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and the pictures he saw at Venice, and yet again by those he saw in the Netherlands. As Velasquez, after each of his journeys to Italy, returns to attempt a mythological picture in the grand style, so Dürer turns to painting after his return from Venice or from the Netherlands; and his pictures divide themselves into three groups: those painted after or during his _Wanderjahre_ and before he went to Venice in 1505, those painted there and during the next five years after his return, and those painted in the Netherlands or commenced immediately on his return thence.


The mediums of oil and tempera lend themselves to the production of broad-coloured surfaces that merge imperceptibly into one another. There are men the fundamental unit of whose picture language is a blot or shape; as children or as savages, they would find these most capable of expressing what they saw. There are others for whom the scratch or line is the fundamental unit, for whom every object is most naturally expressed by an outline. There are, of course, men who present us with every possible blend of these two fundamental forms of picture language.

The mediums of oils and tempera are especially adapted to the requirements of those who see things rather as a diaper of shapes than as a map of lines; while for these last the point of pen, burin, or etching-needle offers the most congenial implement. Dürer was very greatly more inclined to express objects by a map of lines than as a diaper of coloured shapes; and for this reason I say that he was not a painter born. If this be true, as a painter he must have been at a disadvantage. In this preponderance of the draughtsman qualities he resembles many artists of the Florentine school, as also in his theoretic pre-occupation with perspective, proportion, architecture, and technical methods. We are impressed by a coldness of approach, an austerity, a dignity not altogether justified by the occasion, but as it were carried over from some precedent hour of spiritual elevation; the prophet’s demeanour in between the days of visitation, a little too consciously careful not to compromise the divinity which informs him no longer. This tendency to fall back on manner greatly acquired indeed, but no longer consonant with the actual mood, which is really too vacant of import to parade such importance, is often a fault of natures whose native means of expression is the thin line, the geometer’s precision, the architect’s foresight in measurement. And by allowing for it I think we can explain the contradiction apparent between the critics’ continual insistence on what they call Dürer’s great thoughts, and the sparsity of intellectual creativeness which strikes one in turning over his engravings, so many are there of which either the occasion or the conception are altogether trivial when compared with the grandiose aspect of the composition or the impeccable mechanical performance. Dürer’s literary remains sufficiently prove his mind to have been constantly exercised upon and around great thoughts, and their influence may be felt in the austerity and intensity of his noblest portraits and other creations. But “great thoughts” in respect of works of art either means the communication of a profound emotion by the creation of a suitable arabesque for a deeply significant subject, as in the flowing masses of Michael Angelo’s _Creation of Man_, or it means the pictorial enhancing of the telling incidents of a dramatic situation such as we find it in Rembrandt’s treatment of the Crucifixion, Deposition, or Entombment. Now it seems to me the paucity of successes on these lines in one who nevertheless occasionally entirely succeeds, is what is most striking in Dürer. Perhaps when dealing with the graphic arts one should rather speak of great character than great thoughts; yet Dürer, while constantly impressing us as a great character, seems to be one who was all too rarely wholly himself. The abundant felicity in expression of Rembrandt or Shakespeare is altogether wanting. The imperial imposition of mood which Michael Angelo affects is perhaps never quite certainly his, even in the _Melancholy_. Yet we feel that not only has he a capacity of the same order as those men, but that he is spiritually akin to them, despite his coldness, despite his ostentation.

But not only is Dürer praised for “great thoughts,” but he is praised for realism, and sometimes accused of having delighted in ugliness; or, as it is more cautiously expressed, of having preferred truth to grace. This is a point which I consider may better be discussed in respect to his drawings than his pictures, which nearly always have some obvious conventional or traditional character, so that the word realism cannot be applied to them. Even in his portraits his signature or an inscription is often added in such a manner as insists that this is a painting, a panel;–not a view through a window, or an attempt to deceive the eye with a make-believe reality.


The altar-piece, consisting of a centre, the Virgin Mary adoring her baby son in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth, and two wings, St. Anthony and St. Sebastian, though the earliest of Dürer’s pictures which has survived, is perhaps the most beautiful of them all, at least as far as the two wings are concerned. The centre has been considerably damaged by repainting, and was probably, owing to the greater complication of motives in it, never quite so successful. Whether at Venice or elsewhere, it would seem almost necessary that the young painter had seen and been impressed by pictures by Gentile Bellini and Andrea Mantegna, both of whom have painted in the same thin tempera on fine canvas, obtaining similar beauties of colour and surface. It is hardly possible to imagine one who had seen none but German or Flemish pictures painting the St. Sebastian. The treatment of the still life in the foreground is in itself almost a proof of this. Perhaps this thin, flat tempera treatment was that most suited to Dürer’s native bias, and we should regret his having been tempted to overcome the more brilliant and exacting medium of oils. In any case he more than once reverted to it in portraits and studies, while the majority of the pictures painted before he went to Venice in 1506 have more or less kinship with it. The supposed portrait of Frederic the Wise is another masterpiece in this kind, and the _Hercules slaying the birds of the Stymphalian Lake_ in the Germanic Museum, Nuremberg, 1500, was probably another. For though now considerably damaged by restorations and dirt, it suggests far greater pleasures than it actually imparts. The contrast between

“The sea-worn face sad as mortality, Divine with yearning after fellowship,”

and the blond richly curling hair blown back from it, is extremely fine and entirely suited to the treatment; as is also the similar contrast between the richly inlaid bow, shield, and arrows, and the broad and flowing modulation of the energetic limbs and back.

The Paumgartner altar-piece, 1499, stands out from the “ordinary pictures” belonging to this early period. It consists of a charming and gay Nativity in the centre, and two knights in armour on the wings, probably portraits of the donors, Stephan and Lucas Paumgartner, figuring as warlike saints. Stephan, a personal friend of Dürer’s, figured again as St. George in the _Trinity and All Saints_ picture painted in 1511. There were originally two panels with female saints beyond these again, but no trace of them remains. Now that the landscape backgrounds have been removed from the side panels, there is no reason to suppose that any one but Dürer had a hand in these works. But in writing to Heller, he tells him that it was unheard of to put so much work into an altar-piece as he was then putting into his _Coronation of the Virgin_, and we may feel certain that Dürer regarded this picture as in the altar-piece category. The two knights are represented against black grounds, and their silhouettes form a very fine arabesque, which the streamers of their lances, artificially arranged, complete and emphasise. This black ground points probably to the influence of Jacopo de’ Barbari, whom Dürer had met and been mystified by. (See p. 63.)

[Illustration: ST. GEORGE AND ST. EUSTACE Side panels in oils of the Paumgartner Altar-piece in the Alt Pinakothek, Munich]

No doubt there was much in such a background that appealed to the draughtsman in Dürer. It insisted on the outline which had probably been the starting-point of his conception. Nothing could be less painter-like, or make the modelling of figures more difficult, as Dürer, perhaps, realised when he later on painted the _Adam and Eve_ at Madrid. These two warriors are, however, most successful and imposing, and immeasurably enhanced now that the spurious backgrounds, artfully concocted out of Dürer’s own prints by an ingenious improver of his betters, have been removed. This person had also tinkered the centre picture, painting out two heraldic groups of donors, far smaller in scale than the actual personages of the scene, but very useful in the composition, as giving a more ample base to the masses of broken and fretted quality; useful also now as an additional proof of how free from the fetters of an impertinent logic of realism Dürer ever was. These little kneeling donors and their coats of arms emphasise the surface, and are delightful in their naïvety, while they serve to render the gay, almost gaudy panel more homely, and give it a place and a function in the world. For they help us to realise that it answered a demand, and was not the uncalled-for and slightly frigid excursion of the aesthetic imagination which it must otherwise appear. In the same way the brilliant _Adoration of the Magi_ (dated 1504) in the Uffizi, also somewhat gaudy and frigid, could we but see it where it originally hung in Luther’s church at Wittenberg, might invest itself with some charm that one vainly seeks in it now. The failure in emotion might seem more natural if we saw the wise Elector discussing his new purchase; we might have felt what Dürer meant when a year later he wrote from Venice: “I am a gentleman here and only a hanger-on at home.” The expectation and prophecy of his success in those who surround a painter,–even if it be chiefly expressed by bitter rivalry, or the craft by which one greedy purchaser tries to over-reach another, even if he has to be careful not to eat at some tables for fear of being poisoned by a host whose ambition his present performance may have dashed–even expressed in this truly Venetian manner, the expectation and prophecy of his success in those about him make it easier for a painter to soar, and may touch his work with an indefinable glow that the approval of honest and astute electors or solid burghers may have been utterly powerless to impart.


At Venice, perhaps the occasion for his journey thither, Dürer undertook a more important work than any he had yet attempted. _The Feast of the Rose Garlands_ was painted for the high altar of the church of San Bartolommeo, belonging to the German Merchants’ Exchange, and close to their Pondaco.[73] In it we find a very considerable influence of Italy in general, and Giovanni Bellini in particular; it is a splendid and pompous parade piece, and probably the portraits of the German merchants which it contained were the part of the work which was most successful, as it was certainly that most congenial to Dürer’s genius. The _Christ among the Doctors_, dated 1506, and now in the Barberini Palace at Rome, might seem to have been painted chiefly to justify Giovanni Bellini’s astonishment at the calligraphical painting of hair. It is one of those pictures of which a literary description would please more than the work itself. Though the contrast between the sweet childish face and those of the old worldly scribes is well conceived, it is in reality so violent as to be grotesque, and the play of hands produces the effect of a diagram explanatory of a conjuring trick, or a deaf and dumb alphabet, instead of conveying the inner sense of the scene represented after Rossetti’s fashion, who so often succeeded in making hands speak. Another work, which dates from Venice, is the little _Crucifixion_ (at Dresden.) Perhaps the landscape and suffering body are just sufficiently touched with acute emotion to make the arabesque of the two floating ends of the loin-cloth appear a little out of place; for in spite of the delicacy and all but tenderness which Dürer has for once attained to in the workmanship, one’s satisfaction seems let and hindered.


Shortly after his return from Venice, Dürer completed two life-size panels representing Adam and Eve; there are drawings for them dated during his stay at Venice, but as a work of art they are far less interesting than the engraving of the same subject completed three years earlier. The treatment, even the conception, has been inadequately influenced by the proposed scale of the work. Probably they were like the earlier Hercules, done to please the artist himself rather than some patron; they are an effort to prove that he could do something which was after all too hard for him. Not only had he set himself the problem which the Greeks and Michael Angelo, and Raphael with their aid alone, had solved, of finding proportions suitable to express harmoniously the infinite capacity for complex motion combined with that constancy of intention which gives dignity to men and women alone among animals; but the technical problems involved in representing life-size nude figures against a plain black ground were indeed an unconscious confession that Dürer did not understand paint. There is a copy of these panels, recently attributed to Baldung Grien, in the Pitti. Animals and birds have been added from drawings made by Dürer, but the picture is still farther from success, though Grien may not improbably have executed it with Dürer at his elbow. Dürer made one more attempt at representing a life-size nude, the _Lucretia_, finished in 1518, at a period when his powers seem to have been clouded, for the few pictures which belong to it are all inferior. However, studies for the figure exist dated 1508, so we may suppose it was a project brought back from Venice. His ill-success with this subject may remind us of Shakespeare’s long pedantic exercise in rhyme on the same theme. The pictorial motive of Dürer’s work is beautiful and worthy of a Greek: indeed it is identical with that of Watts’ _Psyche_, of which the version in private hands is very superior to that in the Tate Gallery. The position of the bed, the idea of the draperies all are parallel. No doubt the lonely feather shed from Love’s wing at which Psyche gazes is both more of a poet’s and of a painter’s invention than the cold steel of Lucretia’s dagger. And in spite of his wide knowledge of Greek and Italian art, our English master could scarcely have produced a work of such classic dignity with the more violent motive of the dagger, which seems to call for “The torch that flames with many a lurid flake,” or at least the torpid glow of smouldering embers, to light it in such a manner as would make a really pictorial treatment possible. No doubt Dürer has been misled by a too tyrannous notion as to what ought to be the physical build of so chaste a matron, and in his anxiety to make chastity self-evident, has forgotten to explain the need for it by such a degree of attractiveness as might tempt a tyrant to be dangerous. Just as Shakespeare, in attempting to exhaust every possible motive which the situation comports, has forgotten that for a character that can move us a selection is needed. Another elaborate piece of frigid invention is the _Massacre of the Ten Thousand Saints in the reign of Sapor II. of Persia_, in the Imperial Gallery at Vienna, dated 1508. However, in this case no doubt Dürer could plead that the subject was not of his own choice, for he was commissioned by the Elector, Frederic the Wise, whose wisdom probably did not extend to a knowledge of what subjects lend themselves to pictorial treatment. Still, making every allowance for these facts, it cannot be admitted that Dürer did the best possible with his subject. Probably it did not move him, and neither does he us. Peter Breughel and Albrecht Altdorfer would certainly have done far better so far as the conception of the picture is concerned, though neither of them had so much skill to waste on its realisation. Nevertheless, this tour _de force_ is the picture of Dürer’s most pleasing in surface and colour, with the exception of the Wings _of the Dresden Altar-piece_. It contains beautiful groups and figures, and is extremely well executed; so that it may amuse and delight the eye for a long time while the significance of the subject is forgotten.

