Sad and Supreme

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Albertina, Vienna
Albrecht Dürer: ‘Mein Agnes,’ 1494

In the summer of 1494, soon after his engagement, Albrecht Dürer made a startlingly intimate drawing of his fiancée, Agnes Frey. One might have expected a twenty-three-year-old to depict his betrothed as a source of love, or comfort, or well-being, all the more since her substantial dowry would soon launch his independent career. Instead, Albrecht showed Agnes twisted up in a knot of anxious introversion. She looks withdrawn and preoccupied, and the circles under her heavy-lidded eyes may even make one think she has been crying.

In its frank portrayal of an informal moment of unguarded emotion, there had never been a drawing quite like this before. Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Dürer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion. This is especially evident in his self-portraits, many of which show him in states of melancholy, doubt, or disease. Consider the self-portrait that he drew at the age of thirteen. It is made in ravishingly fine silverpoint, yet his large, staring eyes have a curiously anxious and unsettled look. The precocity evident in this sheet is not only in the flawless technique, but also in the impulse to self-examination.

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Albertina, Vienna
Albrecht Dürer: Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484

This portrait is the opening work in the extraordinary exhibition about Albrecht Dürer that is on view at the National Gallery of Art through June 9. The show is composed almost entirely of works on loan—more than ninety drawings and watercolors and some twenty prints—from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, whose collection of art by Dürer is the finest in the world. These works are superb in quality and condition and most have an unbroken chain of provenance going directly back to the artist himself. They have been supplemented by additional items from the National Gallery’s own excellent collection of works by the artist. The result is the most comprehensive and revelatory show about Dürer to be held in America in over forty years.

Seeing this large group of prints, watercolors, and drawings gives you a more direct and intimate view of Dürer than you can ever have looking at the works in reproduction, or reading a book about him. A great many of the items on exhibit in Washington, not just the portraits, seem to be wrapped up in the artist’s personal concerns. Dürer was perhaps one of the first artists in history to work primarily at his own direction, rather than on commission and at the pleasure of princes and other exigent patrons. The change was made possible by his concentration on printmaking rather than painting as his main artistic and commercial endeavor. Most paintings of this time, such as altarpieces, were made for well-established religious or civic purposes, and the patrons and other viewers had specific needs and strong …

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