Dürer was the son of a Hungarian goldsmith who had come to Germany, and become successful in Nuremburg. His godfather was Anton Koberger, then the leading German publisher. He began to train with his father, but at fifteen was apprenticed to the painter Michel Wolgemut for three years.
An astonishingly accomplished self-portrait drawing he did at thirteen has survived, but the other works attributed to his apprenticeship years are mostly woodcuts for books. He may have learnt how to cut the blocks himself, which would have been highly unusual for an artist. Normally a specialist “formschneider” cut out the block following a drawing either done directly onto the wooden block or done on paper and glued to the block. Dürer may have cut his earlier blocks himself, but certainly supervised the cutting of almost all of his work very closely, and understood unusually well how to design for woodcut.
It was common for Germans to take a “wanderjahre” at the end of their apprenticeships, travelling to gain a wider view of their field. Dürer took more than three years off (1490-94), but did not leave Germany. In Colmar he just missed meeting Martin Schongauer, who had recently died.
On returning to Nuremburg in 1494 he married the daughter of a leading family in the town, and within the year travelled again to Italy for six months, visiting Verona and Venice, with decisive effect for his art. On his return in 1495 he became a Master and established his own workshop.
He very quickly began to produce engravings and woodcuts of extremely high quality, which rapidly became known throughout the artistic centres of Europe. By 1497 he was using an agent for his foreign sales of prints. His woodcut series of illustrations to the Apocalypse of 1498 was a sensational success, and the image of the Four Horsemen remains one of the most widely-known Old Master prints.
From then on he was universally recognised as the leading printmaker in Europe. His prints were widely copied and imitated in both Germany and Italy. They have remained the best-known and revered body of work in prints ever since, approached only by Rembrandt.
His prints have superb technical control, and great strength in composition, often in extremely formal and complex designs. As an engraver he developed a technique that allowed unprecedented detail and depiction of texture, without losing any expressiveness or impact.
In these years he also built a strong reputation as a painter, especially of portraits. His self-portraits of these years transformed German portrait painting, combining tremendous Italianate stylishness with an unsettling sense of angst. After 1500 he completed a number of large religious paintings, which were equally influential. He complained that time spent painting was less financially productive than making prints.
Throughout his career Dürer was obsessed by mathematics and their application to art, and spent much time trying to discover what he thought were the secrets Italian artists had discovered. Towards the end of his life he published several books containing the results of his years of study, one of which was the first book in German on pure mathmatics. Others concerned perspective, the proportions of the human figure, and the art of fortification. His notes for a planned work on the proportions of the horse were lost.
He visited Italy again in 1505 and 1506-7, spending time mainly in Venice, and the Netherlands in 1520-21. From this last trip his journal survives with records of his sales of prints – rare information from this period. By then he was travelling as a considerable celebrity, greeted with civic receptions and even parades.
Two specific and characteristic reasons for the Netherlands trip were to persuade the new Emperor Charles V to renew the pension that his father Maximilian I had granted him, in which he succeeded – typically Maximilian had specified the Nuremburg City Council was responsible for the actual payments. The other was to obtain a book the Venetian artist Jacobo de Barberi had given Charles’s sister, which he believed contained a system of proportion for drawing the figure. In this he was unsuccessful, as the book had already been given to another artist.
Altogether he produced nearly 350 woodcuts, 100 engravings (including a few dry-points in 1512), and just 6 etchings (on steel plates, in 1515-18). His production of woodcuts, other than commissions and illustrations for his books, declines significantly from around 1511, and of engravings a few years later. He also left hundreds of superb drawings and watercolours.
Many of his prints came in series, like the Apocalypse set. These were often published in bound editions with text. Altogether he produced three Passion sets (another early one was not completed), the large and the small woodcut series, and the ‘Engraved Passion’. There was also a woodcut Life of the Virgin, and sets of saints.
In his later years he spent increasing amounts of time on his researches and writing. After 1521 his health was not good and many large paintings were not completed. He became a highly respected and wealthy figure in Nuremburg, on the City Council from 1509. He was sympathetic to Luther and reform of the Church, although doctrinally he was quite conservative.