[Illustration: THE MARTYRDOM OF TEN THOUSAND SAINTS UNDER SAPOR II. OF PERSIA–Oil picture. “Iste faciebat anno domini 1508 Albertus Dürer Alemanus”]


We now turn to the third and fourth of the half-dozen pictures of Dürer, which stand out from all the rest by their elaboration and importance. The _Coronation of the Virgin (see_ p. 97), painted as the centre panel of the altar-piece commissioned by Jacob Heller at Frankfort, was unfortunately burnt with the palace at Munich on the night of April 9, 1674; the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria having forced or cajoled the Dominicans, to whose church Heller had left it, to sell it to him. It is now represented by a copy made by Paul Juvenal in its original position, where the almost ruined portraits of Heller and his wife are supposed to have been partly Dürer’s, though the other panels are obviously the work of assistants. This work exists for us in a series of magnificent brush drawings in black and white line on grey paper, rather than in the copy, and we can in a measure imagine its appearance by the perfectly- preserved _Trinity and All Saints_ commenced immediately after it for Matthew Landauer, and now in the Imperial Gallery at Vienna. Nothing can surpass this last picture in elaboration and finish; the colour, if not beautiful, is rich and luminous; and though it is separate faces and draperies which chiefly delight the eye, the composition of the whole is an adequate adaptation of the traditional treatment for such themes which had been handed down through the middle ages. It invites comparison rather with the similar subjects painted by Fra Angelico than with the _Disputa_ of Raphael, to which German critics compare it; however, it possesses as little of Angelico’s sweet blissfulness as the Dominican painter possessed of Dürer’s accuracy of hand and searching intensity of visual realisation. Both painters are interested in individuals, and, representing crowds of faces, make every one a portrait; both evince a dramatic sense of propriety in gesture, both revel in bright, clear colours, especially azure; but as the light in Dürer’s masterpiece has a rosy hotness, which ill bears comparison with the virginal pearliness of Angelico’s heaven, so the costumes and the figures of the Florentine are doll-like, when compared with the unmistakable quality of the stuffs in which the fully-resurrected bodies of Dürer’s saints rumple and rustle. The wings of his angels are at least those of birds, though coloured to fancy, while Angelico’s are of pasteboard tinsel and paint. But in spite of the comparative genuineness of his upholstery, as a vision of heaven there can be no hesitation in preferring that of the Florentine.

In a frame designed by Dürer and carved under his supervision, this monument to thoroughness and skill was ensconced in a little chapel dedicated to All Saints, which in style approaches our Tudor buildings. There the frame remained till lately with a poor copy of the picture and an inscription in old German to this effect: (‘Matthew Landauer completed the dedication of this chapel of the twelve brethren, together with the foundation attached to it, and this picture, in the year 1511 after the birth of Christ,’)

Dürer signed his picture with the same Latin formula as that of the _Coronation_:

“Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg did this the year from when the Virgin brought forth 1511.”


Of all Dürer’s paintings of the Madonna, there is only one which, by its superb design, deserves special notice among his masterpieces. This _Madonna with the Iris_ exists in two versions, both unfinished; one the property of Sir Frederick Cook, the other at Prague, in the Rudolphium. This latter Mr. Campbell Dodgson considers to be a poor copy. The panel is badly cracked, and weeds and long grasses have been added, apparently with a view to masking the cracks. Judging from a photograph alone, many of these additions seem so appropriately placed and freely sketched that I feel it at least to be possibly a work by the master himself. On the other hand, Sir Frederick’s picture is so sleepy and clumsy in handling, that though it is unfinished, and perhaps in part damaged by some restorer, I feel great hesitation in regarding it as Dürer’s handiwork. In both cases the magnificent design is his, and that alone in either is fully representative of him. Mr. Campbell Dodgson ventures to criticise the profusion of drapery as excessive, but my feeling, I must confess, endorses Dürer’s in this, rather than that of his learned critic. To me this profusion, and the grandeur it gives as a mass in the design, is of the very essence of what is most peculiarly creative in Dürer’s imagination.

The last picture of which it is necessary to speak is that of the _Four Apostles_ or the _Four Preachers_, as they have been more appropriately called; it was perhaps the last he painted, and is in many respects the most successful. It is the only one by which the comparison with Raphael, so dear to German critics, seems at all warranted: there is certainly some kinship between Dürer’s St. John and St. Paul and apostolic figures in the cartoons or on the Vatican walls. The German artist’s manner is less rhetorical, but his conception is hardly less grandiose; and his taste does not so closely border on over-emphasis, but neither is it so conscious or so fluent. Technically it seems to me that the chief influence is a recollection of the large canvases of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck and Hubert Van der Goes which Dürer had admired in the Netherlands; these had strengthened and directed the bias of his self-culture towards simple masses on a large scale.[74] He may very well have sought to combine what he learnt from them with hints he found in the engravings after Raphael which he obtained in Antwerp. His increasing sickness may probably account for the fact that the white mantle of St. Paul is the only portion quite finished. The assertion of the writing-master, Johann Neudörffer, who in his youth had known Dürer, that the four figures are typical of the four temperaments, the sanguine, the choleric, the phlegmatic, and the melancholic,–into which categories an amateurish psychology arbitrarily divided human characters,–is as likely to be correct as it is certain that it adds nothing to the power and beauty of the presentation. Though Dürer in his work on human proportions describes the physical build of these different types, we do not know exactly what degree of precision he imagined it possible to attain in discerning them, or to what extent their names were merely convenient handles for certain types which he had chosen æsthetically. To us to-day this classification is merely a trace of an obsolete pedantry, which it would be a vain curiosity to attempt to follow with the object of identifying its imaginary bases.

The four preachers have all the air of being striking likenesses of actual people which it is possible for work so broadly and grandly conceived to have. These panels are interesting, even more than by their actual success, as showing us what a scholar Dürer was to the end; how he learned from every defeat as well as every victory, and constantly approached a conception and a rendering of human beauty which seems intimately connected with man’s fullest intellectual and spiritual freedom–a conception and rendering of human beauty which Raphael himself had to learn from the Greeks and Michael Angelo. The work has suffered, it is supposed, from restorers, and also from the Munich monarch, Maximilian, who had the tremendous texts (see page 177) which Dürer had inscribed beneath the two panels sawn off in order to spare the feelings of the Jesuits, who were dominant at his court, for their conception of religion did not consist with terrors to come for those who, abuse their trust as governors and directors of mankind.

Lastly, mention must be made of Dürer’s monochrome masterpiece, The Road to Calvary 15.27 (see illus.), in the collection of Sir Frederick Cook. A poor copy of this work is at Dresden, a better one at Bergamo. The effect of it, and several elaborate water-colour designs of the same class, is akin to the peculiar richness of chased metal work; glinting light hovers over crowds of little figures.


[Footnote 73: The original, now in the Monastery of Strahow-Prague, is very much damaged, and in part repainted. There are copies in the Imperial Gallery at Vienna (No. 1508), and in the possession of A. W. Miller, Esq., of Sevenoaks. It is to be regretted that the Dürer Society published a photogravure of this latter work, which, though till then unknown, is far less interesting than the original, of which they only gave a reproduction in the text, an exhaustive history of its fortunes from the learned pen of Mr. Cambell Dodgson. This picture, which is so frequently referred to in the letters from Venice, contains portraits of the Emperor Maximilian and Pope Julius II., though neither of them from life, and in the background those of Dürer and Pirkheimer.]

[Footnote 74: See what Melanchthon says, p. 187.]




If Dürer’s pictures are as a whole the least satisfactory section of his work, in his portraits he makes us abundant amends for the time he might otherwise have been reproached for wasting to obtain a vain mastery over brushes and pigment.

Unfortunately it is probable that many even of these have been lost or destroyed, while of his most interesting sitters we have nothing but drawings. He did not paint his friend, the boisterous and learned Pirkheimer; and what would we not give for a painted portrait of Erasmus, or a portrait of Kratzer, the astronomer royal, to compare with the two masterpieces by Holbein in the Louvre? Even the posthumous portrait of his Imperial patron Maximilian is less interesting than the drawings from which it was done, the eccentric sitter not having the time to spare for so sensible a monument.

[Illustration: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST Pen drawing in dark brown ink at Erlangen (This drawing has been cut down for reproduction)]


However, Dürer had one sitter who was perhaps the most beautiful of all the sons of men, whose features combined in an equal measure nobleness of character, intellectual intensity and physical beauty; and, finding him also most patient and accessible, he painted him frequently. The two earliest portraits of himself are the drawings which show him at the ages of thirteen and nineteen(?) respectively (see illustration). Then, as a young man with a sprouting chin, we have the picture till recently at Leipzig of which Goethe’s enthusiastic description has already been quoted (p. 62). It is probable that neither Titian nor Holbein could have shown at so early an age a portrait so admirably conceived and executed. It is a masterpiece, even now that the inevitable improvements which those who lack all relish of genius rarely lack the opportunity, never the inclination, to add to a masterpiece, have confused the drawing of the eyes, and reduced the bloom and delicacy that the features traced by a master hand, even when they become an almost complete wreck, often retain; for time and fortune are not so conscientiously destructive as the imbecility of the incapable. Next we have a portrait of Dürer when only five years older, in perfect preservation,–that in the Prado at Madrid. This charming picture must certainly have drawn a sonnet from the Shakespeare who wrote _Love’s Labour Lost_, could he have seen it. For it presents a young dandy, the delicacy and sensitiveness of whose features seem to demand and warrant the butterfly-like display of the white and black costume hemmed with gold, and of a cap worthy to crown those flowing honey-coloured locks. There is a good copy of this delightful work in the Uffizi, where, in a congregation of self-painted artists, it does all but justice to the most beautiful of them all. For fineness of touch the original has never been surpassed by any hand of European or even Chinese master. Next there are the dapper little full-length portraits which Dürer inserted in his chief paintings. He stands beside his friend Pirkheimer at the back of the adoring crowd in the _Feast of the Roses_, and again in the midst of the mountain slope, where on all sides of them the ten thousand saints suffer martyrdom. Dürer stands alone beside an inscription in a gentle pastoral landscape beneath the vision of the Virgin’s Assumption seen over the heads of the Apostles, who gaze up in rapture; and again he is alone beside a broad peaceful river beneath the vision of the Holy Trinity and All Saints. I know of no parallel to these little portraits. Rembrandt and Botticelli and many others have introduced portraits of themselves into religious pictures, but always in disguise, as a personage in the crowd or an actor in the scene. Only the master who was really most exceptional for his good looks, has had the kindness, in spite of every incongruity, to present himself before us on all important occasions, like the court beauty in whom it is charity rather than vanity to appear in public. It is expected that the very beautiful be gracious thus. Emerson tells us that two centuries ago the Town Council of Montpelier passed a law to constrain two beautiful sisters to sit for a certain time on their balcony every other day, that all might enjoy the sight of what was most beautiful in their town. It was one of the most gracious traits of Jeanne d’Arc’s character that she liked to wear beautiful clothes, because it pleased the poor people to see her thus. And Palm Sunday commemorates another historical example of such grace and truth. Dürer’s face had a striking resemblance to the traditional type for Jesus, adding to it just that element of individual peculiarity, the absence of which makes it ever liable to appear a little vacant and unconvincing. The perception of this would seem to have dictated the general arrangement of Dürer’s crowning portrait of himself, that at Munich dated 1500 (see illus.), “Before which” (Mr. Ricketts writes in his recently published volume on the Prado) “one forgets all other portraits whatsoever, in the sense that this perfect realisation of one of the world’s greatest men is equal to the occasion.” The most exhaustive visual power and executive capacity meet in this picture, which would seem to have traversed the many perils to which it has been exposed without really suffering so much as their enumeration makes one expect. Thausing tells us:

The following is the story of the picture’s wanderings, as told at Nuremberg. It was lent by the magistrates, after they had taken the precaution of placing a seal and strings on the back of the panel, to the painter and engraver Kügner, to copy. He, however, carefully sawed the panel in half (layer-wise) and glued to the authentic back his miserable copy, which now hangs in the Town Hall. The original he sold, and it eventually came into the possession of King Ludwig I., before Nuremberg belonged to Bavaria.

