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Courtauld Gallery exhibition focuses on early figure drawings by Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), A Wise Virgin (recto), 1493. Pen and brown ink, 291 x 200 mm. Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London, D.1978.PG.251.

LONDON.- This exhibition focuses on the remarkable early figure drawings of the great German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). It examines how Dürer reinvented established artistic traditions through an ambitious new approach to the figure rooted in the study of his own body. The exhibition features outstanding early works by Dürer as well as rare drawings and prints by contemporaries, many of which have never been seen in the United Kingdom. They include some of the masterpieces of early German art.

The Young Dürer concentrates on the artist’s formative years, from around 1490 when he completed his artistic training, to about 1496 when he established himself permanently as a master in Nuremberg, southern Germany. This period included the so-called Wanderjahre, or ‘journeyman years’, during which the artist travelled widely and was exposed to a range of new experiences. Dürer’s drawings, in particular, demonstrate the significance of these early influences in shaping his ambitions. A key work from this period is held in The Courtauld’s own collection. The front of this double-sided drawing, dated 1493, shows a highly finished figure from the parable of the Wise and the Foolish Virgins. Preserved on its back are Dürer’s remarkable studies of his own left leg. This celebrated sheet combines two crucial aspects of the young Dürer’s artistic approach: close observation from nature and his related ambition to bring new expressive power to depicting the human figure.

Dürer was a precociously talented draughtsman. He abandoned his apprenticeship as a goldsmith with his father to train as an artist in the workshop of the successful Nuremberg painter, woodcut designer and entrepreneur Michael Wolgemut (1434-1519). Nuremberg was one of the most important commercial and intellectual centres in Germany and Wolgemut’s workshop designed the woodcut illustrations for some of the most significant new publications of the time. Here Dürer gained invaluable first-hand experience of the exciting new possibilities offered by the dissemination of images through prints. The young artist was also exposed to the culture of humanism which prioritised the experience of the individual over received doctrine and promoted a new curiosity about the natural world.

The nineteen-year-old Dürer set out on his journeyman years fired by ambition and a belief in his own abilities. He left in 1490 and was away for some four years, establishing professional contacts, undertaking work and absorbing various influences. His exact itinerary remains uncertain. He probably travelled in the region of Frankfurt; he is known to have visited Colmar, and certainly worked in Basel and Strasbourg. The drawings that Dürer created during this period provide rich insights into his development. Among the crucial artistic questions he explored was the modelling of complex draperies and, above all, the anatomically correct rendering of the human body, based on observation. He would later write: “For in truth, art lies hidden within nature; he who can wrest it from her, has it”.

Dürer’s ambition to reform art through a new approach to the natural world is evident in a series of unprecedented drawings in which he studied his own features and body. This intense self-scrutiny is powerfully expressed in the celebrated early Self-portrait from Erlangen. For Dürer, it seems, understanding himself became a way of understanding the world. This section of the exhibition also includes the exquisite Three studies of the artist’s left hand from the Albertina in Vienna (fig. 2), in which Dürer meticulously observed the anatomy of the hand adopting various gestures. Such drawings show the young Dürer seeking to master the depiction of the human body in order to give his works a greater fidelity to nature and expressive power. They are radically different from the late medieval tradition of copy-book drawings, in which standard templates were repeated in artists’ workshops.

Dürer’s close study of the body allowed him to conceive such ambitious new figure compositions as The Courtauld Gallery’s A Wise Virgin. Made when the artist was twenty-two or twenty-three years old, this complex drawing is a statement of ambition. The elegantly twisted figure clothed in intricate drapery depicts the parable recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Ten virgins were asked to await the arrival of a bridegroom with their lamps filled with oil: five wisely preserved their oil and were admitted to the wedding; the foolish five, whose lamps were empty, were excluded. Dürer has embodied the story in a single figure: the virgin turns to the side with her hand raised in a salutary gesture, implying the presence of the groom without showing him.

A Wise Virgin also shows how Dürer absorbed and transformed the work of other artists encountered on his travels. He is likely to have become familiar with the work of the Housebook Master in the region of Frankfurt. This anonymous master’s delicate silverpoint drawing of a young couple engaged in conversation and seen from behind is one of the highlights of the exhibition, as is the exquisite Upper Rhenish pen and ink drawing of a Young woman holding a tendril. Most influential of all were the engravings of Martin Schongauer, the leading German artist of the day, who had helped to popularise the subject of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. We know from writings of the Nuremberg lawyer Christoph Scheurl (1481-1542) that Dürer travelled to Colmar in the Upper Rhine specifically to meet Schongauer. Schongauer had died by the time Dürer arrived but it was his technically brilliant and instantly recognisable engravings, more than the work of any other artist, that Dürer sought to emulate and surpass in the beautiful calligraphic pen and ink lines of The Courtauld’s drawing.

Writing in his family chronicle thirty years later, Dürer recalled the circumstances of his return to Nuremberg from his Wanderjahre: “And when I returned home, Hans Frey made an arrangement with my father and gave me his daughter, Miss Agnes by name, and with her he gave me 200 florins, and held the wedding – it was on Monday before Margaret’s Day [7 July] in the year 1494.” Inscribed Mein Agnes (My Agnes), Dürer’s celebrated sketch of his young wife resting at a table is remarkable for its informality and apparent effortlessness. Dürer seems to have left Nuremberg again shortly after his wedding, probably to escape an outbreak of the plague. This time he travelled towards Italy and is likely to have reached Venice, although this is still disputed by scholars. Dürer’s interest in Italian art and classical subject matter complemented his own Northern artistic traditions. His early engagement with Italian art gave a further dimension to his depiction of the figure, as can be seen in his copies after Italian prints, examples of which will be included in the exhibition.

As soon as Dürer returned to Nuremberg he established himself as an independent master. Prints were central to his strategy to exploit the journeyman years. Marked with the famous AD monogram, The Prodigal Son of c. 1496 is the earliest of his engravings for which a preparatory drawing has been preserved. Praised as “exceedingly beautiful” by the Italian biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), this composition combines a richly detailed setting with a life-like depiction of the Prodigal Son, whose wringing hands, bare legs and body powerfully communicate his moment of spiritual crisis. Images such as this were the culmination of all that Dürer had learned during his Wanderjahre. Nothing like them had been seen before and they ensured that his fame spread rapidly.

Albrecht Dürer redirected the course of German art and it was his drawings and prints – even more so than his paintings – that made him one of the most renowned artists of his time. They are central to his enduring legacy. His contemporary, the philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), lauded him as the “Apelles of black lines” who was able to express “the whole mind of man as it reflects itself in the behaviour of the body”.

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