THE BIG REVIEW | Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist – National Gallery, London

Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery, London, although wonderful, is also a slightly messy exhibition. In fact, some of the thematic rooms are so good that you forget this is a chronology of his observations in the Alps, Italy, and the Low Countries.

The backbone is Dürer’s sketchbook drawings, which record his encounters with foreign citizens, landscapes, and exotic animals. I appreciated the digital reconstruction of his silverpoint sketchbook; 3 double-sided sheets are shown nearby. It was also humbling to see the only surviving page from Dürer’s original diary of his 1520-21 journey to the Low Countries opposite the only complete copy of said diary.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum’s copy (Vienna) of the Rosenkranz Madonna (Národní galerie, Prague) represents the high point of Dürer’s Venetian commissions. As for the influential figures he met there, I would’ve wanted more relevant works by Giovanni Bellini and Jacopo de’ Barbari, specifically the latter’s prints which impacted Dürer’s Adam and Eve, explored in depth with a prep. drawing and works by Dirck Vellert, Jan Gossaert, and Conrad Meit. Otherwise, Dürer’s graphic output is surprisingly well contextualised throughout.

Dürer’s painted and drawn portraits of anonymous individuals around Germany (1518-21) easily steal the show, graced with exceptional works by Lucas van Leyden, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Gossaert.

Alongside powerful Passion drawings, the finale offers a phenomenal trio: Dürer’s St Jerome (1521; Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), Hans Hoffmann’s copy of Dürer’s study of an old man (original in the Albertina, Vienna) – from which the painting was based – and van Leyden’s haunting response that same year (both Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

This exhibition shows clearly, if nothing else, the extent of an artist’s interpersonal connections in the Early Modern period, a fact easily forgotten.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist ran until 27 February 2022 at the National Gallery, London,

Jacopo de’ Barbari and Albrecht Dürer

In my review above, I mentioned how I hoped for more relevant works by Jacopo de’ Barbari in the room focusing broadly on Dürer’s Italian adventures; they met in Nuremberg in 1500.⁠

Shown in this room is Jacopo’s painting of A Sparrowhawk (1510s) from the National Gallery collection, which makes logistical sense for inclusion. However, the caption for it actually refers to Jacopo’s engravings of male and female nudes, and that he ‘did not want to show his principles to me [Dürer] clearly’ regarding representing human proportion.⁠

To my disappointment, Jacopo’s prints of Apollo and Diana (1503-05) and Mars and Venus (1510-12) were not exhibited. The former had a particular influence on Adam in Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504), while the latter is perhaps Jacopo’s response years later.⁠

Nonetheless, the jealousy that Dürer had for Jacopo concerning this particular subject led him to trawl through Vitruvius and develop his own system of proportions, which he then applied to his studies for Adam and Eve (British Museum, London), leading eventually to the posthumous publication of his Four Books on Human Proportion (1532-34).⁠

As the exhibition shows, Adam and Eve had a widespread impact on both German and Netherlandish artists. Jan Gossaert made his own pastiche (Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) and Conrad Meit adapted the group into delicately-carved boxwood figurines (Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha).⁠

The inclusion of a Dirck Vellert drawing (Musée du Louvre, Paris) was interesting, which closely follows the outline of Dürer’s proportional drawing of Eve. His own equally detailed prints could’ve added a further dimension to contemporary responses to those by Dürer; however, one of his stained-glass works fills this void in the next room.⁠

Dürer’s studies of St Christopher

In my review, due to character limits, I omitted an excellent room featuring one of my favourite drawings.⁠

Part of this room focused on Dürer’s friendship with Joachim Patinir and their depictions of St Christopher. They seemed to be close; in Antwerp, Dürer noted in his diary on 3 May 1521 that Patinir invited him to his wedding.⁠

That year, Dürer recorded a gift to Patinir of four St Christopher drawings on grey paper; the British Museum sheet is believed to be the only surviving one of the four. Such figure studies were then used by Patinir in his own work.⁠

Another possible part of this generous gift may have been the sheet of nine studies (Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin), one of my favourite sheets of drawings in the world!⁠

This sheet is a great example of Dürer’s fluid inventiveness and confident draughtsmanship. Each sketch, with barely a correction in sight, considers different ways for the saint to interact with the Christ Child on his back, sometimes with no interaction at all.⁠

Like a comic-strip, each pose and perspective offers a new story to the narrative; they could easily be stitched together to form a dramatic short film about an old man carrying a baby across far-flung landscapes.⁠

Adding to this drama is the variation in drawn lines, evoking somewhat dynamic lighting with the smallest changes to the pressure of the pen, one of my favourite things to observe in drawings and even in prints.

