heaven of buoyancy and desire to veil the eternal bars. It is well to remind ourselves that ignorance was the most momentous, the most cruel condition of his life, as of our own; and that the effort to relieve himself of its pressure, either by the pursuit of knowledge, or by giving spur and bridle to the imagination that it might course round him dragging the great woof of illusion, and tent him in the ethereal dream of the soul’s desire, was the constant effort and resource of his days.


At the age of fifty-three he took the pen and commenced:

In the year 1524, I, Albrecht Dürer the younger, have put together from my father’s papers the facts as to whence he was, how he came hither, lived here, and drew to a happy end. God be gracious to him and us! Amen.

Like his relatives, Albrecht Dürer the elder was born in the kingdom of Hungary, in a little village named Eytas, situated not far from a little town called Gyula, eight miles below Grosswardein; and his kindred made their living from horses and cattle. My father’s father was called Anton Dürer; he came as a lad to a goldsmith in the said little town and learnt the craft under him. He afterwards married a girl named Elizabeth, who bare him a daughter, Katharina, and three sons. The first son he named Albrecht; he was my dear father. He too became a goldsmith, a pure and skilful man. The second son he called Ladislaus; he was a saddler. His son is my cousin Niklas Dürer, called Niklas the Hungarian, who is settled at Köln. He also is a goldsmith, and learnt the craft here in Nürnberg with my father. The third son he called John. Him he set to study, and he afterwards became a parson at Grosswardein, and continued there thirty years.

So Albrecht Dürer, my dear father, came to Germany. He had been a long time with the great artists in the Netherlands. At last he came hither to Nürnberg in the year, as reckoned from the birth of Christ, 1455, on S. Elogius’ day (June 25). And on the same day Philip Pirkheimer had his marriage feast at the Veste, and there was a great dance under the big lime tree. For a long time after that my dear father, Albrecht Dürer, served my grandfather, old Hieronymus Holper, till the year reckoned 1467 after the birth of Christ. My grandfather then gave him his daughter, a pretty upright girl, fifteen years old, named Barbara; and he was wedded to her eight days before S. Vitus (June 8). It may also be mentioned that my grandmother, my mother’s mother, was the daughter of Oellinger of Weissenburg, and her name was Kunigunde.

And my dear father had by his marriage with my dear mother the following children born–which I set down here word for word as he wrote it in his book:

Here follow eighteen items, only one of which, the third, is of interest.

3. Item, in the year 1471 after the birth of Christ, in the sixth hour of the day, on S. Prudentia’s day, a Tuesday in Rogation Week (May 21), my wife bare me my second son. His godfather was Anton Koburger, and he named him Albrecht after me, &c. &c.

All these, my brothers and sisters, my dear father’s children, are now dead, some in their childhood, others as they were growing up; only we three brothers still live, so long as God will, namely: I, Albrecht, and my brother Andreas and my brother Hans, the third of the name, my father’s children.

This Albrecht Dürer the elder passed his life in great toil and stern hard labour, having nothing for his support save what he earned with his hand for himself, his wife and his children, so that he had little enough. He underwent moreover manifold afflictions, trials, and adversities. But he won just praise from all who knew him, for he lived an honourable, Christian life, was a man of patient spirit, mild and peaceable to all, and very thankful towards God. For himself he had little need of company and worldly pleasures; he was also of few words, and was a God-fearing man.