[Illustration: _Hanfstaengl_ “I, Albert Dürer of Nuremberg, painted my own portrait here in the proper colours at the age of twenty-eight” Oil-painting. Alt Pinakothek, Munich]

He suggests that the colour was once bright and varied, and that by varnish and glazes it has been reduced to its present harmonious condition. The hair is certainly much darker than the other portraits would have led one to expect, and the almost walnut brown of the general colour scheme is unique in Dürer’s work. However, if some such transmogrification has been effected, it is marvellous that it should have obliterated so little of the inimitable handiwork of the master. Thausing considered the date (1500), monogram and inscription on the back to be forgeries, and it certainly looks as if it ought to come nearer to the portrait in the _Feast of the Rose Garlands_ (1506) than to that at Madrid (1498). A genuine scalloped tablet is faintly visible under the dark glazes which cover the background; and this, no doubt, bears the original inscription and date. What may not have happened to a picture after or before it left the artist’s studio? Critics are too quick to determine that such changes have been introduced by others. In this case we must remember how experimental Dürer was, even with regard to his engravings on metal. He tries iron plates and etching, and finally settles on a method of commencing with etching and finishing with the burin; and this was in a medium in which he soon found himself at home. But with painting he was vastly more experimental, and never satisfied with his results, as he told Melanchthon (see p. 187). Then we must remember that this picture probably was during Dürer’s lifetime, if not in his own possession, at least never out of his reach; and no doubt he was aware that it was the grandest and most perfectly finished of all his portraits–therefore, as he came more and more, especially after his visit to the Netherlands, to desire and seek after simplicity, he may himself have added the dark glazes. If the original inscription contained a dedication to Pirkheimer or some other notable Nuremberger, there was every reason for the artist who stole the picture to obliterate this and add a new one: or this may have been done when it became the property of the town, for those who sold it may have wished that it should not be known that it might have been an heirloom in their family. Infinite are the possibilities, those only decide in such cases who have a personal motive for doing so; “la rage de conclure” (as Flaubert saw) is the pitfall of those who are vain of their knowledge.

[Illustration: OSWOLT KREL Oil portrait in the Alt Pinakothek at Munich]

[Illustration: _By permission_ of the “_Burlington_ Magazine” ALBERT DÜRER THE ELDER, 1497 National Gallery]


Though fearing that it will appear but tedious, I will now attempt briefly to describe in succession the remaining master portraits which we owe to Dürer, and the effect that each produces. It is by these works and not by his creative pictures that his ranks among the greatest names of painting. These might be compared with the very finest portraits by Raphael and Holbein, and the precedence would remain a question of personal predilection; since nothing reasoned, no distinguishable superiority over Dürer in vision or execution could be urged for either. Rather, if mere capacity were regarded, he must have the palm; nor did either of his compeers light upon a happier subject than was Dürer’s when he represented himself; nor did they achieve nobler designs. In effect upon our emotions and sensations, these portraits may compete with the masterpieces of Titian and Rembrandt, though the method of expression is in their case too different to render comparison possible. Whatever in the glow of light, in the power of shadow, to envelop and enhance the features portrayed, is theirs and not his, his superiority of searching insight, united with its equivalent of unique facility in definition, seems more than to outweigh. Before he left for Venice, besides the renderings of himself already mentioned, Dürer had painted his father twice, in 1494 and in 1497. The latter was the pair to and compeer of his own portrait at Madrid,; and, hitherto unknown, was lent last year by Lord Northampton to the Royal Academy, and has since been bought for the National Gallery. This beautiful work is unique even among the works of the master, and is not so much the worse for repainting as some make out. The majority of Dürer’s portraits stand alone. In each the Esthetic problem has been approached and solved in a strikingly different manner. This picture and its fellow, the portrait of the painter at Madrid, the _Oswolt Krel_, the portrait of a lady seen against the sea at Berlin, the _Wolgemut_, and Dürer’s own portrait at Munich, though seen by the same absorbing eyes, are rendered each in quite a different manner. No man has ever been better gifted for portraying a likeness than Dürer; but the absence of a native comprehension of pigment made him ever restless, and it might be possible to maintain that each of these pictures presented us with a differing strategy to enforce pigment, to subserve the purposes of a draughtsman. Still this would seem to imply a greater sacrifice of ease and directness than those brilliant masterpieces can be charged with. They none of them lack beauty of colour, of surface, or of handling, though each so unlike the other. In this portrait of his father, Dürer has developed a shaken brushline, admirably adapted to suggest the wrinkled features of an old man, but in complete contrast to the rapid sweep of the caligraphic work in the _Oswolt Krel_; and it is to be noticed how in both pictures the touch seems to have been invented to facilitate the rendering of the peculiar curves and lines of the sitter’s features, and further variations of it developed to express the draperies and other component parts of the picture. It is this inventiveness in handling which most distinguishes Dürer from painters like Raphael and Holbein, and makes his work comparable with the masterpieces of Rembrandt and Titian, in spite of the extreme opposition in aspect between their work and his.

The noble portrait of a middle-aged man, No. 557c, in the Royal Gallery at Berlin, (supposed to represent Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, Dürer’s first patron), gives us a master portrait, in which the technical treatment is comparable to that of the early triptych at Dresden, and which is a monument of sober power and distinction, though again very difficult to compare with the other splendid portraits by the same hand which hang beside or near it in that Gallery.

The vivid _Oswolt Krel_ at Munich shows the peculiarity of Dürer’s caligraphic touch better than perhaps any other of his portraits. The finish is not carried so far as in the Madrid portrait of himself, where even the texture of the gloves has been softened by touches of the thumb, and the absence of these extra refinements leaves it the most spontaneous and vigorously bold of all Dürer’s paintings. The concentrated energy of the sitter’s features demanded such a treatment; he seems to burn with the inconsiderate atheism of a Marlowe. Young, and less surprised than indignant to be alone awake in a sleepy and bigoted world, he seems convinced of a mission to chastise, _even_ to scandalise his easy-going neighbours. Let us hope he met with better luck than the Marlowes, Shelleys, and Rimbauds, whose tragedies we have read; for one can but regret, as one meets his glance so much fiercer than need be, that he is not known to history.

[Illustration: Oil Portrait of a Lady seen against the Sea In the Berlin Gallery]

[Illustration: Oil portrait, dated 1506, at Hampton Court]

The fine portrait of Hans Tucher, 1499, in the Grand Ducal Museum at Weimar should, judging from a photograph alone, be mentioned here. It has obvious affinities with the _Oswolt Krel_, but the caligraphic method is again modified in harmony with the character of the sitter’s features. The companion piece, representing Felicitas Tucherin, would seem at some period to have been restored to the insignificance and obscurity that belonged to the sitter before Dürer painted her.


The portraits which Dürer painted at Venice, or soon after his return, betray the influence of other masterpieces on his own. Mr. Ricketts has pointed to that of Antonello da Messina in the portraits of young men at Vienna (1505) and at Hampton Court (1506). The former of these has an allegorical sketch of Avarice, painted on the back in a thick impasto, such as seems almost a presage of after developments of the Venetian school, and may possibly show the influence of some early experiment by Giorgione which Dürer wished to show that he could imitate if he liked. The latter represents a personage who appears on the left of the _Feast of Rose Wreaths_ in exactly the same cap and with the same fastening to his jerkin, crossing his white shirt (see illustration opposite).

Not improbably Dürer may have painted separate portraits of nearly all the members of the German Guild at Venice who appear in the _Rose Garlands_. In any case much of his work during his stay there has disappeared. It was here that he painted that beautiful head of a woman (No. 557 G in the Berlin Gallery) with soft, almost Leonardesque shadows, seen against the luminous hazy sea and sky, which remains absolutely unique in method and effect among his works, and makes one ask oneself unanswerable questions as to what might not have been the result if he could but have brought himself to accept the offered citizenship and salary, and stop on at Venice. A Dürer, not only secluded from Luther and his troubling denunciations, but living to see Titian and Giorgione’s early masterpieces, perhaps forming friendships with them, and later visiting Rome, standing in the Sistine Chapel, seated in the Stanze between the School of Athens and the Disputa! I at least cannot console myself for these missed opportunities, as so many of his critics and biographers have done, by saying that doubtless had he stayed he would have been spoiled like those second-class German and Dutch painters, for whom the siren art of Italy proved a baneful influence. One could almost weep to think of what has been probably lost to the world because Dürer could not bring himself to stay on at Venice. It _was_ here he painted the tiny panel representing the head of a girl in gay apparel dated 1507 (in the Berlin Gallery), that makes one think, even more than do Holbein’s _Venus_ and _Lais_ at Basle, of the triumphs that were reserved for Italians in the treatment of similar subjects.

After his return the influence of Venetian methods gradually waned, till we find in the masterly and refined portrait of _Wolgemut_ (1516) (see illustration); something of a return to the caligraphic method so noticeable in the _Oswolt Krel_. About the same time Dürer recommenced painting in tempera in a manner resembling the early Dresden _Madonna_ and the _Hercules_, as we see by the rather unpleasant heads of Apostles in the Uffizi and the tine one of an old man in a vermilion cap in the Louvre, &c. &c.

[Illustration: _Bruckmann_–“Albrecht Dürer took this likeness of his master, Michael Wolgemut, in the year 1516, and he was 82 years of age, and lived to the year 1519, and then departed on Saint Andrew’s Day, very early before sunrise”–Oil-painting. Alt Pinakothek, Munich]

[Illustration: HANS IMHOF (?)–From the painting in the Royal Gallery at Madrid–(By permission _of Messrs. Braun, Clément & Co., Dornach (Alsace), Paris and New York_)]


On his arrival at Antwerp in 1521 Dürer commenced the third and last group of master-portraits; foremost is the superb head and bust at Madrid, supposed to represent Hans Imhof, a patrician of Dürer’s native town and his banker while at Antwerp; of the same date are the triumphant renderings of the grave and youthful Bernard van Orley (at Dresden) and that of a middle-aged man–lost for the National Gallery, and now in the possession of Mrs. Gardner, of Boston. All three were probably painted at Antwerp.