Dürer and the angels of Venetian painting

Some of the things I’ve always appreciated in Venetian painting are the music-playing angels which quietly sit below the Madonna on the steps of her throne. My favourite has always been Cima da Congeliano’s Montini Altarpiece (1505-07) in the Galleria Nazionale di Parma.⁠

This trope heavily influenced Albrecht Dürer’s own Madonna and Child compositions, having also borrowed the idea of an enthroned Madonna backed by a canopy. He used it several times throughout his career, from the Rosenkranz Madonna (1506) to a much-planned but unexecuted, ambitious Virgin and Child with Saints in 1521-22, dubbed by one scholar as ‘perhaps the greatest tragedy of Dürer’s fate as an artist’. The latter is known only from a large group of drawings, of which some from the Louvre are in the Dürer’s Journeys exhibition.⁠

⁠Dürer’s angels have a certain gravitas to them, and a certain melancholy – cue the engraving from 1514 – that makes them stand out as independent figures of interest. Perhaps it’s their spectacularly vibrant wings, or the angularity of their drapery? Or maybe it’s the fact they look less like ideal entities from Heaven and more like Earth-born fleshlings pondering an existential crisis.⁠

Even the animated drawing of music-making angels (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is akin to a festive genre scene in some rural Northern European town.⁠

Unlike the little putti we are so accustomed to seeing above such paintings – so lofty and carefree – perhaps we ought to consider these musical angels as our mediators, tuning the strings of our human lives towards a perfect harmony worthy of divine ascension.⁠

Dürer and Venetian Madonnas

In my opinion, the Haller Madonna (1496-99; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) in the opening room of Dürer’s Journeys felt a little underused and unsupported.

Making its first UK debut, this vibrant double-sided picture is an excellent example of Dürer’s early assimilation of Italian art. More specifically, his important first trip to Venice in 1494-95 introduced him to the rich colours used in Venetian painting and an influential friendship with the city’s leading artist Giovanni Bellini.

Painted for local clients in Nuremberg, the painting has clear parallels with other Madonna and Child images produced by the Bellini workshop. The strongest of these is having the Madonna hold the upright Christ child with a curtain behind her in a contrasting colour. This device later emerges as a full canopy in the Rosenkranz Madonna (1506; Národní galerie, Prague), which Bellini also did.

I can see why some works in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, were absent in the exhibition, of which Giovanni Bellini’s Contarini Madonna (1475-80) and Madonna degli Alberetti (1487) are relevant examples. However, the National Gallery’s own Virgin and Child (1480-90) by Bellini upstairs could’ve been used to illustrate his influence on Dürer’s colours and compositions (which they mention in the caption!).

In fact, the only Bellini work in the exhibition is the Assassination of St Peter Martyr (1505-07), where a curtailed body of a bullock was copied from Dürer’s Prodigal Son engraving (1496).

The painting’s other influences weren’t illustrated either, only mentioned: the open window (Netherlandish) and apparently a Martin Schongauer engraving.

As expected, there was little they could say about the Lot and his Daughters on the back, but at least there was a sightline to one of the Apocalypse woodcuts (1498) to link both their flaming towns in the background.

Dürer and St Jerome

Only just beginning to appreciate the subtle teasing of St Jerome images throughout the Dürer’s Journeys exhibition from beginning to glorious finale.⁠

Paired with the Haller Madonna in the opening room is the NG’s double-sided picture of the penitent saint in the wilderness from 1496, robes discarded on the ground and about to beat his chest with a rock. Meanwhile a proud stylised lion observes from behind. Dürer’s atmospheric background and rich use of colour betrays his nascent knowledge of Venetian painting.⁠

Two years earlier, Dürer drew a similar-looking lion in gouache (Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg), probably adapted from heraldic imagery or sculpture; he probably didn’t see a real one until 1520-21 in the Netherlands.⁠

Nearby, this same wilderness scene is reproduced with greater animation and emotional intensity in a large engraving from about 1496-97. Here, the precise burin lines accentuate the jagged cliff edges, Jerome’s musculature, and offers a rich tonal variety across the image.⁠

The same room also shows Jerome in his study in one of Dürer’s earliest woodcuts from 1492, made to illustrate an edition of the saint’s letters published in Basel. Fast forward to 1514 and he makes that beautiful engraving with the saint in a brightly lit interior with excellent perspective.⁠

Finally, in March 1521, ‘I painted a Jerome in oils, taking care over it, and gave it as a gift to Rodrigo [Fernandes de Almada] the Portuguese’ (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), complemented in the exhibition by homages from Hans Hoffmann, Lucas van Leyden, Joos van Cleve, and Marinus van Reymerswale (Ashmolean Museum; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).⁠

Disclaimer: The above content was originally published in 2021 as an Instagram series.


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