Albrecht Dürer: Excerpts from Primary Documents


Excerpts from the Dürer family Chronicle

So Albrecht Dürer, my dear father came to Germany. He had been a long time in the Netherlands with the great artists, and at last he came here to Nuremberg in the year, as one counts from the birth of Christ 1455, on St. Eloy's Day [March 11, significantly St. Eloy was the patron saint of Goldsmiths]. And on the same day Philipp Pirckheimer had his wedding at the Veste, and there was a great dance under the big linden tree. After that my dear father Albrecht Dürer served old Jeronimus Holper [master goldsmith in Nuremberg], who became my grandfather, for a long time, till the year 1467.... My grandfather then gave him his daughter, a pretty and honest girl named Barbara, fifteen years old, and he married her eight days before St. Vitus' [June 8].

And my father took special pleasure in me because he saw that I was diligent in striving to learn. So he sent me to the school, and when I had learned to read and write he took me away from it and taught me the goldsmith's craft. But when I could work neatly, my liking drew me more to painting than to goldsmith's work. So I put it to my father. But he was troubled, for he regretted the time lost while I had been learning to be a goldsmith. Still, he let me have my way, and in 1486, as one counts from the birth of Christ, on St. Andrew's Day [November 30], my father bound me apprentice to Michael Wolgemut, to serve him three years long. During that time God gave me diligence so that I learned well, but I had to endure much from his apprentices.

Letter from Albrecht Dürer the Elder to his Wife

To be delivered to the honorable Frau Barbara Türerin, goldschmidin at Nuremberg, my dear wife.

My friendly greeting to my dear Barbara. This is to let you know that, after a hard trip, I arrived in Linz on Sunday before St. Bartholomew's [August 19], and on Monday my gracious Lord [Kaiser Friedrich III] sent for me and I had to show him the pictures [presumably drawings for gold work under consideration]. His Grace was pleased with them and His Grace spoke with me for a long time. And as I was leaving, His Grace came himself to me put four florins in my hand and said to me "My goldsmith, go to the inn and get yourself something good." Since then I have not been with His Grace again.... I have no more [news]: so greet the household for me, and tell the apprentices to work fast and I will earn more; and especially recommend me to my children and tell them to be good. Given at Linz on St. Bartholomew's Day 1492.

Portrait of Willibald Pirckheimer, 1524, engraving. Inscription: Portrait of Willibald Pirckheimer at the age of 53. We live by the spirit; the rest belongs to death.


Excerpt from letter from Dürer to Willibald Pirckheimer
Venice, Sept. 8, 1506

...My picture [the Rose Garland Altar] if you must know, says it would give a ducat for you to see it; it is well painted and beautifully colored. I have earned much praise but little profit by it. In the time it took to paint it I could easily have earned two hundred ducats, and now I have declined much work so that I can come home. And I have stopped the mouths of all the painters who used to say that I was good at engraving but, as to painting, I didn't know how to handle my colors. Now everyone says they have never seen more beautiful colors....

Item: my French mantle greets you, and my Italian overcoat too.

Item: you stink so much of whores that it seems to me I can smell it from here! When you go courting, they tell me here, you pretend to be no more than 25 years old. Ocha! Double that and I'll believe it. God's body! there are so many Italians here who look exactly like you; I don't know how that happens!

Item: the Doge and the Patriarch have also seen my picture. Herewith let me commend myself to you as your servant. I must really go to sleep as it is striking the seventh hour of the night, and I have already written to the Prior of the Augustinians; to my father-in-law; to the Dietrich woman, and my wife, and they are all whoe sheets full, So I have to hurry over this letter; read it according to the sense. You would doubtless do better if you were writing to a lot of princes. Many good nights, and days too. Given at Venice on Our Lady's Day in September [Sept. 8, 1506].

Excerpt from letter from Dürer to Willibald Pirckheimer
Venice, October, 1506

I shall have finished here in ten days; after that I should like to ride to Bologna to learn the secrets of the art of perspective, which a man is willing to teach me. I should stay there eight or ten days and then return to Venice. After that I shall come with the next messenger. How I shall freeze after this sun! Here I am a gentleman, at home only a parasite.


