Monday, October 29, 2012

Albrecht Dürer discussing payment with a client... Things never change!

My cousin Maria was just in Cincinnati for a conference about the 16th century (her PhD is in 16th century German Literature) and she sent me this when she got home:

" For your entertainment, I thought I'd send you a little excerpt from some of the letters Albrecht Dürer wrote to one of his clients. Although this was over 500 years ago, I think you'll find that it sounds familiar!"

From Albrecht Dürer to Jacob Heller: [November 4, 1508] ...For I neglect myself for it, suffer loss, and earn anything but thanks from you. I am using, let me tell you, quite the finest colors I can get. I will need twenty ducats for the ultramarine alone, not counting the other expenses. Once the picture is finished, I am quite sure that you yourself will say that you have never seen anything more beautiful. And I dare not expect to finish the middle panel from beginning to end in less than thirteen months. I shall not begin any other work till it is finished, though it will be much to my hurt. Then what do you suppose my expenses will be when I am working at it? You would not take less than 200 florins to keep me for that time. Think what you have repeatedly written about the materials! If you wanted to buy a pound of ultramarine you could hardly get it for 100 florins, for I cannot buy an ounce of it good for less than ten or twelve ducats.

And so, dear Mr. Jacob Heller, my writing is not so utterly unreasonable as you think, and I have not broken my promise in this matter.

You further reproach me with having promised you that I would paint your picture with the greatest possible care that I ever could. That I certainly never said unless I was out of my mind. For in my whole lifetime I could hardly finish it. For with the greatest care I can hardly finish a face in half a year. Now your picture contains fully one hundred faces, not counting the drapery and landscape and other things in it. Besides, who ever heard of making such a work for an altarpiece? No one could see it. But I believe that what I wrote to you was: to make the painting with great or more than ordinary pains because of the time you spent waiting for me....


[August 26, 1509] ... I have painted it with great care, as you will see, using none but the best colors I could get. It is painted with good ultramarine under and over, about 5 or 6 times. And then after it was finished I overpainted it twice more so that it may last a long time. I know that if you keep it clean it will remain bright and fresh 500 years. For it is not made as one usually paints. So have it kept clean and don't let it be touched or sprinkled with holy water. I feel sure it will not be criticized, unless for the purpose of annoying me. And I am sure it will please you well.

No one could ever pay me to paint a picture again with so much labor. Herr Georg Tausy himself wanted me to paint him a Madonna in a landscape with the same care and in the same size as this picture, and he would have given me 400 florins for it. I flatly refused to do it, for it would have made a beggar of me. Of ordinary pictures, I will in a year paint a pile which no one would believe it possible for one man to do in the time. With such things one can earn something. But very careful nicety does not pay. Therefore I shall stick to my engraving, and if I had done so before I should today have been a richer man by 1000 florins....