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An introduction to the prints of Albrecht Dürer

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Instead of waiting for commissions, Dürer produced prints on speculation and managed sales of his own prints at markets and with the help of agents outside of Nuremberg. This entrepreneurial approach allowed considerable economic and artistic independence. For Dürer, graphic media became an important vehicle for self-expression. Both Knight on Horseback and Lansquenet, and Melancholia, demonstrate Dürer's artistic ingenuity.

In Knight on Horseback and Lansquenet, Dürer has provided just enough visual information to construct the skeleton of a story. The bulk of the narrative, determining whether the knight is the protagonist, or the antagonist, where he is going, whom he will be fighting, or whom he will be saving, is left for the viewer to interpret. Dürer does, however, provide numerous details in the print that viewers can draw into their stories to add further interest, including the lake and boats in the background, the castle, and the dog. By including these additional details Dürer ingeniously allows for multiple readings of the image, thereby producing an endlessly entertaining print.

In Melancholia Dürer's innovation was to liberate Melancholia from her negative sense as one of the four humours by merging the representation of sullen inaction with a personification of Geometria, one of the seven liberal arts (Geometria can be readily identified in Dürer's print by her attributes of a compass, book, measuring instruments, and geometrical solids). The joining of Melancholia with Geometria also works to emphasize Dürer's belief that artistic practice was dependent upon the proper application of geometry. This remarkable iconographic invention has become one of the most celebrated images of the German Renaissance - perhaps one of the most famous prints of all time - quoted over the centuries by artists from Henry Fuseli to Auguste Rodin.