It may be that the portrait of Imhof and the report of the honours and commissions showered on their painter while in the Netherlands, woke the Nuremberg Councillors up, for we have portraits of three of them dated 1526–Jacob Muffel, Hieronymus Holzschuher, (both in the Royal Gallery, Berlin,) and the eccentric and unpleasing medallion representing Johannes Kleeberger, at Vienna. With the exception of this last, this group is composed of masterpieces absolutely unrivalled for intensity and dignity of power. Van Eyck painted with inhuman indifference a few ugly grotesque but otherwise uninteresting people. All but a very few of Holbein’s best portraits pale before these instances of searching insight; and, north of the Alps at least, there are no others which can be compared to them. The _Hans Imhof_ shows a shrewd and forbidding schemer for gain on a large scale–a face which produces the impression of a trap or closed strong box, but, being so alert and intelligent, seems to demand some sort of commiseration for the constraint put upon its humanity in the creation of a master, a tyrant over himself first and afterwards over an ever-widening circle of others. The unknown master who is represented in Mrs. Gardner’s beautiful picture is less forbidding, though not less patently a moulder of destiny. _Jacob Muffel_ has a more open face, a more serene gaze; but his mouth too has the firmness acquired by those who live always in the presence of enemies, or are at least aware that “a little folding of the hands” may be fatal to all their most cherished purposes. The last of these masters of themselves and of their fortunes in hazardous and change-fraught times is _Hieronymus Holzschuher_, Dürer’s friend. Only less felicitous because less harmonious in colour than the three former, this vivacious portrait of a ruddy, jovial, and white-haired patrician seen against a bright blue background might produce the effect of a Father Christmas, were it not for the resolute mouth and the puissant side-glance of the eyes. Bernard van Orley, the only youthful person immortalised in this group, has a gentle, responsible air which his features are a little too heavy to enhance.

I have now mentioned the chief of his portraits, which are the best of his painting, and by which he ranks for the directness and power of his workmanship and of his visual analysis in the company of the very greatest. Raphael and Holbein have alone produced portraits which, as they can be compared to Dürer’s, might also be held to rival them; Titian, Rubens, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Reynolds have done as splendidly, but the material they used and the aims they set themselves were too different to make a comparison serviceable. These men are pre-eminent among those who have produced portraits which, while unsurpassed for technical excellences, present to us individuals whose beauty or the character it expresses are equally exceptional.

[Illustration: “JAKOB MUFFEL” Oil portrait in the Berlin Gallery]




Perhaps Dürer is more felicitous as a draughtsman than in any other branch of art. The power of nearly all first-rate artists is more wholly live and effective in their drawings than in elaborated works. Dürer himself says:

An artist of understanding and experience can show more of his great power and art in small things, roughly and rudely done, than many another in his great work. Powerful artists alone will understand that in this strange saying I speak truth. For this reason a man may often draw something with his pen on a half sheet of paper in one day, or cut it with his graver on a small block of wood, and it shall be fuller of art and better than another’s great work whereon he hath spent a whole year’s careful labour.

But it is possible to go far beyond this and say not only “another’s great work,” but his own great work.

In the first chapter of this work I said that the standard in works of art is not truth but sincerity; that if the artist tells us what he feels to be beautiful, it does not matter how much or how little comparison it will bear with the actual objects represented. And from this fact, that sincerity not truth is of prime importance in matters of expression, results the strange truth that Dürer says will be recognised by powerful artists alone (see page 227). Any one who recognises how often the sketches and roughs of artists, especially of those who are in a peculiar degree creators, excel their finished works in those points which are the distinctive excellences of such men, will grant this at once. Only to turn to the sketch (inscribed _Memento Mei 1505_) of _Death_ on horseback with a scythe, or the pen-portrait of Dürer leaning on his hand, will be enough to convince those who alone can be convinced on these points. For any who need to explain to themselves the character of such sketches–as the authoress of a recent little book on Dürer does that of the pen drawing “in which the boy’s chin rests on his hand” by telling us that “it is unfinished and was evidently discarded as a failure,”–any who must be at such pains in a case of this sort is one of those who can never understand wherein the great power of a work of art resides. Such people may get great pleasure from works of art; only I am content to remain convinced that the pleasure they get has no kind of kinship with that which I myself obtain, or that which the greatest artists most constantly seek to give. This marvellous portrait of himself as a lad of from seventeen to nineteen years of age is just one of those things “roughly and rudely done,” of which Dürer speaks. There is probably no parallel to it for mastery or power among works produced by artists so youthful.

[Illustration: Study of a hound for the copper engraving “St. Eustache.” B. 57 Brush drawing at Windsor]

There is often some virtue in spontaneity which is difficult to define; perhaps it bears more convincing witness to the artist’s integrity than slower and longer labours, from which it is difficult to ward all duplicity of intention. The finishing-touch is too often a Judas’ kiss. “Blessed are the pure in heart” is absolutely true in art. (Of course, I do not use purity in the narrow sense which is confined to avoidance of certain sensual subjects and seductive intentions.) It is only poverty of imagination which taboos subject-matter, and lack of charity that believes there are themes which cannot be treated with any but ignoble intentions. But the virtue in a spontaneous drawing is akin to that single devotion to whatever is best, which true purity is; as the refinement of economy which results in the finished work is akin to that delicate repugnance to all waste, which is true chastity. A sketch by Rembrandt of a naked servant girl on a bed is as “simple as the infancy of truth”–as single in intention. A Greek statue of a raimentless Apollo is pre-eminently chaste. But it does not follow that Rembrandt was in his life eminently pure, or the Greek sculptor signal for chastity. Drawings rapidly executed have often a lyrical, rapturous, exultant purity, and are for that reason, to those whose eyes are blinded neither by prejudice nor by misfortune, as captivating as are healthy, gleeful children to those whose hearts are free. And while the joy that a child’s glee gives is for a time, that which a drawing gives may well be for ever.

We say a “spirited sketch” as we say “a spirited horse”; but works of art are instinct with a vast variety of spirits and exert manifold influences. It is a poverty of language which has confined the use of this word to one of the most obvious and least estimable. It can be never too much insisted on that a work of art is something that exerts an influence, and that its whole merit lies in the quality and degree of the influence exerted; for those who are not moved by it, it is no more than a written sentence to one who cannot read.


Many people in turning over a collection of Dürer’s drawings would be constantly crying, “How marvellously realistic!” and would glow with enthusiasm and smile with gratitude for the perception which these words expressed. Others would say “merely realistic”; and the words would convey, if not disapprobation for something shocking, at least indifference. In both cases the word “realistic” would, I take it, mean that the objects which the pen, brush, or charcoal strokes represented were described with great particularity. And in the first case delight would have been felt at recognising the fulness of detailed information conveyed about the objects drawn–that each drawing represented not a generalisation, but an individual. In the other case the mind would have been repelled by the infatuated insistence on insignificant or negligible details, the absence of their classification and subordination to ideas. The first of these two frames of mind is that of Paul Pry, who is delighted to see, to touch, or behold, for whom everything is a discovery; and there are members of this class of temperament who in middle life continue to make the same discoveries every day with zest and a wonder equal to that which they felt when children. The second of these frames of mind is that of the man with a system or in search of a system, who desires to control, or, if he cannot do that, at least to be taken into the confidence of the controller, or to gain a position from which he can oversee him, and approve or disapprove. Now neither of these judgments is in itself aesthetic, or implies a comprehension of Dürer as an artist.

[Illustration: ME-ENTO MEI, 1505. From the drawing in the British Museum]

The man who cries out: “Just look how that is done!” “Who could have believed a single line could have expressed so much?” judges as an artist, a craftsman. The man who, like Jean Francois Millet, exclaims: “How fine! How grand! How delicate! How beautiful!” judges as a creator. He sees that “it is good.” An artist–a creator–may possess either or even both the two former temperaments; but as an artist he must be governed by the latter two, either singly or combined. Dürer, doubtless, had a considerable share in all four of these points of view. He delighted in objects as such, in the new and the strange as new and strange, in the intricate as intricate, in the powerful as powerful. And above all in his drawings does he manifest this direct and childish interest and curiosity. He was also in search of a system, of an intellectual key or plan of things; and in the many drawings he devoted to explaining or developing his ideas of proportion, of perspective, of architecture, he shows this bias strongly. But nearly every drawing by him, or attributed to him, manifests the third of these temperaments. The never-ceasing economy and daring of the invention displayed in his touch, or, as he would have said, “in his hand,” is almost as signal as his perfect assurance and composure. And when one reflects that he was not, like Rembrandt, an artist who made great or habitual use of the spaces of shade and light, but that his workmanship is almost entirely confined to the expressive power of lines, wonder is only increased. Of the fourth character that creates and estimates value, though in certain works Dürer rises to supreme heights, though in almost all his important works he appeases expectation, yet often where he could surely have done much better he seems to have been content not to exert his rarest gifts, but rather to play with or parade those that are secondary. Not only is this so in drawings like the _Dance of Monkeys_ at Basle, done to content his friend the reformer Felix Frey (see page 168), and in the borders designed to amuse Maximilian during the hours that custom ordained he should pretend to give to prayer; but there are drawings which were not apparently thrown as sops to the idleness of others, but done to content some half-vacant mood of his own (see Lippmann, 41, 83, 394, 4.20, 333).

In such drawings the economy and daring of the strokes is always admirable, can only be compared to that in drawings by Rembrandt and Hokusai; but the occasion is often idle, or treated with a condescension which well-nigh amounts to indifference. There is no impressiveness of allure, no intention in the proportions or disposition on the paper such as Erasmus justly praised in the engravings on copper, probably recollecting something which Dürer himself had said (see page 186).

Yet in his portrait heads the right proportions are nearly always found; and in many cases I believe it is no one but the artist himself who has cut down such drawings after they were completed, to find a more harmonious or impressive proportion (see illustration opposite). And often these drawings are as perfect in the harmony between the means employed and the aspect chosen, and in the proportion between the head and the framing line and the spaces it encloses, as Holbein himself could have made them; while they far surpass his best in brilliancy and intensity.

[Illustration: Drawing in black chalk heightened with white on reddish ground Formerly in the collection at Warwick Castle]

[Illustration: Silver-point drawing on prepared grey ground, in the collection of Frederick Locker, Esq.]


Something must be said of Dürer’s employment of the water-colours, pen-and-ink, silver-point, charcoal, chalk, &c., with which he made his drawings. He is a complete master of each and all these mediums, in so far as the line or stroke may be regarded as the fundamental unit; he is equally effective with the broad, soft line of chalk (see illustration, page I.), or the broad broken charcoal line (see illustration, page II.), as with the fine pen stroke (see illustration, page III.), the delicate silver-point (see illustration, page IV.), or the supple and tapering stroke produced by the camel’s hair brush (see illustration, page V.). But when one comes to broad washes, large masses of light and shade, the expression of atmosphere, of bloom, of light, he is wanting in proportion as these effects become vague, cloudy, indefinite, mist-like. His success lies rather in the definite reflections on polished surfaces; he never reproduces for us the bloom on peach or flesh or petal. He does not revel, like Rembrandt, in the veils and mysteries of lucent atmosphere or muffling shadow. The emotions for which such things produce the most harmonious surroundings he hardly ever attempts to appeal to; he is mournful and compassionate, or indignant, for the sufferings, of his Man of Sorrows; not tender, romantic, or awesome. Only with the tapering tenuity and delicate spring of the pure line will he sometimes attain to an infantile or virginal freshness that is akin to the tenderness of the bloom on flowers, or the light of dawn on an autumn morning.[75]

In the same way, when he is tragic, it is not with thick clouds rent in the fury of their flight, or with the light from shaken torches cast and scattered like spume-flakes from the angry waves; nor is it with the accumulated night that gives intense significance to a single tranquil ray. Only by a Rembrandt, to whom these means are daily present, could a subject like the _Massacre of the Ten Thousand_ have been treated with dramatic propriety; unless, indeed, Michael Angelo, in a grey dawn, should have twisted and wrung with manifold pain a tribe of giants, stark, and herded in some leafless primeval valley. With Dürer the occasion was merely one on which to coldly invent variations, as though this human suffering was a motive for _an_ arabesque. Yet even from the days when he copied Andrea Mantegna’s struggling sea-monsters, or when he drew the stern matured warrior angels of his Apocalypse fighting, with their historied faces like men hardened by deceptions practised upon them, like men who have forbidden salt tears and clenched their teeth and closed their hearts, who see, who hate; even from these early days, the energy of his line was capable of all this, and his spontaneous sense of arabesque could become menacing and explosive. There are two or three drawings of angry, crying cupids (Lipp., 153 and 446, see illustration opposite), prepared for some intended picture of the Crucifixion, where he has made the motive of the winged infants head, usually associated with bliss and scattered rose-leaves, become terrible and stormy. And the _Agony in the Garden_, etched on iron, contains a tree tortured by the wind (see illustration), as marvellous for rhythm, power, and invention as the blast-whipped brambles and naked bushes that crest a scarped brow above the jealous husband who stabs his wife, in Titian’s fresco at Padua. Again, the unspeakable tragedy of the stooping figure of Jesus, who is being dragged by His hair up the steps to Annas’ throne, in the _Little Passion_, is rendered by lines instinct with the highest dramatic power. These are a draughtsman’s creations; though they are less abundant in Dürer’s work than one could wish, still only the greatest produce such effects; only Michael Angelo, Titian, and Rembrandt can be said to have equalled or surpassed Dürer in this kind, rarely though it be that he competes with them.

