In 1520-1521, Antwerp became the home-base for a year of one of the greatest artists who ever lived: Albrecht Dürer (1467-1528) from Nuremberg.
Dürer was a jack of all artistic trades, but is now mainly known for his drawings and etchings, created with such detail that they almost seem microscopic images.
But he was not in the Low Countries, as they were at the time, for artistic reasons. He was here to lobby at the highest level, according to an exhibition currently running in Aachen.
The previous year, the emperor of the Austrian empire Maximilian I had died, his successor his son Charles, aged only 19 at the time. Maximilian had admired Dürer so much he gave him as annual pension of 100 guilders, and Dürer was keen to see Charles continue the tradition.
But Charles was still – as still not having attained majority – under the regency of his aunt Margaret of Austria, governor of the Hapsburg Netherlands. She lived in a fine palace in Mechelen, which can still be visited, and Charles lived with her.
On his departure from Nuremberg, Dürer brought with in a number of works of art, hoping to sell them. He also brought a journal, which had more the character of an accounts book, keeping careful count of his income and outgoings.
The records kept in that book form the basis for the Aachen exhibition.
One of his first ports of call was Ghent, and the great altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck, the Adoration of the Holy Lamb.
In his journal, Dürer described the work as, “an extremely beautiful and well thought out painting, and especially Eve, Mary and God the Father are very good. Then I saw the lions and I drew one of them with a pen.”
He also notes, however, that the inn where he stayed had charged him five stuivers, or a quarter of a guilder – presumably an excessive sum.
The exhibition is strictly limited to Dürer’s trip to the Low Countries, and on that trip he painted very little, so the exhibits are mainly drawings, which is frankly where his skill, technique and sheer artistry are concentrated.
“In his diary Dürer speaks of twenty paintings,” explained exhibition curator Peter Van den Brink, speaking to De Tijd.
“But some he had brought with him to sell. In the Low Countries he mainly made drawings. We assume a production of 120. Not all of them have been preserved either, but we are showing about ninety. For me, Dürer is first and foremost a draftsman and graphic artist. He is unsurpassed in that regard,” he said.
The exhibition also includes works by Flemish artists like Joos van Cleve, Quinten Matsijs and Jan Gossaert, who were influenced by Dürer.