Excerpts from Dürer to Jacob Heller pertaining to
the Heller Altarpiece

[Aug. 28, 1507] I am at your service, dear Herr Heller! I was happy to receive your kind letter. But please know that I have been suffering from the fever for a long time, which has delayed my work for Duke Friedrich of Saxony [The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand] by several weeks, and has caused me great loss. But now I mean to finish my work for him quickly, for it is more than half done. So be patient with me about your picture, which, when I have completed the work for the above mentioned Prince, I will immediately set to work on and paint diligently as I promised [when your were ] here. And although I have not begun your painting, I have bought the panel from the joiner and paid for it with the money you gave me. He would not lower the price for it, though I thought he didn't deserve so much. And I have given it to a preparer, who has gessoed it and will put on the gilding next week. I don't want to take any money in advance on it until I begin to paint it, which, God willing, shall be the next thing after the Prince's work. For I don't like to begin too many things at once, so that I won't tire myself out. So then the Prince won't be kept waiting either, as he would be if I were to paint your picture and his at the same time, as I had first planned to do. But have confidence in me, for, as much as God permits, I will still make something that not many men can make....

August 24, 1508 I have safely received your last letter, and I gather from it that you wish me to execute your panel well, which is just what I myself have in mind to do. In addition, you shall know how far it has progressed; the wings have been painted in stone colors on the outside, but they are not yet varnished; inside they are completely underpainted, so that one can begin to carry them out.
The middle panel I have outlined with the greatest care and at the cost of much time; it is also coated with very good colors upon which I can begin to underpaint it. For I intend, as soon as I hear that you approve, to underpaint it some four, five, or six times over, for the sake of clearness and durability, and to use the very best ultramarine for the painting that I can get. And no one shall paint a stroke on it except myself, wherefore I shall spend much time on it. I therefore assume that you will not mind, and have decided to write you my proposed plan of work, [but I must add] that I cannot without loss carry out said work [in such elaborate fashion] for the fee of 130 Rhenish florins; for I must spend much money and lose time over it. However, what I have promised you I will honorably perform; if you don't want the picture to cost more than the price agreed, I will paint it in such a way that it will still be worth more than you paid for it. If, however, you will give me two hundred florins I will follow out my plan of work. Though if hereafter somebody were to offer me 400 florins I would not paint another, for I shall not make a penny on it, as a long time is spent on it. So let me know your intention, and when I have heard it I will go to the Imhoffs for 50 florins, for I have as yet received no money on the work.
Now I commend myself to you. I want you also to know that in all my days I have never begun any work that pleased me better than this picture of yours which I am painting. Till I finish it I will not do any other work; I am only sorry that the winter will so soon come upon us. The days grow so short that one cannot do much.
I have still one thing to ask you: it is about the Madonna that you saw at my house: if you know of anyone near you who wants a picture, pray offer it to him. If a proper frame was put to it, it would be a beautiful picture, and you know that it is nicely done. I will let you have it cheap. If I had to paint it for someone [on commission] I would not take less than fifty florins. But as it is already done it might be damaged in the house. So I would give you full power to sell it for me cheap for thirty florins; indeed, rather than that it should not be sold, I would even let it go for twenty-five florins. I have certainly lost much food over it.

[November 4, 1508] ...For I neglect myself for it, suffer loss, and earn anything but thanks from you.
I am using, let me tell you, quite the finest colors I can get. I will need twenty ducats for the ultramarine alone, not counting the other expenses. Once the picture is finished, I am quite sure that you yourself will say that you have never seen anything more beautiful. And I dare not expect to finish the middle panel from beginning to end in less than thirteen months. I shall not begin any other work till it is finished, though it will be much to my hurt. Then what do you suppose my expenses will be when I am working at it? You would not take less than 200 florins to keep me for that time. Think what you have repeatedly written about the materials! If you wanted to buy a pound of ultramarine you could hardly det it for 100 florins, for I cannot buy an ounce of it good for less than ten or twelve ducats.
And so, dear Mr. Jacob Heller, my writing is not so utterly unreasonable as you think, and I have not broken my promise in this matter.
You further reproach me with having promised you that I would paint your picture with the greatest possible care that I ever could. That I certainly never said unless I was out of my mind. For in my whole lifetime I could hardly finish it. For with the greatest care I can hardly finish a face in half a year. Now your picture contains fully one hundred faces, not counting the drapery and landscape and other things in it. Besides, who ever heard of making such a work for an altarpiece? No one could see it. But I believe that what I wrote to you was: to make the painting with great or more than ordinary pains because of the time you spent waiting for me....
Item: you need not look around for a buyer for my Madonna, for the Bishop of Breslau has given me 72 florins for it. So I have sold it well....