[Illustration: CHERUB FOR A CRUCIFIXION Black chalk drawing heightened with white on a blue-grey paper In the collection of Herr Doctor Blasius, Brunswick]

It is for the intense energy of his line, combined with its unique assurance, that Dürer is most remarkable. The same amount of detail, the same correctness in the articulation and relation between stem and leaf, arm and hand, or what not, might be attained by an insipid workmanship with lifeless lines, in patient drudgery. It is this fact that those who praise art merely as an imitation constantly forget. There is often as much invention in the way details are expressed by the strokes of pen or brush, as there could be in the grouping of a crowd; the deftness, the economy of the touches, counts for more in the inspiriting effect than the truth of the imitation. A photograph from nature never conveys this, the chief and most fundamental merit of art. Reynolds says:

Rembrandt, in older to take advantage of an accident, appears often to have used the pallet-knife to lay his colours on the canvas instead of the pencil. Whether it is the knife or any other instrument, _it suffices, if it is something that does not follow exactly the will. Accident, in the hands of_ an artist _who knows horn to take the advantage of its hints, will often produce bold and capricious beauties of handling_, and facility such as he would not have thought of or ventured with his pencil, under the regular restraint of his hand.[76]

In such a sketch as the _Memento Mei_, 1505, (_Death_ riding on horseback,) all those who have sense for such things will perceive how the rough paper, combined with the broken charcoal line, lends itself to qualities of a precisely similar nature to those described by Reynolds as obtained by Rembrandt’s use of the pallet-knife. Yet, just as, in the use of charcoal, the “something that does not follow exactly the will” is infinitely more subtle than in the use of the palette-knife to represent rocks or stumps of trees, so in the pen or silver-point line this element, though reduced and refined till it is hardly perceptible, still exists, and Dürer takes “the advantage of its hints.” And not only does he do’ this, but he foresees their occurrence, and relies on them to render such things as crumpled skin, as in the sketches for Adam’s hand holding the apple. (Lipp. 234). The operation is so rapid, so instantaneous, that it must be called an instinct, or at least a habit become second nature, while in the instance chosen by Reynolds, it is obvious and can be imagined step by step; but in every case it is this capacity to take advantage of the accident, and foresee and calculate upon its probable occurrences, that makes the handling of any material inventive, bold, and inimitable. It is in these qualities that an artist is the scholar of the materials he employs, and goes to school to the capacities of his own hand, being taught both by their failure to obey his will here, and by their facility in rendering his subtlest intentions there. And when he has mastered all they have to teach him, he can make their awkwardness and defects expressive; as stammerers sometimes take advantage of their impediment so that in itself it becomes an element of eloquence, of charm, or even of explicitness; while the extra attention rendered enables them to fetch about and dare to express things that the fluent would feel to be impossible and never attempt.

[Illustration: APOLLO AND DIANA–Pen drawing in the British Museum, supposed to show the influence of the Belvedere Apollo]


Lastly, it is in his drawings, perhaps, even more than in his copper engravings, that Dürer proves himself a master of “the art of seeing nature,” as Reynolds phrased it; and the following sentence makes clear what is meant, for he says of painting “perhaps it ought to be as far removed from the vulgar idea of imitation, as the refined, civilised state in which we live is removed from a gross state of nature”;[77] and again: “If we suppose a view of nature, represented with all the truth of the camera obscura, and the same scene represented by a great artist, how little and how mean will the one appear in comparison of the other, where no superiority is supposed from the choice of the subject.”[78] Not only is outward nature infinitely varied, infinitely composite; but human nature–receptive and creative–is so too, and after we have gazed at an object for a few moments, we no longer see it the same as it was revealed to our first glance. Not only has its appearance changed for us, but the effect that it produces on our emotions and intelligence is no longer the same. Each successful mind, according to its degree of culture, arrives finally at a perception of every class of objects presented to it which is most in agreement with its own nature–that is, calls forth or nourishes its most cherished energies and efforts, while harmonising with its choicest memories. All objects in regard to which it cannot arrive at such a result oppress, depress, or even torment it. At least this is the case with our highest and most creative moods; but every man of parts has a vast range of moods, descending from this to the almost vacant contemplation of a cow–the innocence of whose eye, which perceives what is before it without transmuting it by recollection or creative effort, must appear almost ideal to the up-to-date critic who has recently revealed the innocent confusion of his mind in a ponderous tome on nineteenth-century art. The art of seeing nature, then, consists in being able to recognise how an object appears in harmony with any given mood; and the artist must employ his materials to suggest that appearance with the least expenditure of painful effort. The highest art sees all things in harmony with man’s most elevated moods; the lowest sees nature much as Dutch painters and cows do. Now we can understand what Goethe means when he says that “Albrecht Dürer enjoyed the advantages of a profound realistic perception, and an affectionate human sympathy with all present conditions.” The man who continued to feel, after he had become a Lutheran, the beauty of the art that honoured the Virgin, the man who cannot help laughing at the most “lying, thievish rascals” whenever they talk to him because “they know that their knavery is no secret, but ‘they don’t mind,'” is affectionate; he is amused by monkeys and the rhinoceros; he can bear with Pirkheimer’s bad temper; he looks out of kindly eyes that allow their perception of strangeness or oddity to redeem the impression that might otherwise have been produced by vice, or uncouthness, or sullen frowns.

I have supposed that a realistic perception was one which saw things with great particularity; and the words “a profound realistic perception” to Goethe’s mind probably conveyed the idea of such a perception, in profound accord with human nature, that is where the human recognition, delight and acceptance followed the perception even to the smallest details, without growing weary or failing to find at least a hope of significance in them. If this was what the great critic meant, those who turn over a collection of Dürer’s drawings will feel that they are profoundly realistic (realistic in a profoundly human sense), and that their author enjoyed an affectionate human sympathy with all present conditions; and by these two qualities is infinitely distinguished from all possessors of so-called innocent eyes, whether quadruped or biped.

It is well to notice wherein this notion of Goethe’s differs from the conventional notions which make up everybody’s criticism. For instance, “In all his pictures he confined himself to facts,” says Sir Martin Conway,[79] and then immediately qualifies this by adding, “He painted events as truly as his imagination could conceive them.” We may safely say that no painter of the first rank has ever confined himself to facts. Nor can we take the second sentence as it stands. Any one who looks at the _Trinity_ in the Imperial Gallery at Vienna will see at once that the artist who painted it did not shut his eyes and try to conjure up a vision of the scene to be represented; the ordering of the picture shows plainly throughout that a foregone conventional arrangement, joined with the convenience of the methods of representation to be employed, dictated nearly the whole composition, and that the details, costumes, &c., were gradually added, being chosen to enhance the congruity or variety of what was already given. Perhaps it was never a prime object with Dürer to conceive the event, it was rather the picture that he attempted to conceive; it is Rembrandt who attempts to conceive events, not Dürer. He is very far from being a realist in this sense: though certain of his etchings possess a considerable degree of such realism, it is not what characterises him as a creator or inventor. But a “profound realistic perception” almost unequalled he did possess; what he saw he painted not as he saw it, not where he saw it, but as it appeared to him to really be. So he painted real girls, plain, ugly or pretty as the case might be, for angels, and put them in the sky; but for their wings he would draw on his fancy. Often the folds of a piece of drapery so delighted him that they are continued for their own sake and float out where there is no wind to support them, or he would develop their intricacies beyond every possibility of conceivable train or other superfluity of real garments; and it is this necessity to be richer and more magnificent than probability permits which brings us to the creator in Dürer; not only had he a profound realistic perception of what the world was like, but he had an imagination that suggested to him that many things could be played with, embroidered upon, made handsomer, richer or more impressive. When Goethe adds that “he was retarded by a gloomy fantasy devoid of form or foundation,” we perceive that the great critic is speaking petulantly or without sufficient knowledge. Dürer’s gloomy fantasy, the grotesque element in his pictures and prints, was not his own creation, it is not peculiar to him, he accepted it from tradition and custom (see Plate “Descent into Hell”). What is really characteristic of him is the richness displayed in devils’ scales and wings, in curling hair or crumpled drapery, or flame, or smoke, or cloud, or halo; and, still more particularly, his is the energy of line or fertility of invention with which all these are displayed, and the dignity or austerity which results from the general proportion of the masses and main lines of his composition.


For the illustration of this volume I have chosen a larger proportion of drawings than of any other class of work; both because Dürer’s drawings are less widely known than his engravings on metal, and because, though his fame may perhaps rest almost equally on these latter, and they may rightly be considered more unique in character, yet his drawings show the splendid creativeness of his handling of materials in greater variety. One engraving on copper is like another in the essential problem that it offered to the craftsman to resolve; but every different medium in which Dürer made drawings, and every variety of surface on which he drew, offered a different problem, and perhaps no other artist can compare with him in the great variety of such problems which he has solved with felicity. And this power of his to modify his method with changing conditions is, as we have seen, from the technical side the highest and greatest quality that an artist can possess. It only fails him when he has to deal with oil paintings, and even there he shows a corresponding sense of the nature of the problems involved, if he shows less felicity on the whole in solving them; and perhaps could he have stayed at Venice and have had the results of Giorgione’s and Titian’s experiments to suggest the right road, we should have been scarcely able to perceive that he was less gifted as a painter than as draughtsman. As it is, he has given us water-colour sketches in which the blot is used to render the foliage of trees in a manner till then unprecedented. (Lipp. 132, &c.) He can rival Watteau in the use of soft chalk, Leonardo in the use of the pen, and Van Eyck in the use of the brush point; and there are examples of every intermediate treatment to form a chain across the gulf that separates these widely differing modes of graphic expression. There can be no need to point the application of these remarks to the individual drawings here reproduced; those who are capable of recognising it will do so without difficulty.

[Illustration: AN OLD CASTLE Body-dour drawing at Bremen]


In conclusion, Dürer appears as a draughtsman of unrivalled powers. And when one looks on his drawings as what they most truly were, his preparation for the tasks set him by the conditions of his life, there is room for nothing but unmixed admiration. It is only when one asks whether those tasks might not have been more worthy of such high gifts that one is conscious of deficiency or misfortune. And can one help asking whether the Emperor Max might not have given Dürer his Bible or his Virgil to illustrate, instead of demanding to have the borders of his “Book of Hours” rendered amusing with fantastic and curious arabesques; whether Dürer’s learned friends, instead of requiring from him recondite or ceremonious allegories, might not have demanded title-pages of classic propriety; or whether the imperial bent of his own imagination might not have rendered their demands malleable, and bid them call for a series of woodcuts, engravings or drawings, which could rival Rembrandt’s etchings in significance of subject-matter and imaginative treatment, as they rival them in executive power? In his portraits–the large majority of which have come down to us only as drawings, the majority of which were never anything else–the demand made upon him was worthy; but even here Holbein, a man of lesser gift and power, has perhaps succeeded in leaving a more dignified, a more satisfying series; one containing, if not so many masterpieces, fewer on which an accidental or trivial subject or mood has left its impress. Yet, in spite of this, it is Dürer’s, not Rembrandt’s, not Holbein’s character, that impresses us as most serious, most worthy to be held as a model. It is before his portrait of himself that Mr. Ricketts “forgets all other portraits whatsoever, in the sense that this perfect realisation of one of the world’s greatest men is worthy of the occasion.” So that we feel bound to attribute our dissatisfaction to something in his circumstances having hindered and hampered the flow of what was finest in his nature into his work. From Venice he wrote: “I am a gentleman here, but only a hanger-on at home.” Germany was a better home for a great character, a great personality, than for a great artist: Dürer the artist was never quite at home there, never a gentleman among his peers. The good and solid burghers rated him as a good and solid burgher, worth so much per annum; never as endowed with the rank of his unique gift. It was only at Venice and Antwerp that he was welcomed as the Albert Dürer whom we to-day know, love, and honour.


