Why a great artist stopped painting

Even Dürer was probably a little surprised


This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 1511, Albrecht Dürer — the “greatest German artist of all time” — suddenly gave up on painting. Over the following decades, he still painted the odd portrait and a few rather fine panels, but he never took on another major commission, least of all for an altarpiece.

It was a bewildering decision. Even Dürer was probably a little surprised. Although he had trained as an engraver and had already published a number of remarkable woodcuts, he had always believed that painting was the surest route to fame. After cutting his teeth on a few early compositions, he made two trips to Venice to learn from the leading masters.

Whilst he was there, he was commissioned to paint the Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506) for the church of San Bartolomeo al Rialto. At once solemn and exuberant, this extraordinary work brought Dürer his first taste of international success — and made him hungry for more.

The copy of the Heller Altarpiece was exhibited at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt Main, Germany in 2013.

On his return to Germany, he was commissioned to paint another altarpiece, this time for a Frankfurt merchant named Jakob Heller. This was an exciting opportunity. Heller was enormously wealthy — so much so that the locals even called a certain type of coin a “Heller”. He was deeply worried about the fate of his soul, however: no one got rich without committing a few sins. Since Heller had no children to pray for him after his death, he was anxious to spare himself the pains of purgatory by other means.

He set aside money in his will to pay someone to dress up in his old clothes and make a pilgrimage to Rome on his behalf, but Dürer’s altarpiece was to be his trump card. The hope was that, once it was installed in Frankfurt’s Dominican monastery, it would steer worshippers into praying for his salvation.

Dürer wanted the altarpiece to be a uniquely impressive work, worthy of his reputation as “the German Apelles”. As Ulinka Rublack explains in this striking new book, however, his relationship with Heller quickly soured. Heller was unable (or unwilling) to understand how artists worked. He was impatient for delivery and constantly badgered Dürer about the price of pigments.

Dürer reminded him that such a painting was both time-consuming and expensive. Heller was having none of it. He spread rumours that Dürer was “dishonest, unreliable, and unreasonable” — and only after much arguing did he give the artist a modest increase on his advance.

A detail of Dürer’s self-portrait

By the time Dürer delivered the altarpiece, he was sick of Heller’s tight-fistedness. He had lost too much money. Indeed, even if he had been paid twice as much, he claimed, he would still have been reduced to “beggary”. Out of spite — or wounded pride — he inserted his self-portrait into the painting: a calculated snub to his crude and venal patron.

The experience had scarred Dürer, though. What was the point of painting if he wasn’t going to be paid properly, he wondered. He couldn’t feed his family on fame alone. He therefore shifted his attention to engravings — which provided a more reliable source of income, with much greater freedom for his imagination.

What of the altarpiece? Ironically, just as Dürer moved on, so did tastes. After his death in 1528, collectors were increasingly drawn to “cabinets of curiosities”. These still had a place for painting. Because of the growing divide between Protestants and Catholics, though, religious themes lost much of their appeal. Instead, attention shifted to the exotic: corals, dead birds of paradise, Muscovite slippers, fancy dolls and so on.

Merchants were central to this, both as collectors and as agents. Hans Fugger was typical. The scion of Europe’s greatest banking family, Fugger was preoccupied with strengthening his commercial relations with the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria. To grease the wheels, he set himself up as an agent to Duke Albert V’s son, Wilhelm. He sourced all manner of rare objects for the young prince, hid the bills from his father and often put up the money himself.

Dürer’s Lost Masterpiece: Art and Society at the Dawn of a Global World, Ulinka Rublack (Oxford University Press, £30)

All this was bad news for Dürer. His paintings, though still occasionally bought as investments, lost both their attraction and their value. The collector Willibald Imhoff estimated that “his most precious painting” was barely worth more than a silk gown. Before long, the Heller Altarpiece had all but been forgotten.

After languishing in obscurity for almost 90 years, it was bought by Wilhelm V’s son Maximilian in 1614, albeit more for its “rarity” than its artistic qualities. A copy was given to the Dominicans in exchange. The original, meanwhile, was taken to Munich, where it was displayed less as a painting than a status symbol. There the altarpiece mouldered in princely grandeur, until it was eventually destroyed in a fire in 1729. Now only the copy remains. It is, by any standards, a rough imitation, a hapless, inadequate shadow of Dürer’s lost masterpiece.

As a parable of the vital (if equivocal) role that merchants played in the early modern art market, it is unrivalled. Rublack more than succeeds in teasing out their story. She is superb at explaining the connections between religious divides, international trade and artistic taste, and she excels at reconstructing all-important collections.

There is a sense in which Dürer disappears amidst the interminable morass of detail, though. There is so much about feathers, shoes and hairstyles that you forget that you’re supposed to be reading about an altarpiece. Granted, this is partly Rublack’s point. It would still have been nice if Dürer’s “lost masterpiece” hadn’t got quite so lost in the telling.

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