Albrecht Altdorfer was a German painter, engraver, as well as an architect, who is remembered as one of the founders of landscape painting, and also as the one who established landscape as an independent genre of painting. Best known for his paintings of biblical and historical subjects, he is also regarded as the creator of probably the scariest painting in the world, ‘The Battle of Alexander at Issus.’ He was mostly inspired by his father Ulrich Altdorfer, who was also a painter and a miniaturist. The forests of Germany and Austria used to intrigue him, and were his favorite subjects in most of his works. Though most of his paintings were done in black with white highlights, they had a fantastic element in them. Though there is no official record or evidence of him visiting Italy, an ‘Italian influence’ can be seen in some of his works, like the ‘St. Florian Legend of St. Sebastian’ and the ‘Passion of Christ’ panels. His engravings and woodcuts, especially miniatures, can be distinguished as they have a certain playful inventiveness. He is also known for creating a landscape series by using a new medium known as etching. He was also an outstanding politician of his time. Being a member of the ‘Ausseren Rates’, the council on external affairs, he is believed to have been involved in the expulsion of the Jews, as well as destruction of a synagogue and building a church in its place.
Childhood & Early Life
Albrecht Altdorfer was born in the year of 1480, though the exact date is unknown. His father was Ulrich Altdorfer, a painter and miniaturist, and it was he who inspired Albrecht to take up painting as a career.
Though his father was an artist himself, there is no record or evidence of Altdorfer having any formal training. His earliest works used to depict witches, wild men, strange apparitions, etc.
At a young age, he earned quite a lot of public attention with his small but modestly stalled works in unconventional media. His first works included engravings and drawings, such as the ‘Stygmata of St. Francis and St. Jerome.’
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Albrecht Altdorfer travelled south into the Alps, around 1511, where he was moved very deeply by nature. This inspired him to become the first landscape painter. Soon, he became the leader of Danube School, (a circle of painters in the 16th century) and he started pioneering landscape as an independent genre.
He served under Maximilian I in Innsbruck from 1513. Here, he used to receive commissions from the imperial court. It was during the Protestant Reformation that he mostly dedicated himself to architecture and also made some of the major paintings of the period.
In 1526, he was appointed the city architect of Regensburg. He wasn’t an actual architect, but it was probably because of his talents as an artist that he got the position. Despite not being a professional architect, he had a great knowledge and love for architecture, and he used to oversee the buildings of the slaughterhouses and wine cellars of the city.
Albrecht Altdorfer’s love and skills in architecture can be seen in some of his famous works like ‘Sussana at the Bath’ and ‘Allegory of Riches and Poverty.’
In 1528, he was elected the Mayor of Regensburg but he declined the position and decided to focus on creating the ‘Battle of Alexander’ for Duke William IV of Bavaria, which he was commissioned for.
He was deeply influenced by artists such as Giorgione and Lucas Cranach, which is evidenced by his work ‘Crucifixion.’
He often painted scenes of historical and biblical subjects, and set them in atmospheric landscapes. He used to create intense religious scenes that often depict intimacy between Christ and his mother or various saints.
Albrecht Altdorfer also was a printmaker and created several engravings as well as woodcuts. Most of his best prints are etchings, many of landscapes, as in these he could use his drawing style with ease.
Not only was he one of the most successful etchers of his time, but he is also known for combining etching and engraving techniques in a single plate, producing about 122 prints altogether, in this way.
It was from around 1526 that he became increasingly interested in color and in architectural constructions inspired by Renaissance. From around 1530, he adopted Italian Renaissance figure forms as well but with a flavor that could be seen as German.
Albrecht Altdorfer’s most famous work was ‘The Battle of Alexander at Issus’. It was commissioned by Duke William IV of Bavaria in 1528, as part of a set of historic pieces that he wanted to hang in his Munich residence. Modern commentators have suggested that the intention of the painting was to liken Alexander’s heroic victory at Issus, to the European conflict with the Ottoman Empire. At present, this painting with four others that were part of William’s initial set, are in the Alte Pinakothek art museum in Munich.
Albrecht Altdorfer's ability to organize a lot of detail in a cosmological vision embracing both sky and terrain can be seen in this work. The personal fate of the protagonists, Alexander and Darius, can be seen to be subordinated to the agitated action of both their armies.
According to a critic, ‘The Battle of Alexander at Issus’ is similar as well as in direct contrast with Altdorfer’s previous works. Here, instead of the peaceful landscape of retreat for Christian events or holy figures, the opposite is offered in this panel: a battleground for one of ancient history’s principal epoch-making encounters. This work is considered by many to be unlike Altdorfer’s other works because of its size and also as it depicts war.
Altdorfer, for his magnificent work, was offered the position of Burgomaster by William IV in September 1528, though the former declined.
Personal Life & Legacy
Albrecht Altdorfer was married by 1513, though not much is known about his wife. He did not have any children. She died in 1532, leaving him a childless widower.
After his marriage, he bought a house in Regensburg which also had a tower and a farmstead. Within a few years, he also bought several other farms and vineyards.
Altdorfer passed away on 12 February 1538 in Regensburg. There were no surviving papers or letters left by him, apart from the will that he dictated on the date of his death.