[Footnote 75: See the exquisite landscape in the collection of Mr. C. S. Ricketts and Mr. C. H. Shannon, reproduced in the sixth folio of the Dürer Society, 1903. Mr. Campbell Dodgson describes the drawing as in a measure spoilt by retouching, but what convinces him that these retouches are not by Dürer? The pen-work seems to be at once too clever and too careless to have been added by another hand to preserve a fading drawing.]

[Footnote 76: XII. Discourse.]

[Footnote 77: XIII, Discourse.]

[Footnote 78: Ibid.]

[Footnote 79: Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer, p. I 50.]




For the artist or designer the chief difference between the engraving done on a wood block and that done on metal lies in the thickness of the line. The engraved line in a wood block is in relief, that on a metal plate is entrenched; the ink in the one case is applied to the crest of a ridge, in the other it fills a groove into which the surface of the paper is squeezed. Though lines almost as fine as those possible on metal have been achieved by wood engravers, in doing this they force the nature of their medium, whereas on a copper plate fine lines come naturally. Perhaps no section of Dürer’s work reveals his unique powers so thoroughly as his engravings on metal. They were entirely his own work both in design and execution; and no expenditure of pains or patience seems to have limited his intentions, or to have hindered his execution or rendered it less vital. And perhaps it is this fact which witnesses with our spirit and bids us recognise the master: rather than the comprehension of natural forms which he evinces, subtle and vigorous though it be; or than the symbols and types which he composed from such forms for the traditional and novel ideas of his day. And this unweariable assiduity of his is continually employed in the discovery of very noble arabesques of line and patterns in black and white, more varied than the grain in satin wood or the clustering and dispersion of the stars. Intensity of application, constancy of purpose, when revealed to us by beautifully variegated surfaces, the result of human toil, may well impress us, may rightly impress us, more than quaint and antiquated notions about the four temperaments, or about witches and their sabbaths, or about virtues and vices embodied in misconceptions of the characters of pagan divinities, and in legends about them which scholars had just begun to translate with great difficulty and very ill. It is the astonishing assurance of the central human will for perfection that awes us; this perception that flinches at no difficulty, this perception of how greatly beauty deserves to be embodied in human creations and given permanence to.


In the encomium which Erasmus wrote of Albert Dürer he dealt, as one sees by the passage quoted (p. 186), with Dürer’s engraved work almost exclusively. Perhaps the great humanist had seen no paintings by Dürer, and very likely had heard Dürer himself disparage them, as Melanchthon tells us was his wont (p. 187). We know that Dürer gave Erasmus some of his engravings, and we may feel sure that he was questioned pretty closely as to what were the aims of his art, and wherein he seemed to himself to have best succeeded. The sentence I underlined (on p. 186) gives us probably some reflection of Dürer’s reply. We must remember that Erasmus, from his classical knowledge as to how Apelles was praised, was full of the idea that art was an imitation, and may probably have refused to understand what Dürer may very likely have told him in modification of this view; or he may by citing his Greek and Latin sources have prevented the reverent Dürer from being outspoken on the point. But though most of his praise seems mere literary commonplace, the sentence underlined strikes us as having another source.

“He reproduces not merely the natural aspect of a thing, but also observes the laws of perfect symmetry and harmony with regard to the position of it.” How one would like to have heard Dürer, as Erasmus may probably have heard him, explain the principles on which he composed! No doubt there is no very radical difference between his sense of composition and that of other great artists. But to hear one so preoccupied with explaining his processes to himself discourse on this difficult subject would be great gain. For though there are doubtless no absolute rules, and the appeal is always to a refined sense for proportion,–yet to hear a creator speak of such things is to have this sense, as it were, washed and rendered delicate once more. We can but regret that Erasmus has not saved us something fuller than this hint. In the same way, how tempting is the criticism that Camerarius gives of Mantegna,–we feel that Dürer’s own is behind it; but as it stands it is disjointed and absurd, like some of the incomplete and confused parables which give us a glimpse of how much more was lost than was preserved by the reporters of the sayings of Jesus. It is the same thing with the reported sayings of Michael Angelo, and indeed of all other great men. It is impossible to accept “his hand was not trained to follow the perception and nimbleness of his mind” as Dürer’s dictum on Mantegna; but how suggestive is the allusion to “broken and scattered statues set up as examples of art,” for artists to form themselves upon! Yet the fact that Dürer missed coming into contact not only with Mantegna but with Titian, Leonardo, Raphael, Michael Angelo, is indeed the saddest fact in regard to his life. We can well believe that he felt it in Mantegna’s case. Ah! Why could he not bring himself to accept the overtures made to him, and become a citizen of Venice?


The subjects of these engravings are even generally trivial or antiquated, either in themselves or by the way they are approached. Perhaps alone among them the figure of Jesus, as it is drawn in the various series on copper and wood illustrating the Passion, is conceived in a manner which touches us to-day with the directness of a revelation; and even this cannot be compared to the same figure in Rembrandt etchings and drawings, either for essential adequacy, or for various and convincing application. No, we must consent to let the expression “great thoughts” drop out of our appreciation of Dürer’s works, and be replaced by the “great character” latent in them.

However, one among Dürer’s engravings on copper stands out from among the rest, and indeed from all his works. In the _Melancholy_ the composition is not more dignified in its spacing and proportion; the arabesque of line is not richer or sweeter, the variations from black to white are not more handsome, than in some half dozen of his other engravings. No, by its conception alone the _Melancholy_ attains to its unique impressiveness. And it is the impressiveness of an image, not the impressiveness of an idea or situation, as in the case of the _Knight, Death, and the Devil_, by which almost as much bad literature has been inspired. There is nothing to choose between the workmanship of the two plates; both are absolutely impeccable, and outside the work of Dürer himself, unrivalled. The _Melancholy_ is the only creation by a German which appears to me to invite and sustain comparison with the works of the greatest Italian. In it we have the impressiveness that belongs only to the image, the thing conceived for mental vision, and addressed to the eye exclusively. If there was an allegory, or if the plate formed (as has been imagined) one of a series representative of the four temperaments, the eye and the visual imagination are addressed with such force and felicity that the inquiries which attempt to answer these questions must for ever appear impertinent. They may add some languid interest to the contemplation which is sated with admiring the impeccable mastery of the Knight; for that plate always seems to me the mere illustration of a literary idea, a sheer statement of items which require to be connected by some story, and some of which have the crude obviousness of folk-lore symbols, without their racy and genial naïvety. They have not been fused in the rapture of some unique mood, not focussed by the intensity of an emotion. With the _Melancholy_ all is different; perhaps among all his works only Dürer’s most haunting portrait of himself has an equal or even similar power to bind us in its spell. For this reason I attempt the following comparison between the _Sibyls_ of the Sistine Chapel and the _Melancholy_ a comparison which I do not suppose to have any other value or force than that of a stimulant to the imagination which the works themselves address.

[Illustration: MELANCHOLIA Copper engraving, B. 74]

The impetuosity of his Southern blood drives Michael Angelo to betray his intention of impressing in the pose and build of his Sibyls. Large and exceptional women, “limbed” and thewed as gods are, with an habitual command of gesture, they lift down or open their books or unwind their scrolls like those accustomed to be the cynosure of many eyes, who have lived before crowds of inferiors, a spectacle of dignity from their childhood upwards. On the other hand, the pose and build of the _Melancholy_ must have been those of many a matron in Nuremberg. It is not till we come to the face that we find traits that correspond with the obvious symbolism of the wings and wreath, or the serious richness of the black and white effect of the composition; but that face holds our attention as not even the Sibylla Delphica cannot by beauty, not by conscious inspiration, but by the spell of unanswerable thought, by the power to brood, by the patience that can and dare go unresolved for many years. Everything is begun about her; she cannot see unto the end; she is powerful, she is capable in many works, she has borne children, she rests from her labours, and her thought wanders, sleeps or dreams. The spirit of the North, with its industry, its cool-headed calculation, its abundance in contrivance, its elaboration of duty and accumulation of possessions–there she sits, absorbed, unsatisfied. Impetuosity and the frank avowal of intention are themselves an expression of the will to create that which is desirable; they can but form the habit of every artist under happy circumstances. They proceed on the expectation of immediate effectiveness, they belong to power in action; while, if beauty be not impetuous, she is frank, and adds to the avowal of her intention the promise of its fulfilment. The work of art and the artist are essentially open; they promise intimacy, and fulfil that promise with entirety when successful. Nor is anything so impressive as intimacy which implies a perfect sincerity, a complete revelation, a gift without reserve, increase without let. But the circumstances of the artist never are happy: even Michael Angelo’s were not. An intense brooding melancholy arises from the repressed and baffled desire to create; and in some measure this gloom of failure underlying their success is a necessary character of all lovely and spiritual creations in this world. Now Michael Angelo’s works, because of their Southern impetuosity and volubility, are not so instinct with this divine sorrow, this immobility of the soul face to face with evil, as is Dürer’s _Melancholy_. He inspires and exhilarates us more, but takes us out of ourselves rather than leads us home.

Here is Dürer’s success: let and hindered as it really is, he makes us feel the inalienable constancy of rational desire, watching adverse circumstance as one beast of prey watches another. She keeps hold on the bird she has caught, the ideal that perhaps she will never fully enjoy. Michael Angelo pictures for us freedom from trammels, the freedom that action, thought and ecstasy give, the freedom that is granted to beauty by all who recognise it; Dürer shows us the constancy that bridges the intervals between such free hours, that gives continuity to man’s necessarily spasmodic effort. Thus he typifies for us the Northern genius: as Michael Angelo’s athletes might typify by their naked beauty and the unexplained impressiveness of their gestures, the genius of the sudden South–sudden in action, sudden in thought, suddenly mature, suddenly asleep–as day changes to night and night to day the more rapidly as the tropics are approached.

[Illustration: Detail enlarged from the “Agony in the Garden.” Etching on Iron, B. 19 _Between_ pp. 250 & 251]

[Illustration: ANGEL WITH THE SUDARIUM Engraving in Iron, 1516. B. 26 _Between_ pp. 250 & 251]

Instances of the highest imaginative power are rare in Dürer’s work. The _Melancholy_ has had a world-wide success. The _Knight, Death and the Devil_ has one almost equal, but which is based on the facility with which it is associated with certain ideas dear to Christian culture, rather than on the creation of the mood in which these ideas arise. It does not move us until we know that it is an illustration of Erasmus’s Christian Knight. Then all its dignity and mastery and the supremacy of the gifts employed on it are brought into touch with the idea, and each admirer operates, according to his imaginativeness, something of the transformation which Dürer had let slip or cool down before realising it.


Among the prints with lesser reputations are several which attain a far higher success. There is the iron plate of the _Agony in the Garden,_ B. 19, already mentioned (p. 235), in which the storm-tortured tree and the broken light and shade are full of dramatic power (see illustration), the _Angel with the Sudarium_, B. 26, where the arabesque of the folds of drapery and cloud unite with the daring invention of the central figure to create a mood entirely consonant with the subject. There is the woman carried off by a man on an unicorn, in which the turbulence of the subject is expressed with unrivalled force by the rich and beautiful arabesque and black and white pattern.

