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National Gallery of Art Assembles Durer Works

It would be practically impossible to assemble a museum exhibit containing all of the essential works of a Renaissance master such as Michelangelo or da Vinci. But after a decade of planning, the National Gallery of Art is taking a stab at another giant of the era — German painter and printmaker Albrecht Durer.

The earliest artist credited with trying a self-portrait and rendering a landscape of a specific scene, Durer was a literal Renaissance man who excelled at both religious and secular subjects and captured vivid details of animal and human forms with fluid, elegant strokes. He also wrote important treatises on proportion and linear perspective while stressing that human creativity was the spontaneous product of a lifetime of visual experiences.

The exhibit, which opens Sunday and runs through June 9, culls 118 of Durer’s drawings, watercolors, engravings and woodcuts from the collection of the Albertina in Vienna, marking the largest exhibition of the artist’s draftsmanship ever in the United States. Included are the remarkable “Praying Hands” from 1508, the 1503 nature study “The Great Piece of Turf” and the genre-defining self-portrait Durer drew when he was just 13, in 1484.

Durer stood “at the threshold of a grand new idea about art and about artists,” said Andrew Robison, the National Gallery’s senior curator of prints and drawings, who assembled the exhibit. Breaking with the medieval period’s focus on colors or materials, he recorded rich details of nature, people and places and imaginatively re-created events such as the Last Supper.

That such an exhibit could be assembled in one place is testament both to Durer’s self-regard and the strong fan following he acquired during his lifetime and after his death.

The artist, who was one of the first to sign most of his works, fretted over his legacy and kept many of his best drawings, which were eventually passed down to family and friends. A good portion of the Albertina’s collection can be traced to the 16th-century Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who so admired Durer that he offered land holdings in Bohemia to a family that had a trove of works from the artist’s estate. Rudolf’s collection eventually included some 400 prints and drawings.

The Durer works have proved popular with art thieves over the centuries. An early Albertina director pilfered about 200 works between 1809 and 1814 that wound up in museums throughout the world. More than a century later, a group of art historians, curators and museum directors went behind enemy lines during World War II on a U.S. mission to rescue some of the works that were hoarded by the Nazis. (George Clooney is adapting the story in a feature film called “The Monuments Men” now shooting in Germany.)

The exhibit is spread across six galleries in the National Gallery’s east building and follows a chronological progression. It traces influences from Durer’s travels in Italy, including the dramatic contrasts in light and dark and his drawings on blue Venetian paper that show a powerful three-dimensionality.

Along with master engravings and detailed nature scenes are more intimate works, including a tender pen-and-ink sketch of Durer’s future wife, Agnes, a portrait of a 93-year-old man Durer met in the Netherlands and another portrait of the aging Agnes in the role of the Virgin Mary’s mother, St. Anne.

Museum curators say it took 10 years to organize the exhibit as a fresh look at Durer’s drawing and attend to the logistics of bringing so many masterworks overseas at once. Robison, who calls Durer the German counterpart to da Vinci, said the show touches on almost every aspect of his career. “They are his greatest works, and they are right here,” he said.