We shall, I think, often do well, when considering the superb ostentation of Dürer’s workmanship, with its superabundance of curve and flourish, its delight in its own ease and grace, to think of those young men among his ancestors who made their living from horses on the wind-swept plains of Hungary. The perfect control which it is the delight of lads brought up and developing under such conditions to obtain over the galloping steed, is similar to the control which it gratified Dürer to perfect over the dashing stroke of pen or brush, which, however swift and impulsive, is yet brought round and performs to a nicety a predetermined evolution. And the way he puts a little portrait of himself, finely dressed, into his most important pictures, may also carry our thoughts away to the banks of the Danube where it winds and straggles over the steppes, to picture some young horse-breeder, whose costume and harness are his only wealth; who rides out in the morning as the cock-bustard that, having preened himself, paces before the hen birds on the plains that he can scour when his wings, which are slow in the air, join with his strong legs to make nothing of grassy leagues on leagues. And first, this life with its free sweeping horizon, and the swallow-like curves of its gallops for the sake of galloping, or those which the long lashes of its whips trace in deploying, and which remind us of the lithe tendrils in which terminate Dürer’s ornamental flourishes; this life in which the eye is trained to watch the lasso, as with well-calculated address it swirls out and drops over the frighted head of an unbroken colt;–this life is first pent up in a little goldsmith’s shop, in a country even to-day famous for the beauty and originality of its peasant jewelry: and here it is trained to follow and answer the desire of the bright dark eyes of girls in love;–in love, where love and the beauty that inspires it are the gifts of nature most guarded and most honoured, from which are expected the utmost that is conceived of delicacy in delight by a virile and healthy race. “A pure and skilful man.” Patient already has this life become, for a jeweller can scarcely be made of impatient stuff; patient even before the admixture of German blood when Albert the elder married his Barbara Holper. The two eldest sons were made jewellers; but the third, John, is set to study and becomes a parson, as if already learning and piety stood next in the estimation of this life after thrift, skill and the creation of ornament. And Germany boasts of this life beyond that of any of her sons; but her blood was probably of small importance to the efficiency that it attained to in the great Albert Dürer. The German name of Dürer or Thürer, a door, is quite as likely to be the translation, correct or otherwise, of some Hungarian name, as it is an indication that the family had originally emigrated from Germany. In any case, a large admixture by intermarriage of Slavonic blood would correspond to the unique distinction among Germans, attained in the dignity, sweetness and fineness which signalised Dürer. Of course, in such matters no sane man looks for proof; but neither will he reject a probable suggestion which may help us to understand the nature of an exceptional man.


Dürer continues to speak of his childhood:

And my father took special pleasure in me, because he saw that I was diligent to learn. So he sent me to school, and when I had learnt to read and write he took me away from it, and taught me the goldsmith’s craft. But when I could work neatly, my liking drew me rather to painting than to goldsmith’s work, so I laid it before my father; but he was not well pleased, regretting the time lost while I had been learning to be a goldsmith. Still he let it be as I wished, and in 1486 (reckoned from the birth of Christ) on S. Andrew’s day (November 30) my father bound me apprentice to Michael Wolgemut, to serve him three years long. During that time God gave me diligence, so that I learnt well, but I had much to suffer from his lads.

When I had finished my learning my father sent me off, and I stayed away four years till he called me back again. As I had gone forth in the year 1490 after Easter (Easter Sunday was April 11), so now I came back again in 1494 as it is reckoned after Whitsuntide (Whit Sunday was May 18).

Erasmus tells us that German disorders were “partly due to the natural fierceness of the race, partly to the division into so many separate States, and partly to the tendency of the people to serve as mercenaries.” That there were many swaggerers and bullies about, we learn from Dürer’s prints. In every crowd these gentlemen in leathern tights, with other ostentatious additions to their costume, besides poniards and daggers to emphasise the brutal male, strut straddle-legged and self-assured; and of course raw lads and loutish prentices yielded them the sincerest flattery. We can well understand that the model boy, to whom “God had given diligence,” with his long hair lovely as a girl’s, and his consciousness of being nearly always in the right, had much to suffer from his fellow prentices. Besides, very likely, he already consorted with Willibald Pirkheimer and his friends, who were the aristocrats of the town. And though he may have been meek and gentle, there must have appeared in everything he did and was an assertion of superiority, all the more galling for its being difficult to define and as ready to blush as the innocent truth herself.


