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Altdorfer, Albrecht

Altdorfer, Albrecht
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Altdorfer, Albrecht

Altdorfer, Albrecht (b. c.1480, Regensburg, d. 1538, Regensburg). German painter, engraver, architect and graphic artist working in Regensburg, of which town he was a citizen from 1505 onwards, the leading artist of the so-called Danube School of German painting. His most outstanding works are biblical and historical subjects set against highly imaginative and atmospheric landscape backgrounds.

The exact date and place of Albrecht Altdorfer's birth are unknown, although he was associated with the Bavarian city of Regensburg for almost all of his life. He is first documented there in 1505 when he acquired citizenship rights and was called a "painter from Amberg", a small town north of Regensburg. Since one could become a citizen in Regensburg at age sixteen, it is possible for Altdorfer to have been born as late as 1488, although an earlier date, circa 1480, seems more likely. Altdorfer became a citizen of Regensburg in 1505 and bought a house there in 1513, another in 1518 and a third in 1532; he also owned several vineyards. From 1517 he held seats on the outer and inner councils of Regensburg and represented the city on important official business. A portrait of Altdorfer is found in an illumination in the Freiheitenbuch (1536; Regensburg, Stadtmus.) by Hans Müelich, which represents him in minute profile among Regensburg's city councillors.

There is no record of Altdorfer's early training or travels, but it has been suggested that his father was the painter and miniaturist, Ulrich Altdorfer, last mentioned in Regensburg in 1491. Albrecht Altdorfer's signed and dated engravings and drawings first appeared in 1506 and were followed, in 1507, by several small paintings. Woodcut production began in 1511.

His early work was influenced by Cranach and Dürer's art too was known to him through the woodcuts and engravings. Mingled with these German impresions was a knowledge of the art of Mantegna, perhaps through the mediation of Michael Pacher.

Early works: the strengh of a mysterious and overwhelming vegetal nature

In the first period of his work, 1507-11, his paintings are often filled with witches, wild men and other weird apparitions. Nature is depicted as mysterious, and vegetals are represented as human hair or beards, enveloping and penetrating everything from humans to rocks and buildings, often left over as ruins. In St George in the Forest, the human form is completely absorbed by the thickness of the forest. Fantastic light effects provide a sense of mystery and dissolve the outline of objects.

Altdorfer was one of the most talented painters in the whole of German art. He achieved, through his color modulation, completely new ways of expression directed at the emotions. His tendency towards the 'romantic' is particularly obvious in his landscapes. He was the first European artist to paint a 'pure' landscape, and in many of his other paintings figure and landscape merge in such a way that the scenic becomes the background: St. George in the Forest (1510).

Altdorfer's skill as a graphic artist entitles him to a place among the so-called Little Masters, a group of 16th-century German engravers noted for their expert execution of designs on a small scale. His prints include an outstanding series of 9 etched landscapes and a set of 40 engravings collectively called The Fall and Redemption of Man.

In 1510 Altdorfer traveled in the Alpine countries. It seems highly probable that he also went to Italy; the 'Italian influence' could be sensed in his brilliant handling of spatial construction in the St. Florian Legend of St. Sebastian and the Passion of Christ altar panels. Although there is no evidence for a trip to Italy, it is evident that Altdorfer utilized Italian niello work and the engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi and Andrea Mantegna.

On or around 1509 he received a commission for the wings of an altarpiece for the monastery of Saint Florian in Enns (Linz), Austria. The series occupied Altdorfer until 1518, the date on one of the panels. In works such as the altar for St. Florian or the Christ Taking Leave of His Mother (National Gallery, London) he achieved a wonderful unity of mood between action and landscape.

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