Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg, Germany on May 21, 1471, the second of eighteen children in the family of a master goldsmith of some repute. Fifteen of the children of this family died at an early age and Dürer's mother was often sickly, especially in the last years of her life. Although his father was not pleased with his artistic ambitions, at the age of fifteen, Dürer was apprenticed to a painter.
Dürer was probably the greatest artist in German history. By adopting the new forms of the Italian quattrocento and connecting them to the already robust tradition of the German print, he almost single-handedly provoked the Northern Renaissance. For all-around inquisitiveness, he was surpassed only by his older contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci. Dürer was interested in everything, from the nap of rabbit's fur to the theory of human proportion. His graphic work was a sustained paean to the diversity of the world. His curiosity was insatiable, and it drove him to constant journeying; Dürer was the first cultural tourist. He seems to have been the first great artist to act on the idea that response to different cultures is part of the creative process itself. Even the disease that ruined his health, malaria, was a souvenir: a mosquito bit him when he ventured into the salt marches of Zeeland to draw yet another marvel, a dead whale.
Dürer started traveling in 1490; he was not quite nineteen. He had spent four years apprenticed to a master painter and engraver, Michael Wolgemut; he now set off to Colmar, to work under Martin Schongauer. But he took two years reaching Colmar, and when he did, Schongauer was dead. His restless wanderings across Europe included two trips to Venice and were capped by a year-long sojourn in The Netherlands, where he was a celebrity among celebrities, moving in a nimbus of fame through a circle that included Erasmus himself.
In moving from Nuremberg to Venice, Dürer reversed a whole direction of cultural priorities. The center to which German artists had previously looked were Bruges and Ghent in Flanders and the northern Gothic style shaped there by artists like the Van Eycks and Hugo van der Goes. What fascinated Dürer was Italian humanism and all that flowed from the discovery of classical antiquity. But in fact, the trips to Venice did not radically change his style. They did give him confidence when Giovanni Bellini, the Venetian artist he most admired, became his friend. He said, "Here I am a gentleman, at home I am a parasite.", from which it appears that Dürer knew more about the business of being a successful expatriate than most travelers ever discover.
Dürer married Agnes Frey in 1494, visited Venice that year for the first time, returned there again in 1505 and stayed until 1507. Meanwhile he built a great house which still stands on the castle hill in Nuremberg. Dürer was almost piously devoted to his parents and had many warm friendships. Among them was that of a patrician, witty, intellectual widower-playboy named Willibald Pirkheimer who became his special intimate.
But he was the most indifferent, rudest of husbands. Without compunction he used his fifteen-year-old wife's dowry to set up his graphics workshop and used her to sit in markets and fairs selling his prints. He wrote coarsely of her. He usually traveled without her and many years later, when he did take her on a trip to the Netherlands, he allowed her to accompany him to only one of the many banquets given in his honor and when they stayed at home, she was left to eat upstairs with the maid. Obviously in his perception, she was a provincial bore who could not keep intellectual and social pace with her agile husband.
He was a popinjay, dressing in the most chic Italian fashions. He cherished and believed every kind of attention and pandering compliment, yet he acknowledged the likelihood that he was being scoffed at behind his back. He longed to be considered a gentleman.
The success of Dürer's work led the way for other German artists, Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Holbein the Younger and Martin Luther's great friend, Lucas Cranach, all of whose work made Germany for half a century the leader of the Northern Renaissance. In Dürer's day, art works were valued like drygoods, by the size, hours of labor and the material. As a new humanist, he protested that as art represented man more accurately, it approached divinity more closely. So a tiny drawing, if divinely inspired, could be more artistic than a giant altarpiece. He became one of the first to sign and date even his most incidental drawings. His chop, a reminder of his early goldsmith's training, was known across Europe. He died in Nuremberg on April 6, 1528.