Double portrait reunited: Quinten Massys, “Portrait of a Man with a Rosary” (c. 1520), oil on wood, 48.2 x 41.9 cm, and “Portrait of a Woman” (c. 1520), oil on wood, 48.3 x 43.2 cm (all photos by the author)

LONDON — Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) is by no means a blockbuster name, though his prolific output of tightly detailed, virtuosic engravings, woodcuts, drawings, and, to a lesser extent, paintings remains significant within art history. However, the volume and breadth of his interests as evidenced in his works on paper have enabled curator Susan Foister to mount a studious and rewarding exhibition even without major masterpieces. (Young Hare, for example, or any of the major self portraits rarely travel.) Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery is uninterested in proclaiming a headline-grabbing new or radical angle on the artist’s work. Perhaps accordingly, both times I visited, the exhibition, located within the National’s underground Sainsbury Wing, was not exactly teeming with visitors. By contrast, the recently closed Poussin and the Dance, in the upstairs main galleries, practically shouted its mission to present Poussin in “a fresh, new exciting light” and then regularly strained to meet this promise. Here the umbrella theme of travel allows for a chronological survey, which, thanks to Dürer’s extensive documentation combined with unusual and compelling loans, achieves that rare thing among monographic exhibitions: a wider contextual understanding of Dürer’s practical world that is filled with interacting characters and artistic exchange, and is richly rewarding to see.

Each room is arranged by city and country in order of Dürer’s visits to them, beginning with his home of Nuremberg, Germany, and moving to Venice and the Low Countries. Foister makes no attempt to demonstrate any thematic or stylistic development, and the works defy such an effort, varying greatly in subject and medium. What emerges is an impression that travel facilitated Dürer’s learning and innovation, as he freely switched mediums to suit each piece and followed his incessant curiosity from the start, as in two small, unassuming studies seemingly done purely for his own interest and practice: “Ruin of an Alpine Shelter” (1514, from the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana) and “Trintperg – Dosso di Trento” (1495, Kunsthalle Bremen). The former is a metalpoint and watercolor that betrays an early interest in minute detail and unusual perspectives, the latter a watercolor study of a curious mound looming over the titular village. Nearby is the gouache study “A Lion” (1494, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Kupferstichkabinett), though its stiff countenance and positioning suggest it was taken from heraldic sources, as real lions were, understandably, rare items in 16th-century Europe.

Details from Jan Gossaert, “Adoration of the Kings” (c. 1510-15), oil on oak, 1.77 m x 1.62 m, and Albrecht Dürer, “St Eustace” (c. 1501), engraving on paper, 35.4 x 26 cm

The open-minded curation continues in a section featuring a series of portraits from Dürer’s time in Venice, all produced circa 1506-7. The captions for these otherwise unrelated portraits of “Burkhard of Speyer” (1506, lent by The Queen), a “Young Man” (1506, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa), and “Young Girl” (1507, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) do not seek to establish a stylistic or thematic commonality; they simply describe what he was producing at the time. Where some curators feel the need to justify the presence of loans via forcing definitive links or relevance in the captioning, here viewers are invited to consider the works within the overall context of the show and to form their own observations.

Where the curator does choose to make direct stylistic or iconographic links, however, these are largely convincing. We are informed that a dog in Dürer’s engraving of St. Eustace (c. 1499–1503, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) served as a model for works by other artists, such as the magnificent adjacent painting “The Adoration of the Kings” by Jan Gossaert (1510-15, National Gallery, London). The transportable and transmissible nature of paper-based engravings increases the possibility that the design at some point sat in front of Gossaert’s nose, but merely looking at the two sinewy canines’ identical pose and stylized musculature suffices. Foister even identifies the unusual motif of a bullock’s rump, seen truncated by the frame of Giovanni Bellini’s “Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr” (1505-57, National Gallery, London), as “identical” to a similar truncated rear in Dürer’s “Prodigal Son” (c. 1497, British Museum). (In this case, though, the different tail positions hint that the Bellini — and by extension the comparison — might be included because, conveniently, it normally lives two floors away in the Sainsbury wing, and didn’t require a loan.) 

These comparisons highlight the medieval and Renaissance use of model books, whereby drawings were produced by a workshop master so that apprentices could copy them and learn standardized ways to draw myriad items, such as animals and patterns. In a similar vein, we are shown simply drafted examples of exotic animals, for instance a monkey in gray and rose wash on a page of “Sketches of Animals and Landscapes” (1521, Clark Institute, Massachusetts). By recording unusual sights encountered throughout his travels and disseminating these via workshop practices it’s understandable why Dürer is so prominent in art history. 

Details from Giovanni Bellini, “The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr” (c. 1507), oil and tempera on wood, 67 x 100 cm, and Albrecht Dürer, “The Prodigal Son” (c. 1496), engraving on paper, 24.3 x 18.7 cm

Dürer meticulously diarized his activities; this, combined with intimate letters, contributes to the idea of artistic interchange as based on social interaction among many people. A letter from Dürer to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer, dated September 23, 1506 (British Library, London), discusses not only a recent painting but also shopping quests for materials like enameled glass and carpets. Such mundane details flesh out a vivid picture of contemporary life beyond the artworks shown. Elsewhere in the show is a stained glass panel by the workshop of Dirk Vellert of “The Flight into Egypt” (c. 5132-40, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Dürer’s meticulous documentation explains that he acquired a pigment from Vellert that he had not encountered previously, demonstrating that the process of artistic interchange encompassed not only stylistic transfer but material as well.

The importance of social interaction continues into a portraiture section introducing contemporary characters in Dürer’s orbit. He visited the collection of Margaret of Austria, and the home of artist Quinten Massys in Antwerp. Accordingly, the exhibition includes a portrait of the former by Bernaert van Orely (1518, Royal Monastery of Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse, France) and several portraits by the latter, most significantly a double portrait comprised of “Portrait of a Woman” (c. 1520, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and “Portrait of a Man with a Rosary” (c. 1520, private collection). (The reunion of these from such disparate collections is a mini triumph in itself.) It takes skill to add so many works by other artists in a monographic show on Dürer without being accused of padding it with filler. In this case, the additional works are wonderfully effective in presenting a cast of artists and others operating in Dürer’s world stage. Clearly, his success as an artist is not due to output alone, but also active social mingling facilitated by travel.

Using the theme of travel to examine Dürer’s work could easily have resulted in an unfocused, safe collection of whatever works could be acquired. Yet there is a precision to the selections, which include relatively obscure collections. Foister is confident enough in the viewer’s intelligence to bypass the predictable greatest hits in favor of peripheral works that go beyond simply showing what, when, and where Dürer produced artworks. Instead of being spoon-fed examples that posit Dürer’s artistic “influence” as one way, we are asked to consider that his success and longevity in art history is intertwined with his complex social interactions across countries and time, recording what he saw as he went along. 

Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) through February 27. The exhibition is curated by Susan Foister.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...