B. Nos. 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 16, 18, of the _Little Passion_, on copper, are all of them noteworthy successes of more or less the same kind; and in these, too, we come upon that racy sense for narration which can enhance dramatic import by emphasising some seemingly trivial circumstance, as in the gouty stiffness of one of Christ’s scourgers in the _Flagellation_, or the abnormal ugliness of the man who with such perfect gravity holds the basin while Pilate _washes his hands:_ while in the _Crown of Thorns_ and _Descent into Hades_ we have peculiarly fine and suitable black and white patterns, and in the _Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate_[80] and the _Ecce Homo_ figures of monumental dignity in tiny gems of glowing engraver’s work. The repose and serenity of the lovely little _St. Antony_;[81] the subsidence of commotion in the noonday victory of the little _St. George on foot_, B. 53–perhaps the most perfect diamond in the whole brilliant chain of little plates, or the staid naïvety of the enchanting _Apollo and Diana_, B. 68;[82] who shall prefer among these things? Every time we go through them we choose out another until we return to the most popular and slightly obvious _St. George on Horseback_, B. 54. Next come the dainty series of little plates in honour of Our Lady the Mother of God, commencing before Dürer made a rule of dating his plates; before 1503 and continuing till after 1520, in which the last are the least worthy. Among these the Virgin embracing her Child at the foot of a tree, B. 34, dated 1513; The Virgin standing on the crescent moon, her baby in one arm, her sceptre in the other hand and the stars of her crown blown sideways as she bows her head, B. 32, dated 1516, and the stately and monumental Virgin seated by a wall, B. 40, dated 1514, are at present my favourites. And to these succeeded the noble army of Apostles and Martyrs of which the more part are dated from 1521 to 1526, though two, B. 48 and 50, fall as early as 1514.

[Illustration: THE SMALL HORSE–Copper Engraving, B. 96]

Then amongst the most perfect larger plates I cannot refrain from mentioning the _St. Jerome_, B. 60, with its homely seclusion as of Dürer’s own best parlour in summer time which not even the presence of a lion can disturb; the idyllic and captivating _St. Hubert_, B. 57; the august and tranquil _Cannon_, B. 99: and lastly, perhaps, in the little _Horse_, B. 96, we come upon a theme and motive of the kind best suited to Dürer’s peculiar powers, in which he produces an effect really comparable to those of the old Greek masters, about whose lost works he was so eager for scraps of information, and whose fame haunted him even into his slumbers, so that he dreamed of them and of those who should “give a future to their past.” This delightful work may illustrate an allegory now grown dark or some misconception of a Grecian story; but though the relation between the items that compose it should remain for ever unexplained, its beauty, like that of some Greek sculpture that has been admired under many names, continues its spell, and speaks of how the simplicity, austerity and noble proportions of classical art were potent with the spirit of the great Nuremberg artist, and occasionally had free way with him, in spite of all there was in his circumstances and origins to impede or divert them. (See also the spirited drawing, Lipp. 366.)


It would be idle to attempt to say something about every masterpiece in Dürer’s splendidly copious work on metal plates. There is perhaps not one of these engravings that is not vital upon one side or another, amazingly few that are not vital upon many. One other work, however, which has been much criticised and generally misunderstood, it may be as well to examine at more length, especially as it illustrates what was often Dürer’s practice in regard to his theories about proportion, with which my next Part will deal. I speak of the _Great Fortune_ or _Nemesis_ (B. 77). His practice at other times is illustrated by the splendid _Adam and Eve_ (B. 1), over the production of which the nature of the canon he suggested was perhaps first thoroughly worked out. But before this and afterwards too he no doubt frequently followed the advice he gives in the following passage.

To him that setteth himself to draw figures according to this book, not being well taught beforehand, the matter will at first become hard. Let him then put a man before him, who agreeth, as nearly as may be, _with the proportions he desireth_; and let him draw him in outline according to his knowledge and power. And a man is held to have done well if he attain accurately to copy a figure according to the life, so that his drawing resembleth the figure and is like unto nature. _And in particular if the thing copied as beautiful; then is the copy held to be artistic_, and, as it deserveth, it is highly praised.

Dürer himself would seem to have very often followed his own advice in this. The _Great Fortune_ or Nemesis is a case in point. The remarks of critics on this superb engraving are very strange and wide. Professor Thausing said, “Embodied in this powerful female form, the Northern worship of nature here makes its first conscious and triumphant appearance in the history of art.” With the work of the great Jan Van Eyck in one’s mind’s eye, of course this will appear one of those little lapses of memory so convenient to German national sentiment. “Everything that, according to our aesthetic formalism based on the antique, we should consider beautiful, is sacrificed to truth.” (I have already pointed out that this use of the word “truth” in matters of art constitutes a fallacy)[83] “And yet our taste must bow before the imperishable fidelity to nature displayed in these forms, the fulness of life that animates these limbs.” Of course, “imperishable fidelity to nature” and “taste that bows before it” are merely the figures of a clumsy rhetoric. But the idea they imply is one of the most common of vulgar errors in regard to works of art. In the first place one must remind our enthusiastic German that it is an engraving and not a woman that we are discussing; and that this engraving is extremely beautiful in arabesque and black and white pattern, rich, rhythmical and harmonious; and that there is no reason why our taste should be violated in having to bow submissively before such beauties as these, which it is a pleasure to worship. Now we come to the subject as presented to the intelligence, after the quick receptive eye has been satiated with beauty. Our German guide exclaims, “Not misled by cold definite rules of proportion, he gave himself up to unrestrained realism in the presentation of the female form.” Our first remark is, that though the treatment of this female form may perhaps be called realistic, this adjective cannot be made to apply to the figure as a whole. This massively built matron is winged; she stands on a small globe suspended in the heavens, which have opened and are furled up like a garment in a manner entirely conventional. She carries a scarf which behaves as no fabric known to me would behave even under such exceptional and thrilling circumstances.

Dr. Carl Giehlow has recently suggested that this splendid engraving illustrates the following Latin verses by Poliziano:

Est dea, quse vacuo sublimis in aëre pendens It nimbo succincta latus, sed candida pallam, Sed radiata comam, ac stridentibus insonat alis. Haec spes immodicas premit, haec infesta superbis Imminet, huic celsas hominum contundere mentes Incessusque datum et nimios turbare paratus. Quam veteres Nemesin genitam de nocte silenti Oceano discere patri. Stant sidera fronti. Frena manu pateramque gerit, semperque verendum Ridet et insanis obstat contraria coeptis. Improba vota domans ac summis ima revolvens Miscet et alterna nostros vice temperat actus. Atque hue atque illuc ventorum turbine fertur.

There is a goddess, who, aloft in the empty air, advances girdled about with a cloud, but with a shining white cloak and a glory in her hair, and makes a rushing with her wings. She it is who crushes extravagant hopes, who threatens the proud, to whom is given to beat down the haughty spirit and the haughty step, and to confound over-great possessions. Her the men of old called Nemesis, born to Ocean from the womb of silent Night. Stars stand upon her forehead. In her hand she bears bridles and a chalice, and smiles for ever with an awful smile, and stands resisting mad designs. Turning to nought the prayers of the wicked and setting the low above the high she puts one in the other’s place and rules the scenes of life with alternation. And she is borne hither and thither on the wings of the whirlwind.

If this suggestion is a good one it shows us that Dürer was no more consistently literal than he was realistic. The most striking features of his illustration are just those to which his text offers no counterpart, i.e., the nudity and physical maturity of his goddess. Neither has he girdled her about with cloud nor stood stars upon her forehead. I must confess that I find it hard to believe that there was any close connection present to his mind between his engraving and these verses.

In a former chapter I have spoken of the fashion in female dress then prevalent; how it underlined whatever is most essential in the physical attributes of womanhood, and how probably something of good taste is shown in this fashion (see pp. 92 and 93). What I there said will explain Dürer’s choice in this matter; and also that what Thausing felt bow in him was not taste, but his prejudices in regard to womanly attractiveness, and his misconception as to where the beauty of an engraving should be looked for and in what it consists. These same prejudices and misconceptions render Mrs. Heaton (as is only natural in one of the weaker sex) very bold. She says, “A large naked winged woman, whose ugliness is perfectly repulsive.” This object, I must confess, appears to me, a coarse male, “welcome to contemplation of the mind and eye.” The splendid Venus in Titian’s _Sacred and Profane Love_, or his _Ariadne_ at Madrid; or Raphael’s _Galatea_; or Michael Angelo’s _Eve_ (on the Sistine vault) are all of them doubtless far more akin to the _Aphrodite_ of Praxiteles, or to her who crouches in the Louvre, than is this _Nemesis_; but we must not forget that they are works on a scale more comparable with a marble statue; and that in works of which the scale is more similar to that of our engraving, Greek taste was often far more with Dürer than with Thausing. This is an important point, though one which is rarely appreciated. However, there is no reason why we should condemn “misled by cold definite rules of taste” even such pictures as Rembrandt’s _Bathing Woman_ in the Louvre, though here the proportions of the work are heroic. Oil painting was an art not practised by the Greeks, and this medium lends itself to beauties which their materials put entirely out of reach. Besides, Rembrandt appealed to an audience who had been educated by Christian ideals to appreciate a pathos produced by the juxtaposition of the fact with the ideal, and of the creature with the creator, to appeal to which a Greek would have had to be far more circumspect in his address–even if he had, through an exceptional docility and receptiveness of character, come under its influence himself. These considerations when apprehended will, I believe, suffice to dispel both prejudice and misconception in regard to this matter; and we shall find in Professor Thausing’s remarks relative to the treatment of the “female form divine” in this engraving no additional reason for considering it a comparatively early work. And we shall only smile when he tells us “The _Nemesis_ to a certain _degree_ (sic) marks the extreme _point_ (sic) reached by Dürer in his unbiased study of the nude. His further progress became more and more influenced by his researches into the proportions of the human body.” The bias will appear to us of rather more recent date, and we shall be ready to consider with an open mind how far Dürer’s practice was influenced for good or evil by his researches into the proportions of the human body.


[Footnote 80: See page 258.]

[Footnote 81: See page 260.]

[Footnote 82: See Frontispiece.]

[Footnote 83: See page 19.]



It is now generally accepted that Dürer did not himself engrave on wood. In his earliest blocks he shows a greater respect for the limitations of this means of expression than later on. The earliest wood blocks, though no doubt they aimed at being facsimiles, were not such in fact; but the engraver took certain liberties for his own convenience, and probably did not attempt to render what Dürer calls “the hand” of the designer. “The hand” was equivalent to what modern artists call “the touch,” and meant the peculiar character recognisable in the vast majority of the strokes or marks which each artist uses in drawing or painting. Dürer affected extremely curved and rapid strokes, Mantegna the deliberate straight line, Rembrandt the straight stroke used so as to seem a continual improvisation; though indeed he varies the character of his touch more continually and more vastly than any other master, yet in his drawings and etchings the majority of the strokes are straight. Already in the woodcuts provided by Michael Wolgemut, Dürer’s master, to illustrate books, there is a general attempt to render cross hatching: and the eyes and hair, though still those of an engraver, are frequently modified to some extent in deference to the character given by the draughtsman. Still, no one with practical experience would consider these woodcuts as adequate facsimiles: which makes the question of their attribution to Wolgemut, or his partner and step-son, Pleydenwurff, of still less interest and importance than it is on all other grounds. So conscious an exception as the soul of the accurate Albert Dürer was, could not be expected to endure a partner in his creations, especially one whose character was revealed chiefly by the clumsy compromises convenient to lack of skill. Doubtless the demand for “his hand” was a new factor in the education of the engraver, as constant and as imperturbable as the action of a copious stream, which, having its source in lonely heights, wears a channel through the hardest rock, the most sullen soils. It may have been the pitiless tyranny of the master’s will for perfection which drove Hieronymus Andreae, “the most famous of Dürer’s wood engravers,” into religious and even civil rebellion, joining hands with levelling fanatics and taking active part in the Peasant War. Dürer probably would have commanded too much reverence and affection for these rebellions to be directed against him; but an insupportably heavy yoke is not rendered lighter because it is imposed by a loved hand,–though every other burden and restraint may in such a case be shaken off and resented before that which is the real cause of oppression. Dürer’s wood cutters had no doubt to resign any indolence, any impatience, or whatever else it might be that had otherwise stamped a personal character on their work; and all remonstrance must have been shamed by the evident fact that the young master spared himself not a whit more. The perseverance and docility which made such engraving possible was perhaps the greatest aid that Dürer drew from German character; it was not only an aid, but an example to and restraint upon that haughty spirit of his that restively ever again vows never to take so much pains over another picture to be so poorly paid (see page 103); that complains of failure and discouragement after years of repeatedly more world-wide successes (see page 187). These are not German traits, but it may have been the German blood he inherited from his mother and the example of his friends, fellow-workers, and helpers, which enabled him to get the better of such petulant and gloomy outbursts, and return to the day of small things with the will to continue and endure.