It is much argued as to where Dürer went when his father “sent him off.” We have the direct statement of a contemporary, Christopher Scheurl, that he visited Colmar and Basle; and what is well nigh as good, for a visit to Venice. For Scheurl wrote in 1508: _Qui quum nuper in Italiam rediset, tum a Venetis, tum a Bononiensibus artificibus, me saepe interprete cansalutatus est alter Apelles._

“When he lately _returned_ to Italy, he was often greeted as a second Apelles, by the craftsmen both of Venice and Bologna (I acting as their interpreter).”

Before we accept any of these statements it is well to remember how easily quite intimate friends make mistakes as to where one has been and when; even about journeys that in one’s own mind either have been or should have been turning-points in one’s life. For they will attribute to the past experiences which were never ours, or forget those which we consider most unforgettable. No one who has paid attention to these facts will consider that historians prove so much or so well as they often fancy themselves to do. In the present case what is really remarkable is, that none of these sojournings of the young artist in foreign art centres seem to have produced such a change in his art as can now be traced with assurance. At Colmar he saw the masterpieces and the brothers of the “admirable Martin,” as he always calls Schongauer. At Basle there is still preserved a cut wood-block representing St. Jerome, on the back of which is an authentic signature; there is besides a series of uncut wood-blocks, the designs on which it is easy to imagine to have been produced by the travelling journeyman that Dürer then seemed to the printers and painters of the towns he passed through. By those processes by which anything can be made of anything, much has been done to give substantiality to the implied first visit to Venice. There are drawings which were probably made there, representing ladies resembling those in pictures by Carpaccio as to their garments, the dressing of their hair, and the type of their faces. Of course it is not impossible that such a lady or ladies may have visited Nuremberg, or been seen by the young wanderer at Basle or elsewhere. And the resemblance between a certain drawing in the Albertina and one of the carved lions in red marble now on the Piazzetta de’ Leoni does not count for much, when we consider that there is nothing in the workmanship of these heads to suggest that they were done after sculptured originals;–the manes, &c., being represented by an easy penman’s convention, as they might have been whether the models were living or merely imagined. Nor is there any good reason for dating the drawings of sites in the Tyrol, supposed to have been sketched on the road, rather this year than another. Lastly, the famous sentence in a letter written from Venice during Dürer’s authenticated visit there, in 1506, may be construed in more than one sense. The passage is generally rather curtailed when quoted.

He (Giovanni Bellini) is very old, but is still the best painter of them all. The thing that pleased me so well eleven years ago, pleases me now no more; if I had not seen it for myself, I should never have believed any one who told me. You must know, too, that there are many better painters here than Master Jacob (Jacopo de’ Barbari) is abroad; yet Anton Kolb would swear an oath that no better painter than Jacob lives.

If “the thing that pleased so well eleven years before” was a picture or pictures by Master Jacob or by Andrea Mantegna, as is usually supposed, the phrase, “If I had not seen it for myself I should never have believed any one who told me” is extremely strange. It is not usual to expect to change one’s opinion of a work of art by hearsay, or to imagine others, when they have not done so, predicting with assurance that we shall change a decided opinion upon the merits of a work of art; yet one of these two suppositions seems certainly to be implied. I do not say that it is impossible to conceive of either, only that such cursory reference to such conceptions is extremely strange. Again, if work by Jacopo de’ Barbari is referred to, it might very well have been seen elsewhere than at Venice eleven years ago; and indeed the last sentence in the passage might be taken to imply as much. To me at least the truth appears to be that these hints, which we may well have misunderstood, point to something which the imagination is only too delighted to entertain. It is a charming dream–the young Dürer, just of age, trudging from town to town, designing wood-blocks for a printer here, questioning the brothers of the “admirable Martin” there, or again painting a sign in yet another place, such as Holbein painted for the schoolmaster at Basle; and at last arriving in Venice–Venice untouched as yet by the conflicting ideals that were even then being brought to birth anew: Mediaeval Venice, such as we see her in the pictures of Gentile Bellini and Carpaccio. One painting of real importance in the work of Dürer remains to us from this period: the greatest of modern critics has described it and its effect on him in a way which would make any second attempt impertinent.

