A German painter and printmaker born in Regensburg, Altdorfer’s mostly religious works also laid the foundation of landscapes in painting. His work is intimately aligned with the Danube School of artists out of Bavaria and Austria. These painters and innovative printmakers, including Wolf Huber, Jorg Breu, Rueland Frueauf and Lucas Cranach, were also the first artists to paint pure landscapes without human subjects. Altdorfer’s piece, Landscape with footbridge (1517-1520), is attributed as the first pure landscape piece in oil, done in a style he developed from Cranach.
Capturing the dense forestry of Germany and Austria, Altdorfer was one of the first artists to infuse sunset and twilight lighting. His expressive religious works also captured torch light, star light and twilight. Even some of his pieces using human subjects were dominated by the surrounding landscape, as with the Knight consumed by a primeval forest in his work St. George and the Dragon (1510).
His masterpiece, Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529), also implores the same technique, as the armies in the foreground are dwarfed by a dramatic landscape. This work depicting a catastrophic vision of war was the culmination of earlier work with several miniature battle scenes he did for the Triumphal Procession manuscript (1512-1514). Though it is still a departure from his more intimate religious pieces that depicted Christ or the Virgin Mary, such as Resurrection (1518) and Crucifixion (1520). His works of the Passion of Christ and martyrdom of St. Sebastian are also seen as altar panels in the Church of St. Florian outside Linz.
Altdorfer contributed greatly to the Danube School’s reputation of being ahead of its time. This can also be seen in his fine finished drawings of landscapes using donein black pen with white highlights and watercolour on brown or blue-gray paper. Not only was his use of light and landscapes in paintings innovative, but his work as a manuscript illuminator was also a rare talent of the time in Germany. Some of his best prints were landscapes in which he would combine etchings and engraving on a single piece. Overall he created about 93 woodcuts, many engravings, and 122 intaglio prints. Much of his most innovative work in etching landscapes did not come until late in his career.
As a highly involved citizen of Regensburg, he was also the city’s official architect for several years. Today, a large portion of his body of work can be seen at the Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich, but also in the National Gallery of London.