The difference introduced by the engravers becoming more and more capable of rendering Dürer’s hand is well illustrated by comparing the frontispiece to the _Apocalypse_, added about 1511, with the other cuts which had appeared in 1498. Doubtless Dürer’s hand had changed its character considerably during this period of constant and rapid development, and it requires tact and knowledge to separate the differences due to the creator from those due to the engraver. Dürer’s drawings differed as widely from the earlier drawings as does the engraving from the earlier blocks. But, as we may see by early drawings done as preliminary studies for engravings, the method of his pen strokes had changed less than the character of the forms they rendered; the conception of the design as a whole had advanced more rapidly than the skill and sleight of hand which expressed it. The engraver has by 1511 become capable of expressing a greater variety of speed in the stroke, makes it taper more finely, and can follow the tongue-like lap and flicker as the pen rises and dips again before leaving the surface of the block (as in the outer ends of the strokes that represent the radiance of the Virgin’s glory). Holbein, later on, was to obtain a yet more wonderful fidelity from Lutzelburger, the engraver of his _Dunce of Death_.

Still it were misleading to suppose that Dürer’s disregard for the facilities and limitations of wood-cutting went the lengths that the demands made upon modern skill have gone. Not only has the line been reproduced, but it has been drawn not with a full pen or brush, but in pencil or with watered ink; and the delicate tones thus produced have been demanded of and rendered by human skill. Dürer always uses a clear definite stroke; and in thus limiting himself he shows an appreciation of the medium to be used in reproducing his drawing, and recognises its limits to a large extent, though this is the only limitation he accepts. Less and less does he consider the possibilities which engraving offers for the use of a white line on black Doing his drawing with a black line, he contents himself with the qualities that the resources and facilities of the full pen line give: and his design is for a drawing which can be cut on wood, not for something that first really exists in the print; the prints are copies of his drawings. His drawings were not prepared to receive additions in the course of cutting, such as could only be rendered by the engraver. Faithfulness was the only virtue he required of Hieronymus Andreae. Yet even in such drawings as Dürer’s no doubt were, there would have been some qualities, some defects perhaps, that the print does not possess. For a print, from the mode of inking, has a breadth and unity which the drawing never can have. Even in drawings made with full flowing brush or pen, there will be modulations in the strength of the ink, or occasioned by the surface of the wood or paper, in every stroke, by which the, sensitive artist in the heat of work cannot help being influenced, and which will lead him to give a bloom, a delicacy, to his drawing, such as a print can never possess. And, on the other hand, the unity of the print can never be quite realised in the drawing, however much the artist may strive to attain it, because the conditions must change, however slightly, for strokes produced in succession; while in a print all are produced together, and variations, if variations there are, occur over wide spaces and not between stroke and stroke. It is considerations, of this kind that in the last resort determine the quality of works of art. The artist is taught, though often unconsciously, by the means he employs, but the diligent man who is not by nature an artist never can learn these things: he can Imitate the manner and form, never the grace, the bloom, and the life.

[Illustration: THE APOCALYPSE, 1498 St. Michael fighting the Dragon, Woodcut, B. 72 From the impression in the British Museum Face p. 262]


Dürer’s first important issue of woodcuts was the _Apocalypse_. A great deal has been written in praise of this production as a political pamphlet against the corrupt Papacy. It was undoubtedly the most important series of woodcuts that had ever appeared, by the size, number and elaboration of the designs. It also undoubtedly attacks ecclesiastical corruption, but not ecclesiastical only. Whether to Dürer and his friends it appeared even chiefly directed against prelates, or even against those who sat in high places; whether the popes, bishops and figures typical of the Church seemed to him to illustrate the moral in any pre-eminent degree, may be doubted. Still more doubtful is it whether there was any objection to papacy or priesthood as institutions connected with these figures in his mind. Unworthy popes, unworthy bishops, and an unworthy Rome were censured: but not popes, bishops, or Rome as the capital see of the Church. Dürer’s work as a whole shows no distaste for saints, the Virgin, or bishops and popes; he had no objection, no scruple apparently, to introducing the notorious Julius II. into his _Feast of the_ Rosary, some ten years later. There has perhaps been a tendency to read the intention of these designs too much in the light of after events: and by so doing a great slur is cast on Dürer’s consistency; for, had these designs the significance read into them, he must be supposed an altogether convinced enemy of the Church; and the tremendous salaams which he afterwards made to her in far more important works ought, to logical minds, to appear horribly insincere.

Viewed as works of art, one reads about the cut of the four riders upon horses, “For simple grandeur this justly famous design has never been surpassed.” One’s sense of proportion receives such a shock as gives one the sensation of being utterly outcast, in a world where such a precious dictum can pass without remark as a sample of the discrimination of the chief authority on the life and art of Albert Dürer. Neither simple nor grand is an adjective applicable to this print in the sense in which we apply it to the chief masterpieces of antiquity and of the Renaissance. To say even that Dürer never surpassed this design is to utter what to me at least seems the most palpable absurdity. There is an immense advance in design, in conception and in mastery of every kind shown over the best prints of the _Apocalypse_ and _Great Passion_, in the prints added to the latter series ten years later, and still more in the _Life of the Virgin_. And still finer results are arrived at in single cuts of later date, and in the _Little Passion_. If we want to see what Dürer’s woodcuts at their finest are for breadth and dignity of composition, for richness and fertility of arabesque and black and white pattern, for vigour and subtlety of form, for boldness and vivacity of workmanship, we must turn to the _Samson_ (1497?) (B. 2), the Man’s _Bath_ (14-?), (B. 128), among the earlier blocks published before the _Apocalypse_, then to those designed in or about the year 1511. The golden period for Dürer’s woodcuts, the date of the publication of his most magnificent series, the _Life of the Virgin_ and several delightful separate prints. Among these we find it hard to choose, but if some must be mentioned let it be the _St. Joachim’s Offering Rejected by the High Priest_ (B. 77), the _Meeting at the Golden Gate_ (B. 79) (see illustration), the _Marriage of the Virgin_ (B. 82), the _Visitation_ (B. 84), the _Nativity_ (B. 85) (see illustration), the _Presentation_ (B. _55_), the _Flight into Egypt_ (B. 89).

[Illustration: Detail enlarged from “Nativity.”–“Life of the Virgin” Woodcut, B. 85]

[Illustration: Enlarged detail from “The Embrace of St. Joachim and St. Anne at the Golden Gate.”–“Life of the Virgin,” Woodcut, B. 79]

In the glorious masterpieces of this series Dürer has found the true balance of his powers. The dignity and charm of the decorative effect of these cuts has never been surpassed; and to the racy narrative vivacity of such groups and figures as those isolated and enlarged in our illustration there is added an idyllic charm of which perhaps the best examples are the _Visitation_ and the _Flight into Egypt_. This sweetness of allure is still more pervasive in the separate cuts that bear this golden date, 1511, that is in the _St. Christopher_ (B. 103), and the _St. Jerome_ (B. 114). And the _Adoration of the Magi_ (B. 3) is much finer than the one included in the _Life of the Virgin_. This idyllic charm had already been touched _upon before_ in the _Assumption of the Magdalen_ (B. 121) (15?), and in the _St. Antony_ and _St. Paul_ and the _Baptist_ and _St. Onuphrius of_ 1504. It is not felt to lie very deep in the conception of the subject, for all are treated in an obviously conventional manner, the touches of racy realism being confined to subordinate incidents and details. Neither the subjects nor the mood of the artist lend themselves to the dramatic impressiveness of such cuts as the _Blowing of the Sixth Trumpet_ or the _St. Michael overwhelming the Dragon of the Apocalypse_ (_see_ page 262), where the inspiration appears to be Gothic, perhaps developed under the influence of Mantegna’s _Combat between Sea Monsters_, of which Dürer early made an elaborate pen-and-ink copy. We find an aftermath of the same inspiration in the engraving on iron, dated 1516, representing a man riding astride of an unicorn carrying off a shrieking woman. Such stormy and strenuous lowerings of the imagination break in upon Dürer’s habitual mood as St. Peter’s thunders into Milton’s “Lycidas,” of which the general felicitous mingling of a conventional pedantry with idyllic charm and racy touches of realistic effect is very similar to the general effect of the golden group we have been describing. Among all the work that finds its climax in the beautiful creations of 1511, only in a few prints of the _Little Passion_, published in 1511, do we find any dramatic power or creativeness of essential conception. I may mention the _Christ Scourging the Money-changers in the Temple_, the _Agony in the Garden_, and Judas’ _Kiss_, where, though the general effect be rather confused, the central figure is full of appropriate power. _Christ haled by the hair before_ _Annas_ (the most wonderful of all), Christ before _Pilate_, Christ _Mocked_, the _Ecce Homo_ (a most beautiful composition), the Veronica’s napkin incident, _Christ_ being nailed _to the Cross_ (a masterpiece), the _Deposition_, the _Entombment_:–several others of the series have idyllic charm or touches of narrative force which link them with the general group, but these alone stand out and in some ways surpass it. After this date Dürer seems in a great measure to have relinquished wood for metal engraving; however, most of his occasional resumptions of the process were marked by the production of masterpieces, if we put on one side the workshop monsters produced for Maximilian–and even in these, in details, Dürer’s full force is recognisable. I may mention the _Madonna_ crowned and _worshipped by a concert of Angels_, 1518 (B. 101), which, though a little cold, like all the work of that period, is still a masterpiece; and then, after the inspiriting visit to Antwerp, we have the magnificent portrait of Ulrich Varnbüler, 1522 (B. 155), the _Last Supper_, 1523 (B. 53) (see illustration here), and the glorious piece of decoration representing Dürer’s Arms, 1523 (B. 160) (see illustration). I have reproduced less of Dürer’s wood engravings than would be necessary to represent their importance and beauty, because most, being large and bold, are greatly impoverished by reduction; besides, they are nearly all well known through comparatively cheap reproductions. I have enlarged two details to give an idea of Dürer’s workmanship when employed upon racy realism (see illustration, page 264), and when employed in endowing a single figure with supreme grace and dignity (see illustration, page 265).

[Illustration: Christ haled before Annas From the “Little Passion”–_Between_ pp. 266 & 267]

[Illustration: DÜRER’S ARMORIAL BEARINGS Woodcut, B. 160]




Before closing this part of my book something must be said of Dürer’s influence on other artists. It is one of the foibles of modern criticism to please itself by tracing influences, a process of the same nature as that of tracing resemblances to ferns and other growths on a frosted pane. No one would deny that resemblances are there; it is to distinguish them and estimate their significance without yielding to fancifulness, which is the well-nigh hopeless task. It is often forgotten that similar circumstances produce similar effects, and that coincidences from this cause are very rife. Then, too, it is forgotten that the influence that produces rivalry is stronger, more important, and less easily estimated, than that which is expressed by imitation or plagiarism; besides, it affects more original and fertile natures. The stimulus of a great creative personality often is more potent where discernible resemblances are few and vague, than where they are many and obvious. In Dürer’s day the study and imitation of antique art which had