An expert’s guide to Albrecht Dürer: five must-read books on the Renaissance artist

All you ever wanted to know about Dürer, from the Old Master’s own accounts of his achievements and mishaps, to a recent creative take on his travels—selected by the art historian Susan Foister

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Albrecht Dürer's Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle (1493) Musée du Louvre

Albrecht Dürer's Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle (1493) Musée du Louvre

“There can be no better way of getting to know Albrecht Dürer than by reading his own words”

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“Uniquely for his time, Albrecht Dürer recorded aspects of his life not only in his art but also through letters and journals,” says Susan Foister, the curator of a forthcoming exhibition on the artist at London’s National Gallery. The show is based on Dürer’s trips to the Alps, Venice and the Low Countries, and will include his writing alongside masterpieces such as Christ Among the Doctors (1506) and Saint Jerome (1521). The latter was based on a 93-year-old man that Dürer met during a trip to Antwerp. A slightly different version of the exhibition is currently on at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen. Foister has selected five key books for anyone wanting to know more about the Northern Renaissance master.

Albrecht Dürer: Documentary Biography (2017) by Jeffrey Ashcroft

Albrecht Dürer: Documentary Biography (2017) by Jeffrey Ashcroft

“There can be no better way of getting to know Dürer than by reading his own words. He writes vividly chatty missives to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer from Venice in 1506. He keeps a detailed journal, frank in recounting both achievements and mishaps. He tells us of dreams and of the difficult deaths of his parents. Jeffrey Ashcroft’s clear English translation definitively replaces older texts.”

Albrecht Dürer: a Biography (1990) by Jane Campbell Hutchison

Albrecht Dürer: a Biography (1990) by Jane Campbell Hutchison

“[This] very readable biography has not been superseded. Drawing on his writings as well as other documentary evidence to present a clear picture of the artist’s life and historical legacy, the author has a sure sense of where to be concise and where to flesh out the background to give the necessary historical context.”

Albert and the Whale (2021) by Philip Hoare

Albert and the Whale (2021) by Philip Hoare

“This is a wholly original and beautifully written account of the author’s fascination with Dürer. Expounded in a highly engaging, non-linear manner, the reader is taken on a trip through the artist’s life and works, starting in Zeeland where Dürer travelled to see a beached whale, and ending with encounters with curators and famous works in Vienna and Munich.”

Albrecht Dürer (2019), edited by Christof Metzger

Albrecht Dürer (2019), edited by Christof Metzger

“The catalogue of the pre-pandemic show in Vienna, based on the exceptional holdings of the Albertina, presents short but insightful essays alongside large images with generous details of works in all media, making this an excellent introduction to Dürer’s work.”

Albrecht Dürer and His Legacy (2002), edited by Giulia Bartrum

Albrecht Dürer and His Legacy (2002), edited by Giulia Bartrum

“Although this older British Museum catalogue is not as lavishly illustrated as that of the Albertina, everything has an image, and the exhibition included some wonderful loans. The sections are complemented by some excellent essays, including one by Günter Grass, extracted from his Diary of a Snail.

Dürer Was Here: a Journey Becomes Legend, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen, until 24 October; Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, National Gallery, London, 20 November-27 February 2022

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