Jeffrey Chipps Smith’s recent book addressing Albrecht Dürer and the nineteenth century is a most welcome addition to the increasingly large number of publications on Germany’s most celebrated Renaissance artist. In nine chapters, plus introduction and conclusion, Smith explores what he calls the “different roles accorded Dürer in the decorative programs of dozens of museums erected in the nineteenth century” (p. xiii). Most of the museums are in German-speaking lands and include museums both familiar and less well known. Clearly written, carefully argued, and richly documented from an impressive variety of sources—including museum and artist monographs, many in German, along with Smith’s own extensive research on Dürer—this ambitious book offers a most convincing look at how embedded Dürer had become in the nineteenth-century culture of museums and the visual art that decorated them.
The most prominent and familiar of the museums covered include: Munich (Chapter 3), St. Petersburg (Ch. 4), Frankfurt (Ch. 5), Berlin (Ch. 6), and Vienna (Ch. 9). Numerous other museums discussed include Kassel’s Neue Galerie (Ch. 4), Karlsruhe’s Kunsthalle (Ch. 5), museums in Breslau, Dresden, Hamburg, Hannover, Amsterdam (Ch. 7), and several others (Ch. 8).
Throughout the book, Smith develops what he calls “Dürer’s adulation [that] peaked precisely at the moment that new museums were being planned and then erected in Berlin, Munich, and an ever-growing number of other cities” (p. 191). He explores both interior and exterior decoration of various kinds with Dürer’s likenesses (sculpted busts and friezes, plus painted murals) by the period’s leading central European painters and sculptors, supported by the important rulers of the day. The decorations were often destroyed during World War II, and when the museums were rebuilt, the twentieth-century taste for less decoration produced a simpler new appearance. As Smith states in his Conclusion, “even specialists poorly know this fascinating chapter in the history of taste” (p. 191).
How right he is. It was surprising to learn about the many prominent sculptures of Dürer that had earlier decorated museums, but no longer exist. One larger-than-life, full-length sculpture of Dürer topped the roof of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which originally displayed two dozen sculptures of painters. Under the aegis of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, the statues were designed by Ludwig Schwanthaler and selected by museum director Johann Georg von Dillis to mirror the collection inside. Dürer was one of the German painters along with Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Martin Schongauer. Smith tells us that these five painters reflected Ludwig’s taste and preferences in the 1830s, which favored the Italian school with thirteen painters, but only two each for the French and Spanish schools. Dürer sports a beard, shoulder-length hair, and fur-trimmed cloak, and he holds a paper scroll with his AD monogram (fig. 32). This description follows the somewhat earlier one by the German Romantic poet Ludwig Tieck (1798): “Dürer was tall and slender, his curly hair fell sweetly and majestic over his temples and shoulders, . . . his beautiful brown eyes looked impassioned but gentle from under his noble brow” (p. 54). This manner of rendering Dürer was repeated in the sculptures and paintings Smith discusses, but they are no longer visible today, because damage to the Alte Pinakothek from World War II resulted in a later remodeling of the building.
Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie on the Spree Insel still displays on its exterior stairway a sculpted frieze showing Dürer among a group of standing painters and sculptors of his time, identified below each work. Dürer is placed in the foreground between sculptors Peter Vischer the Elder and Adam Kraft and painter Hans Holbein the Younger (fig. 93); behind them in lower relief stand the painter-printmaker Sebald Beham and sculptor Hans Brueggemann. These figures are easy to read in the detail Smith provides (fig. 93), but nearly impossible to see in person, because the stairway allowing access to the frieze was closed to the public when I visited in September 2021. Represented again as bearded with shoulder-length hair and long coat, Dürer holds a burin or drawing instrument in one hand, and a tablet with his AD monogram and the date 1513 in the other.
In Chapter 1, “Preludes,” Smith addresses the nineteenth century and the emerging cultural awareness that art must be protected as an “inalienable national property” (p. 11). Art torn from its religious contexts, due to secularization and war, are seen within the important German cultural heritage that sets the background for the remainder of the book. At a time when Cologne’s religious buildings and churches became secularized, construction of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum became the solution for the city of Cologne’s displaced art ten years before Germany was unified as a country in 1871.