I consider as invaluable Albrecht Dürer’s portrait of himself painted in 1493, when he was in his twenty-second year. It is a bust half life-size, showing the two hands and the forearms. Crimson cap with short narrow strings, the throat bare to below the collar bone, an embroidered shirt, the folds of the sleeves tied underneath with peach-coloured ribbons, and a blue-grey, fur-edged cloak with yellow laces, compose a dainty dress befitting a well-bred youth. In his hand he significantly carries a blue _eryngo_, called in German “Mannstreu.” He has a serious, youthful face, the mouth and chin covered with an incipient beard. The whole splendidly drawn, the composition simple, grand and harmonious; the execution perfect and in every way worthy of Dürer, though the colour is very thin, and has cracked in some places.

Such is the figure which we may imagine making its way among the crowd in Gentile Bellini’s Procession of the “True Cross” before St. Mark’s, with eyes all wonder and lips often consciously imprisoning the German tongue, which cannot make itself understood. How comes he so finely dressed, the son of the modest Nuremberg goldsmith? Has he won the friendship of some rich burgher prince at Augsburg, or Strasburg, or Basle? Has he been enabled to travel in his suite as far as Venice? Or has he earned a large sum for painting some lord’s or lady’s portrait, which, if it were not lost, would now stand as the worthy compeer of this splendid portrait of the “true man” far from home; true to that home only, or true to Agnes Frey?–for some suppose the sprig of eryngo to signify that he was already betrothed to her. Or perhaps he has joined Willibald Pirkheimer at Basle or elsewhere, and they two, crossing the Alps together, have become friends for life? Will they part here ere long, the young burgher prince to proceed to the Universities of Padua and Mantua, the future great painter to trudge back over the Alps, getting a lift now and again in waggon or carriage or on pillion? Let the man of pretentious science say it is bootless to ask such questions; those who ask them know that it is delightful; know that it is the true way to make the past live for them; guess that would historians more generally ask them, their books would be less often dry as dust.


It may be that to this period belongs the meeting with Jacopo de’ Barbari to which a passage in his MS. books (now in the British Museum) refers: and that already he began to be exercised on the subject of a canon of proportions for the human figure. In the chapter which I devote to his studies on this subject it will be seen how the determination to work the problem out by experiment, since Jacopo refused to reveal, and Vitruvius only hinted at the secret, led to his discovering something of far more value than it is probable that either could have given him. And yet the belief that there was a hidden secret probably hindered him from fully realising the importance of his discovery, or reaping such benefit from it as he otherwise might have done. How often has not the belief that those of old time knew what is ignored to-day, prevented men from taking full advantage of the conquests over ignorance that they have made themselves! Because what they know is not so much as they suppose might be or has been known, they fail to recognise the most that has yet been known–the best foundation for a new building that has yet been discovered–and search for what they possess, and fail to rival those whose superiority over themselves is a delusion of their own hearts. So early Dürer may have begun this life-long labour which, though not wholly vain, was never really crowned to the degree it merited: while others living in more fertile lands reaped what they had not sown, he could only plough and scatter seed. As Raphael is supposed to have said, all that was lacking to him was knowledge of the antique.

Perhaps many will blame me for writing, unlearned, as I am; in my opinion they are not wrong; they speak truly. For I myself had rather hear and read a learned man and one famous in this art than write of it myself, being unlearned. Howbeit I can find none such who hath written aught about how to form a canon of human proportions, save one man, Jacopo (de’ Barbari) by name, born at Venice and a charming painter. He showed me the figures of a man and woman, which he had drawn according to a canon of proportions; and now I would rather be shown what he meant (_i.e._, upon what principles the proportions were constructed) than behold a new kingdom. If I had it (his canon), I would put it into print in his honour, for the use of all men. Then, however, I was still young and had not heard of such things before. Howbeit I was very fond of art, so I set myself to discover how such a canon might be wrought out. For this aforesaid Jacopo, as I clearly saw, would not explain to me the principles upon which he went. Accordingly I set to work on my own idea and read Vitruvius, who writes somewhat about the human figure. Thus it was from, or out of, these two men aforesaid that I took my start, and thence, from day to day, have I followed up my search according to my own notions.


