Skip to main content

Albrecht Dürer and the Epistolary Mode of Address

Art historians have long looked to letters to secure biographical details; clarify relationships between artists and patrons; and present artists as modern, self-aware individuals. This book takes a novel approach: focusing on Albrecht Dürer, Shira Brisman is the first to argue that the experience of writing, sending, and receiving letters shaped how he treated the work of art as an agent for communication.

In the early modern period, before the establishment of a reliable postal system, letters faced risks of interception and delay. During the Reformation, the printing press threatened to expose intimate exchanges and blur the line between public and private life. Exploring the complex travel patterns of sixteenth-century missives, Brisman explains how these issues of sending and receiving informed Dürer’s artistic practices. His success, she contends, was due in large part to his development of pictorial strategies—an epistolary mode of address—marked by a direct, intimate appeal to the viewer, an appeal that also acknowledged the distance and delay that defers the message before it can reach its recipient. As images, often in the form of prints, coursed through an open market, and artists lost direct control over the sale and reception of their work, Germany’s chief printmaker navigated the new terrain by creating in his images a balance between legibility and concealment, intimacy and public address.

320 pages | 49 color plates, 86 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2016

Art: Art--General Studies, European Art

Biography and Letters

History: History of Technology

Literature and Literary Criticism: Germanic Languages


"This refined, potent, and incisive analysis of the work of Albrecht Dürer deserves attention from a wide readership of art historians beyond those specializing in the Northern Renaissance, and it merits to join the ranks of other pathbreaking studies from across the discipline that have enriched the ways of thinking about art’s historical roles and tactics in shaping culture and communication. . . . Brisman has contributed a disciplined, historically rigorous new chapter to an ongoing exploration, across many generations and subdisciplines of art history, of the mechanisms of address that are negotiated between artists, pictures, and viewers."

Studies in Iconography

“Dürer’s global reach took more than branding, printing, and talent to achieve. Almost virtual—lines that conjure worlds—printed images are, nonetheless, material things; for them to be widely received, they must enter the circulation of commodities. It is this factor of distribution that Shira Brisman brilliantly explores, rethinking what it was that Dürer sent out. . .  speaks to the general reader with flair. Brisman’s opening chapters are masterpieces of synthesis. Weaving histories of letter writing and print culture with key aspects of Dürer’s practice, they allow us to see the artist’s oeuvre from a new perspective. . . all of Dürer’s prints looked different after reading Brisman. The best monograph on the artist to have appeared in many years, it is also exemplary art history for its vivid writing, expositional clarity, and balance between historical context and close analysis of individual works.”

Joseph Koerner | CAA Reviews

"Albrecht Dürer and the Epistolary Mode of Address exemplifies an important way of thinking evident among younger scholars in art history. It is characterized by wide reading and a willingness to confront major artists with their daunting bibliographies and deeply entrenched habits of interpretation. . . . the intelligence underwriting Brisman's case comes down to a new turn in thinking about  text and image"

Peter Parshall | Print Quarterly

"This intriguing and ambitious book seeks to make a major contribution to the field by proposing the existence and importance of an 'epistolary mode of artistic address,' which Dürer 'played a large role in advancing'."

Historians of Netherlandish Art

“Today it seems harder than ever to say anything refreshingly new about Albrecht Dürer and his epoch-making art. Yet Brisman has done just that, taking us inside a guiding principle of Renaissance art and culture that had, until now, been hiding in plain sight. An ancient form of connectivity thrust into a new environment around 1500, the letter stands here as a paradigmatic form of address, intimate yet profoundly social, a delivery mode for knowledge and desire suspended between the slow burn of Renaissance discovery and the fast pace of Reformation debate. Gleaming with intelligence on every page, and carried off with a rare verve, this book showcases what is to be gained when the materiality of communication combines with the social history of art.”

Mitchell B. Merback, Johns Hopkins University

“Brisman’s epistolary approach opens up stimulating new ways of thinking about Dürer and his creations. She provides a framework for understanding how the artist adopts and then adapts contemporary modes of communication used by his literate peers. This is a highly original and extremely well-researched study.”

Jeffrey Chipps Smith, University of Texas at Austin

“This is a brilliant book. Brisman revives theoretical issues about modernity and its new, self-aware pictorial attentiveness to audiences, while remaining fully engaged with the historical context out of which Dürer emerges in his own pathbreaking ‘moment.’ She ultimately reveals the significance of producing and distributing print culture in the modern world, with Dürer as the initial—essentially as the initiating—courier.”

Larry Silver, University of Pennsylvania

Table of Contents


Part 1: Composing

Chapter 1: The Body of a Letter

Part 2: Sending

Chapter 2: The Message in Transit
Chapter 3: Relay and Delay

Part 3: Receiving

Chapter 4: Privileged Mediators
Chapter 5: Interception
Chapter 6: Dürer’s Open Letter

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press