Arts & Theater

Art review: ‘The Age of Albrecht Dürer’ at the Crocker

Albrecht Dürer’s “Portrait of Frederick of Saxony” is part of the Crocker Art Museum exhibit, “The Age of Albrecht Dürer: German Drawings from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris”
Albrecht Dürer’s “Portrait of Frederick of Saxony” is part of the Crocker Art Museum exhibit, “The Age of Albrecht Dürer: German Drawings from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris” Courtesy of Crocker Art Museum

“It’s perfect for the Crocker. It’s a coup,” said William Beazeale on a walkthrough of “The Age of Albrecht Dürer: German Drawings From the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris.”

In its only North American presentation, the show presents 141 works from the prestigious French national art school with a 350-year history and one of the best drawing collections in Europe. This stellar show is centered around a legendary artist who is sometimes called the Leonardo da Vinci of the North.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is considered one of the greatest and most influential artists of the Northern Renaissance and a pivotal figure in German humanism. At the turn of the 16th century, Dürer revolutionized the arts of drawing, painting and printmaking, introduced the study of the human body and geometric perspective, and later produced an influential treatise on mathematics.

The exhibition is divided into several parts that explore Dürer in depth, as well as the works of his precursors, contemporaries and followers in ensuing times. The Northern Renaissance in German-speaking parts of the Holy Roman Empire is a major focus of the show and includes four drawings and 10 prints by Dürer that are worth seeing on their own.

As Breazeale pointed out, the show offers viewers fascinating history lessons about the Protestant Reformation and peasant revolts that led to wars that lasted until the early 17th century. But, Breazeale said, the main attraction is the sheer joy of visual expression that fills the walls of the museum’s large third-floor gallery for special exhibitions.

Indeed, there are so many brilliant examples of works on paper in the show that viewers will want to make more than one visit to the Crocker to study them. Foremost are those of Dürer, which include a luminous drawing of a censorious Adam and downcast Eve holding apples after the serpent’s temptation. No less masterful is a delicate silverpoint drawing of Frederick of Saxony that captures his imposing personality.

Among the Dürer prints on view are a large portrait of the Emperor Maximillian and fascinating studies of the human body in an engraving of a men’s bathhouse. Also a gem is a tiny, intricately rendered engraving of a standard bearer, the soldier who leads troops into battle.

The show is divided into more than 10 sections, based on time and place. The Holy Roman Empire included a large portion of Northern Europe from Switzerland to Austria and Prague, which both served as capitals of the empire. Each section has an informative wall text with historical and aesthetic details.

Of works by Dürer’s predecessors, there is a lovely drawing of a young woman with long, flowing locks by Hans Holbein, the Elder. Among the many fine works by his contemporaries is a striking portrait of an angry, elderly, bearded man by Hans Baldung. Artists of the generation after Dürer give us many religious scenes reflecting the importance of the Reformation, as well as mythological images of Apollo and Daphne and Orpheus and Euridyce.

Among the Swiss artists in the show, Urs Graf, who was a soldier as well as an artist, stands out. He is represented by a magnificent portrait of a man with a beard and a hat that mimics the curls of his luxuriant facial hair, as well as three rakish images of dancing peasants that contain visual puns involving swords and purses placed in strategic anatomical spots. Ironically these happy peasants were dawn in 1525 at the time of a peasants revolt that spoke to the real suffering of the underclasses.

The show includes sections on Munich, “the Florence of the North,” and the center of the Counter-Reformation; Augsburg, “the image workshop for Europe;” and Bavaria, which is represented by, among other works, a magnificent drawing of the Holy Family by Hans Werl.

The final section of the show from the École des Beaux-Arts includes Pieter Stevens’ subtle and complex watercolor “Winter;” a tender drawing on a blue-gray background by Aegidius Sadeler II, of Christoph Kech, the lord of Prum Castle near the Danube; a picturesque drawing of a traveler in front of a rustic wooden house by Rolandt Savery; and Wenceslas Holler’s intricately detailed “View of Prague.”

The coda to the show, a selection of the Crocker’s German drawings, including a rare drawing by the Master of Drapery Studies, features a number of drawings by artists in the main show, as well as the Crocker’s Dürer drawing, which was the first Dürer drawing to come to the United States. Dürer’s “Woman With a Staff” is among the Crocker’s treasures and holds up well against the drawings from the École des Beaux-Arts. It was acquired along with 701 paintings and 1,344 master drawings by the Crockers on their 1869-71 sojourn in Europe.

Since that time, Crocker Director Lial Jones writes in the outstanding exhibition catalog, the museum has been well known for German Renaissance drawings, as well as the finest collection of 17th- and 18th-century German drawings in North America, which regularly draw scholars from Europe and elsewhere to do research.

The Age of Albrecht Dürer: German Drawings From the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento

When: Through Feb. 14. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am.-9 p.m. Thursday

Cost: $5-$10, free for museum members and children 6 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

Information: 916-808-7000,