When I returned home, Hans Prey treated with my father and gave me his daughter, Mistress Agnes by name, and with her he gave me two hundred florins, and we were wedded; it was on Monday before Margaret’s (July 7) in the year 1494.

The general acceptance of the gouty and irascible Pirkheimer’s defamation of Frau Dürer as a miser and a shrew called forth a display of ingenuity on the part of Professor Thausing to prove the contrary. And I must confess that if he has not quite done that, he seems to me to have very thoroughly discredited Pirkheimer’s ungallant abuse. Sir Martin Conway bids us notice that Dürer speaks of his “dear father” and his “dear mother” and even of his “dear father-in-law,” but that he never couples that adjective with his wife’s name. It is very dangerous to draw conclusions from such a fact, which may be merely an accident: or may, if it represents a habit of Dürer’s, bear precisely the opposite significance. For some men are proud to drop such outward marks of affection, in cases where they know that every day proves to every witness that they are not needed. He also considers that her portraits show her, when young, to have been “empty-headed,” when older, a “frigid shrew.” For my own part, if the portrait at Bremen (see opposite) represents “mein Angnes,” as its resemblance to the sketch at Vienna (see illus.) convinces me it does, I cannot accept either of these conclusions arrived at by the redoubtable science of physiognomy. The Bremen portrait shows us a refined, almost an eccentric type of beauty; one can easily believe it to have been possessed by a person of difficult character, but one certainly who must have had compensating good qualities. The “mein Angnes” on the sketch may well be set against the absent “dears” in the other mentions her husband made of her, especially when we consider that he couples this adjective with the Emperor’s name, “my dear Prince Max.” Of her relations to him nothing is known except what Pirkheimer wrote in his rage, when he was writing things which are demonstrably false. We know, however, that she was capable, pious, and thrifty; and on several occasions, in the Netherlands, shared in the honours done to her husband. It is natural to suppose that as they were childless, there may have existed a moral equivalent to this infertility; but also, with a man such as we know Dürer to have been, and a woman in every case not bad, have we not reason to expect that this moral barrenness which may have afflicted their union was in some large measure conquered by mutual effort and discipline, and bore from time to time those rarer flowers whose beauty and sweetness repay the conscious culture of the soul? It seems difficult to imagine that a man who succeeded in charming so many different acquaintances, and in remaining life-long friends with the testy and inconsiderate Pirkheimer, should have altogether failed to create a relation kindly and even beautiful with his Agnes, whose portrait we surely have at her best in the drawing at Bremen. Considerations as to the general position of married women in those days need not prevent us of our natural desire to think as well as possible of Dürer and his circumstances. We know that for a great many men the wife was not simply counted among their goods and chattels, or regarded as a kind of superior servant. We are able to take a peep at many a fireside of those days, where the relations that obtained, however different in certain outward characters, might well shame the greater number of the respectable even in the present year of grace. We know what Luther was in these respects; and have rather more than less reason to expect from the refined and gracious Dürer the creation of a worthy and kindly home. Why should we expect him to have been less successful than his parents in these respects?

[Illustration: AGNES FREY. DÜRER’S WIFE (?)–Silver-point drawing heightened with white on a dun paper. Kunsthalle, Bremen]

[Illustration: “MEIN ANGNES”–Pen sketch of the artist’s wife, in the Albertina at Vienna]


Some time after the marriage it happened that my father was so ill with dysentery that no one could stop it. And when he saw death before his eyes he gave himself willingly to it, with great patience, and he commended my mother to me, and exhorted me to live in a manner pleasing to God. He received the Holy Sacraments and passed away Christianly (as I have described at length in another book) in the year 1502, after midnight, before S. Matthew’s eve (September 20). God be gracious and merciful to him.

The only leaf of the “other book” referred to that has survived is that which I have already quoted at length.