[August 26, 1509] ... I have painted it with great care, as you will see, using none but the best colors I could get. It is painted with good ultramarine under and over, about 5 or 6 times. And then after it was finished I overpainted it twice more so that it may last a long time. I know that if you keep it clean it will remain bright and fresh 500 years. For it is not made as one usually paints. So have it kept clean and don't let it be touched or sprinkled with holy water. I feel sure it will not be criticized, unless for the purpose of annoying me. And I am sure it will please you well.
No one could ever pay me to paint a picture again with so much labor. Herr Georg Tausy himself wanted me to paint him a Madonna in a landscape with the same care and in the same size as this picture, and he would have given me 400 florins for it. I flatly refused to do it, for it would have made a beggar of me. Of ordinary pictures, I will in a year paint a pile which no one would believe it possible for one man to do in the time. With such things one can earn something. But very careful nicety does not pay. Therefore I shall stick to my engraving, and if I had done so before I should today have been a richer man by 1000 florins....

Dedication of Dürer's A Course in the Art of Measurement with Compass and Ruler, 1525.


Gracious master and friend! It has until now been the custom in our Germany to put a great number of talented lads to the task of artistic painting without real foundation other than what they learned by daily usage. They have therefore grown up in ignorance like an unpruned tree. Although some of them have achieved a skillful hand through continual practice, their works are made intuitively and solely according to their tastes. Whenever knowledgable painters and true artists had occasion to see such unplanned works, they smiled --not without reason-- about the ignorance of these people. Nothing is more annoying to men of understanding than a blunder in a painting, no matter how diligently it may be executed. Because such painters have derived pleasure from their errors has been the sole reason that they never learned the art of measurement, without which no one can become a true artisan. It is the fault of their masters who themselves were ignorant of this skill.

It is this skill which is the foundation of all painting. For this reason, I have decided to provide to all those who are eager to become artists a starting point and a source for learning about measurement with ruler and compass. From this they will recognize truth as it meets their eyes, not only in the realm of art but also in their proper and general understanding.

Letter dated 1530 from Willbald Pirckheimer to Johan Tscherte:

With Dürer I have truly lost the best friend I had on earth and I regret nothing more than that he died such a hard death. For God's sake, I can blame no one other than his wife, who made his heart heavy and tormented him, to the extent that he took leave of this life all the more quickly. He was dried up like a bundle of straw, he was allowed to seek courage nowhere, nor to go among the people. That evil woman was anxiety ridden, for which she certainly had no cause. What is more, she drove him to work hard day and night solely in order to earn money that he would leave to her when he died, because she wanted to ruin everything, just as she still does now, not seeming to appreciate that Albrecht left her with a worth in the range of six thousand guilders. But that isn't enough. And, all things considered, she alone is the cause of his death. I myself have often prayed for this combative and punitive creature. I had warned her, predicting what the end result would be, but for that I have nothing but ingratitude, because she became the enemy of whoever wanted the best for this man and stayed close to him. So that truly she pestered him to the utmost and brought him to his grave.

Since his death I have never seen her, and I have not wanted to have her come to me, although I have nonetheless been helpful to her in many ways, but there is no trust on her part. She is suspicious of whoever disagrees with her in any way or does not say that she is always right; she will always immediately become the adversary. This is why she would rather have me far away from her than close by. This is not to say that she and her sister are lascivious women but rather -- I do not doubt-- pious God-fearing women. But it would be better for a man to have a tart who is amiable than such a nagging, suspicious, fault-finding and sanctimonious woman, with whom he can enjoy peace neither by day nor by night. (The Essential Dürer, p. 191)

It is interesting to read Pirckheimer's letter in relationship to cultural stereotypes. His opposition between the nagging woman and the lascivious woman was well-developed in the culture. The lascivious woman connected to the image of Eve as the Temptress, well manifested in the images by Dürer's follower Hans Baldung-Grien. While the nagging wife was given popular visual form in the subject of Phylis and Aristotle as illustrated in a dry-point by the so-called Housebook Master:

Pirckheimer's complaint that Agnes was constantly making Dürer work reflects a social difference between Pirckheimer who was a patrician and Agnes Frey who was a product of the artisan class. For Pirckheimer the idea of manual labor was beneath his social station. His wealth was attained by his investments including land holdings and the mining industry. While work was at the center of the identity of the artisan class.