Are you a Dürer adorer?

Are you a Dürer adorer?

Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, introduces us to one of his all-time favourite artists, Albrecht Dürer, who is represented by over 40 works in Te Papa’s collection. He explains why Dürer is brilliant, fun, and highly relevant today.

To admire or to like?

In art history, there are plenty of artists that you feel you ought to admire, but you can’t quite bring yourself to like: Nicolas Poussin (classical and cerebral, but chilly); Sir Joshua Reynolds (especially when he paints boring Anglican bishops, rather than talented and beautiful actresses); and even, dare I say it, Colin McCahon (profound and powerful for sure, but darkly depressing to many).

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) is, however, an artist to like and admire. If you’re tired of Dürer, you’re tired of life!

Albrecht_Dürer self-portrait Prado
Self-portrait, 1498, by Albrecht Dürer. Museo Prado, Madrid. (Wiki Commons)

Dürer and me

Many years ago I was personally privileged to study Dürer at Cambridge University with one of the world’s finest scholars in the field, Professor Jean Michel Massing. But if I can’t explain the appeal of Dürer in accessible terms, I’d be letting Professor Massing down, not to mention Albrecht himself.

This is the first of two blogs on the great man, providing readers with a friendly overview. Next up is a more in-depth study of five Dürer prints from Te Papa’s terrific works on paper collection. Enjoy!

10 reasons why Dürer is über-cool

He’s interested in everything and everybody around him.

Try asking Michelangelo to lovingly depict a hare or a rhinoceros and he’d hurl his paintbrush at you! Not so Dürer: he could paint the noblest of holy families but could equally depict a clod of turf with wondrous exactitude.

A young hare, 1502, by Albrecht Dürer. Albertina, Vienna (Wikimedia Commons)

He’s a brilliant woodcut artist

With his woodcuts, he revolutionised this humble, gothic art form, which hitherto had been a bare indication of outlines, to a wonderfully subtle, pictorial art, with gradated tones and a real sense of solid objects – and flesh and blood. He used this technique to tell stories, often Biblical, which appeal to people of all faiths and atheists too.

Durer Samson
Samson fighting with the lion, 1496-1497, by Albrecht Dürer. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-130)

He’s a brilliant engraver

With metal engravings, Dürer is an equally dazzling technician, producing prints of a refinement and scale never seen before. Although engraving is a more sophisticated medium than the woodcut, he happily worked in both these arts right through his life.

Durer Prodigal Son
The prodigal son, circa 1496, by Albrecht Dürer. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1958. Te Papa (1958-0003-1)

He’s a brilliant watercolour painter, raising it to the status of an independent medium

Mention watercolours and we may well think more in terms of Gainsborough, Constable, and Turner working 250–300 years later, but creating magical landscapes out of light and colour starts with Dürer.

The large piece of turf, 1503, by Albrecht Dürer. Albertina, Vienna. (Google Art Project)

He’s a brilliant draftsman

The marginal drawings in his prayerbook, The Hours of Maximilian I, have been described as ‘one of the most precious and beautiful works in the entire history of book illustration’.

He’s got a wicked sense of humour

The potentially naughty goings-on in the all-male bathhouse, and the detail of the suggestively placed cock-topped tap are a hoot. So too are the grotesque elders who are locked in theological dispute with the angelic young Jesus in Christ among the Doctors.

Bath house durer
The men’s bath-house, 1496, by Albrecht Dürer. (
Christ among the Doctors, 1506, by Albrecht Dürer. Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. (Google Art Project)

He can touch our beliefs and our hearts

His drawing of Praying Hands, along with Monet’s poppy-fields and Van Gogh’s sunflowers is almost a case of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. But we should stop and realise that like ‘Ode to Joy’ or even ‘My Way’ in music, it’s an all-time classic and rightly so.

Praying hands, circa 1508, by Albrecht Dürer, Albertina, Vienna. (Google Art Project)

He can be intellectual, reflective, and enigmatic

In part two of this blog, I will look at his incredibly complex engraving Melencolia I. You could write a book about this single, small work, and several people have already.

He’s a Renaissance man – and Gothic too!

Dürer keenly absorbs trendy new Renaissance ideas about anatomy, perspective, proportion and the culture of antiquity. Yet he never turns his back on his Gothic roots in Nuremberg. On the one hand, this is the artist of the sophisticated, Venetian-influenced Feast of the Rosary.

Feast of the Rosary, 1506, by Albrecht Dürer. National Gallery, Prague (Google Art Project)

But on the other, he’s a witness to the end of the world with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Talking of which, where is the Dürer for our scary times to forestall unstable world leaders, terrorist attacks on teenagers and the imminent apocalypse of global warming? We badly need such an artist.

Durer 4 horsemen
The Four Horsemen. From: The Apocalypse, 1497-1498, by Albrecht Dürer. Purchased 1971 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds. Te Papa (1971-0028-2)

He’s the first great ‘selfie’ artist

Dürer wasn’t falsely modest. He knew he was rather good looking, evident in his sweet – and remarkably precocious – silverpoint self-portrait, made in his early teens.

Self-portrait at the age of 13, 1484, by Albrecht Dürer. Albertina, Vienna (

And he knew he was gobsmackingly talented too, evident in his frontal, iconic, Christ-like painting, made when he was nearly thirty.

Durer_selfportrait 1500
Self-portrait, 1500, by Albrecht Dürer. Alta Pinakothek, Munich.(Wikipedia)

He’s not being blasphemous but is saying God has given me powers to depict myself in this way. Nobody did anything like it before him, and it was almost another 150 years before Rembrandt, the next great artist of the self-portrait, appeared on the scene.

For more on Dürer, watch out for my next blog!



  1. Pacifica rules: It is good to see high quality European art sometimes.. congratulations Mark.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Michael. Visitors to ‘European Splendour’ at Te Papa were reminded of it and their response was overwhelmingly positive. While we need to remember where we are, we also need to appreciate where many of us came from, and I promise to keep up the flow in these blogs. There may, however, be a detour to Japan in the not-too-distant future, so watch this space!

  2. A brilliant selection of works – and a great read. Thanks for making art so accessible!

    1. Author

      A pleasure, Olivia, and of course AD isn’t the only artist in our works on paper collection who can be explored this way, so watch out for more blogs!

  3. Moved and delighted by you wonderful tribute to one of my all time favourite artists. Yes indeed, the world is in dire need of another such spirit to enlighten and enliven us in uncertain times. Thank you so much Dr S! Can’t wait for more.

    1. Author

      You will definitely get more, Alison, and with a surprising ‘Kiwi’ twist. All should be revealed in a day or two!

  4. Are Te Papas collection of these masterful works all currently on view to the public?
    It would certainly be worth a trip to Wellington to see them if they are. Thanks

    1. Author

      No, there is currently no art on display as such because of museum renewal but watch our (enhanced) space when we re-open in a few months. Some of our prints by AD have recently toured and need ‘resting’ as delicate works on paper. On the plus side, I am constantly aware of our excellent works on paper collection and the desirability of displaying it. In the recent, highly successful ‘European Splendour’ exhibition, works by AD’s contemporaries, Altdorfer and Aldegrever were on display. I appreciate your query and your obvious enthusiasm for historical art and will do my bit to promote it.

  5. One of my absolute faves! Great blog as per Dr S.

    1. Author

      Thank you Olivia. Yes, ‘AD’ (as in his wonderful monogram) rules!

  6. Germany was the last European country to Latinise, and it’s art reflects this to today – Durer, Schongauer, Grunwald, Beuys and Kiefer, to name a few…

    1. Author

      The Germans are different! What they do, they do with passion and in their own way. Some of the most ‘Romantic’ artists are German, like Friedrich, a great Durer admirer. German ‘Hellenists’ (admirers of Greek art and culture) are second to none, from Winckelmann to Schinkel. And German academic painters of the Dusseldorf school were massively important in the 19th century. Art historians of the British and French worlds don’t do the subject justice, though William Vaughan and Matthew Potter are glowing exceptions.

  7. I love (among everything else!) Dürer’s use of perspective. It’s sublime to let the eye wander along the lines as they lead us into the distance, into townscapes and landscapes, over the hills and far away . . .

    1. Yes, I quite agree. I like its use in the engraving ‘Knight, Death and the Devil’ (not yet in our collection), when you know the Knight has a perilous journey to reach salvation in the distance, but we also know he’ll get there!

  8. Thanks Dr. Stocker (Mark)
    Can’t wait to read your next blog piece on one of my favourite artists!

    1. Author

      A pleasure, Bruce, and I hope you’ll find the more detailed study of five of the works in our collection to your liking.

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