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Albrecht Dürer and the commercialization of art

The Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is often thought of as one of the Renaissance´s greatest self-promoters. He might even be categorized as a “reputational entrepreneur.” Dürer was the first artist to depict himself on self-standing portrait panels. These three portraits now hang in some of Europe´s most important collections—the Louvre, the Prado, and Munich´s Alte Pinakothek—and frame our own image of him. Most strikingly, the German artist depicted himself on the last of these as almost identical to Christ. To many, the portraits hint at his arrogance and the type of Renaissance self-centeredness that culminates in the selfie culture of today. 

Dürer’s portrayals can be understood through the rise of the art market. Anything recognizably done by his hand fetched better prices than what came out of a workshop as collaborative effort. To develop a distinctive approach to art, Dürer cultivated his mastery of depicting hair naturalistically with the finest brushes. Dürer turned his own hairstyle into something iconic—by 1500 he sported long, curled hair with golden highlights. It is thought that he kept his last, Christ-like self-portrait at home to attract clients. In relation to his printed work, Dürer fought hard to get a copyright on his monogram. Why? He was not a court artist, salaried and dressed by a ruler, but lived from what he made and sold, day-by-day.  

It is easily overlooked therefore that there was great precarity to his life for much of his career. What looks like arrogance was bound up with fear and assertion out of anger against mean patrons. Becoming a painter, in the first place, had been a precarious decision. His passion for painting had cost Dürer a secure career as goldsmith, for which his father had trained him up from the age of five. Dürer the Elder was devastated when his teenage son told him that he did not wish to take over the workshop but wished to switch careers. Young Albrecht loved the vibrant paintings in Nuremberg´s churches. The most ambitious of these were grand altarpieces with their complex compositions and great spiritual power in the age before the Reformation. The end of the Middle Ages was marked by intense piety and the expectation that great religious images could bring to life what they depicted and could spiritually heal. A painter was a therapist of sorts, a healer of souls through his union with God and Christ, in whose image mankind had been created.

Fast forward to 1509, when Dürer was in his late thirties. He had been brilliantly successful in making innovative printed images and in getting recognized. His prints sold down to Rome. He achieved praise for an altar-painting in Venice that demonstrated his mastery of colours. German scholars lauded him as equal to the Greek master painter Apelles. Working on a new commission—an altar-painting for a rich Frankfurt merchant—Dürer felt ever more frustrated. What a gap between his reputation and his lack of cash to buy a nice house, nice clothes, and food, and to simply ensure that he and his family felt financially secure. He put a portrait of himself right in the centre background of the painting.  “Do you know what my living expenses are?”, he challenged the merchant.

The question remains meaningful. Some think of artists as aesthetes whose moral purity and vision should be bound up with being disinterest in money. The British contemporary artist Damien Hirst by contrast is well known for his commercial success and for being open about his wish to be rich. Why, he tells us in an interview, should artists suffer, like van Gogh? “I think it´s tragic,” he says, “that great artists die penniless.” Hirst thinks that Andy Warhol was the first to make it ok for artists to be commercially minded without appearing as a “sellout.” Hirst would admire Dürer if he went further back in time.

Dürer resisted dying penniless and mentally tormented—something which would happen to so many well and little-known artists who refused to play the art market in the Renaissance and supposed Golden Age of art that followed it. Adam Elsheimer, a pioneering German landscape artist in Rome around 1600 is a less well-known example; Jan Vermeer remains the most famous pre-modern artist whose own life and fortune of his small family ended in tragedy.

Dürer, by contrast, died a rich man—today he would be a millionaire. He saved up most of his assets, though, so strong was his need to feel financially secure after decades of living on loans for greater expenditures and paying in installments. Up to the end of his life, he accounted for pennies of expenditure, noting down when his wife bought a broom or he purchased cheap pigments made from red bricks. This was despite the fact that the couple had no children to leave an inheritance for.

Dürer´s late financial success came at a price though. Despite writing nine letters to the Frankfurt merchant in 1508 and 1509 to explain what was involved in painting an altarpiece well and would constitute a fair price, Dürer failed to achieve what he regarded as decent pay. The experience left him scarred, and the artist´s decision was radical: he would no longer take on commissions for new altarpieces. Imagine if a composer of complex symphonies, or a writer of novels, suddenly stopped work while at the top of their game. Understanding such transformative decisions opens a new window onto Dürer and his age when patterns of consumption and commerce changed. Succeeding as an artist meant experiencing losses and gains. The birth of the artist in the Renaissance was bound up with rich emotions and challenging adjustments to the rules of the market, even for the most established of artists. Dürer´s amazingly innovative prints, such as his “Melencolia I” in 1514, demonstrate that he never became a sell-out. Still, his life is full of questions for our own time and for an artist like Hirst—the first to go as far as giving collectors the choice of burning original paintings as they buy its version as a digital asset, an NFT. The NFT includes a hologram portrait of the artist. Dürer most likely would have approved.

Feature Image: Albrecht Dürer, ‘Self-portrait’, Museo Nacional del Prado. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Patrick Anthony Goff

    Nowt changes, ’twas ever thus as I have written in a number of blogs on my website. 60 years in art and design

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