Albrecht Dürer and the Epistolary Mode of Address

Albrecht Dürer and the Epistolary Mode of Address

Shira Brisman

Print publication date: 2017

ISBN: 9780226354750

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

Art historians have long looked to letters to secure biographical information, affirm patronage patterns, and establish the identity of an artist as a modern, self-aware individual. But letters are also objects that endure episodes of travel, and are sometimes rerouted to reach readerships that far exceed the scope of their initial intent. As agents of communication, letters are uniquely poised to provide analogies for how works of art address their audiences. In a period before the establishment of a reliable public postal system, handwritten correspondences faced interception and delay. The printing press threatened to expose intimate exchanges, disturbing relationships of privacy to publicity. These risks sharpened during the volatile years of the Reformation. Summoning evidence of the complicated travel patterns of sixteenth-century missives, Brisman argues that uncertainties surrounding the sending and receiving of letters shaped how Germany’s most famous artist conceived of the communicative efficacies of the work of art. Albrecht Dürer’s success was due in large part, she argues, to his development of pictorial strategies that lure the mind of the distanced beholder. Balancing intimacy with publicity and immediacy with delay, Dürer’s images mimic the letter’s ability to connect author and recipient through dialectics of advertisement and concealment.