The 1503 nature study “The Great Piece of Turf” and the 1508 landmark piece “Praying Hands” are among the Durer masterworks that will be on display at the National Gallery of Art from Sunday through June 9.
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.