Chapter 2, “Self-Fashioning and the Early Cult of Dürer,” discusses the early cult of Dürer from 1563 to 1852, which began already a few decades after the artist’s death in 1528. Dürer’s self-portraits and his prints were collected early by Emperor Rudolph II and Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria. They, along with Joachim von Sandrart’s illustrated biography of German artists, 1675, furthered Dürer’s image and his own self-portraits before photography and other forms of mass reproductions. The nascent nationalism, to use Smith’s words, of German Romantic authors around 1800 furthered Dürer as an equal to Raphael, with the two painters “embody[ing] the very best of their respective artistic traditions . . . [to] serve as inspirations for modern masters” (p. 35). The well-known life-sized, bronze statue of Dürer by Christian Daniel Rauch in Nuremberg’s Albrecht Dürer Platz from ca. 1828 (fig. 25) becomes important as the oldest freestanding sculpture memorializing an artist, one that predates statues of Rubens and Rembrandt.
Chapter 3 on Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, which opened in 1836, explores the first exterior decorations, discussed earlier, and narratives of Dürer that became influential for the painter’s importance on museums to come, especially with the establishment of Bavaria as a state in 1806, as Franconia and Swabia became incorporated for the first time when the Holy Roman Empire dissolved. While museums took on decoration that reflected their contents inside, Dürer became better known than his contemporaries because of the availability of his prints which, in part, Smith states, explains his prominence on those museums. With the foundation stone set in place on Raphael’s birthday (7 April 1826), the museum was funded by King Ludwig I who attempted, together with architect Leo von Klenze, to transform Munich into a German Athens, a Catholic city to rival Protestant Berlin.
The Alte Pinakothek’s loggias, destroyed in WW II, featured Dürer in cupola paintings designed by Peter von Cornelius (figs. 39, 40, loggia 17). In one painting, Dürer sits before an easel in profile, with his now-familiar long hair based on his self-portrait of 1500, in a scene where he is introduced to his teacher, Michael Wolgemut. Klenze’s architectural loggias no longer exist, replaced after the war by two very steep staircases.
Chapter 4 surveys the heirs of the Alte Pinakothek, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Neue Pinakothek, Munich, and the Neue Galerie in Kassel. At St. Petersburg, portraits of Dürer appear prominently as full-length sculptures on the exterior (fig. 47) and on the interior as plaster busts in profile and medallions in three-quarter view, the latter paired with one of Rubens (figs. 48, 49). In the medallion, Dürer’s self-portrait of 1498 served as the model, although its specific influence is not mentioned. At the Neue Pinakothek, replaced in 1981, Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s frescoes on the building’s exterior underscored the central role of the Bavarian King as patron for the new German art (fig. 52). Preserved today as oil sketches on canvas, the paintings show both Dürer and his Renaissance patron Emperor Maximilian I as supporters of the King. Along with its discussion of the Kassel loggias, this chapter offers abundant background history.
After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, construction of Berlin’s museums began. They form the focus of Chapter 6, “Dürer and Germania in Berlin.” Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III (r. 1797-1840) also wished to turn Berlin into a German Athens. He turned to Karl Friedrich Schinkel to build the first German public museum for paintings, the Altes Museum, whose façade dates to 1866.
By the last decades of the nineteenth century, Dürer had become the artist of choice for the many decorations of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, discussed in Chapter 9. As Emperor Franz Joseph updated the city of Vienna, he sponsored the construction of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and its decoration; that museum’s large size became a symbol—like Munich’s and Berlin’s museums—of national and dynastic pride, and the power of the arts to civilize. Dürer still stands larger than life-size between Raphael and Jan van Eyck and Giotto on the main façade’s north corner. The statue of Dürer (fig. 130) employs another self-portrait from his Adoration of the Holy Trinity Altarpiece painting in Vienna, where he wears a beret and the familiar long fur-trimmed coat. New here is the panel that he holds, bearing Saints Peter and John from the Four Apostles painting in Munich. Dürer’s importance as one of the main founders of European art history is repeated in numerous paintings throughout the Vienna museum, which Smith carefully addresses section by museum section.
Throughout these museum representations, Smith concludes, Dürer became the symbol of German art’s greatness and its moral character. Dürer had become “a recognized standard of artistic genius, intellectual achievement, and impeccable personal character” (p. 191). Smith underscores Dürer’s importance and his connection to museum construction and decoration during the nineteenth century. Sometimes the images of Dürer get lost within the author’s extensive web of historical information. More attention to these images and how Dürer is shown would be welcome, as in the text accompanying the book’s last illustration:
“To consider the period’s mindset in microcosm, consider one final image—an ornate letter I for the incipit ‘In Nürnberg’ (fig. 143). Calligraphic tendrils rising from a lush flower blossom support a stone pedestal. Four men, aided by ropes and a pulley, strain to push and to pull into position a heavy life-size stone statue. The familiar likeness and the name Dürer, inscribed on the base, identify the honoree. They are literally hoisting a memorial to this monument-worthy Nuremberg artist” (p. 188).
This delightful passage honors Dürer, just as Smith does, through his rich and valuable research for an English-speaking audience.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln