From the cave paintings of Lascaux and through ancient pictographs, to Egyptian Hieroglyphs, into the early Greek alphabet to Greek uncials, through Romans capitals and into the era of Illuminated manuscripts, Father Time plodded his steady journey, leaving in his wake his story of graphic design. On the heels of the illuminated manuscript (relatively speaking), Gutenberg shook societal foundations with his invention of the printing press, around the year 1450. Gutenberg forever changed accessibility to the written word. Due to the arrival of the printing press, within the next forty years, Albrecht Dürer would invent a new business model that would elevate the artisan craft of engraving into the fine arts stratosphere .
Born the son of a goldsmith in 1471 Nuremberg, young Albrecht worked in his father’s shop until he was apprenticed to Michael Wolgemut, a painter and print-maker, beginning in 1486. After his four years apprenticeship with Wolgemut, Dürer began his bachelor journey traveling extensively and studying in Colmar, Basel and Strasbourg, and Italy. In Italy, he became a great admirer and friend of Giovanni Belini and Mantegna. Dürer returned home to Nuremberg around 1495 and began to infuse Italian Renaissance developments into his work. “Art historians have acclaimed Dürer as the first Northern European artist to understand fully the basic aims of the Renaissance in Italy”.
After “a second trip to Italy in 1505, staying in Venice for nearly two years, his sensitive perception of the natural world is shown in a number of drawings and watercolors of plants and animals; and in a remarkable series of Alpine landscapes executed in the course of his journey to Italy”. Dürer possessed preternatural talent and endless energy. Despite his remarkable skill in painting with both watercolor and oils, skills which went a long way to making him the most dominate artist of the 16th century Northern Renaissance, Dürer’s fame both during his lifetime and still today stems from his masterful achievements as a print-maker/graphic artist.
Dürer wasn’t the first to take advantage of the printing press, but he was the first to see the exceptional money making potentialthat lay in engraving and printmaking. Although an accomplished and eagerly sought out painter, Dürer had a revelation: painting was a spotty, labor intensive process that brought him nowhere close to the income he desired. A quality oil portrait could take as long as a week to complete and earn him an average of ten florins (equivalent to $5.59 today). “He could charge that for ten full-sheet prints…. Compared with that near-instantaneous wonder (the printing press), the time and effort of painting suddenly seemed intolerable”. Dürer was acutely aware that he could make many more florins with engraving.
He traveled extensively with is agents (including his wife, who was his business manager, and his mother), selling his prints throughout Europe. Dürer is recorded as saying, “I shall stick to my engraving, and if I had done so before I should today be a richer man”. Again, he wasn’t the first to do it, but no one else comes close to doing it as well. He wisely invested in his own printing press and was able to work independently and unencumbered, due to the lack of a print makers guild in Nuremberg. Through the prolific production of such masterworks of engraving as Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513),
the Fall of Man (1514),
and tireless self-promotion and marketing, Dürer became the first artist of the time, outside of Italy, to be designated international celebrity.
In conclusion, Albrecht Dürer changed up the game for artist who followed him by leaving a business model that was more profitable, for the artist, than waiting around for commissions. “Dürer’s principal accomplishments were the elevation of graphic art into the realm of fine art, the evolution of the profession of artist above that of other artisans in Northern Europe, and a highly original realization of a unique artistic vision. An equally talented draftsman and painter, he executed a vast number of woodcuts and engravings throughout his career, achieving as a graphic artist an unsurpassed technical mastery and expressive power”.