A beautiful child with curly locks, the boy is pensive yet determined, his lengthy index finger pointed knowingly forward.
It is the earliest-known drawing by Durer, who invented the genre of the psychological self-portrait.
A pre-teen girl stood before it. She pulled her mother by the sleeve, saying “I can’t believe it!” Just as dumbstruck, neither could I.
“Self-Portrait at Thirteen” is the first work in the magnificent show “Albrecht Durer: Master Drawings, Watercolors and Prints from the Albertina” at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art.
Astonishment is the sentiment I had throughout this two-floor exhibition, where palpable excitement energized the galleries in one of the most stupendous gatherings of works on paper I have ever seen.
Children and adults alike were giddy, invigorated by Durer’s mastery, probity and invention. The first room was especially crowded: Like everyone else buzzing around these early pictures, I was too stunned to tear myself away.
Here are landscapes, ladies, gods, whores, hands and lions. And there is “An Oriental Ruler Seated on His Throne,” a pen-and-black-ink drawing whose sitter, with his broad nose, mean eyes and full mane, looks exactly like a lion himself.
Nearby are Durer’s early pen-and-brown-ink studies after (and hung alongside) prints by Mantegna. The younger German artist’s more volumetric, rhythmic and natural bodies outdo those of the Italian.
Durer revolutionized printmaking, especially the woodcut, which he elevated from popular craft. This made him the first world-famous artist and one of the key disseminators of Luther’s Reformation.
You can easily see why he was so popular. Trained as a painter and goldsmith, Durer was an expert colorist, draftsman, typographer and engraver. He gave each line and tone deep emotional power and exacting clarity. You want to get closer to his quivering lines and mysterious darks.
His female nudes are pearlescent, sometimes suggesting cracked porcelain. Abundant flesh rolls in the full buttocks and breasts of his engraving “Four Witches.” And male flesh is sinewy, revolving like eddies in his woodcut “The Men’s Bath.”
“Knight, Death and Devil” shows infinitesimal stippling and crosshatching coalescing in a mesh of scorched-earth grays. Compare its steely, hard-bitten light to the glorious sense of daybreak in “St. Jerome in His Study” and to the dark, waning liquidity of “Melancholia I.”
Flashes from radiating halos in depictions of “Christ on the Mount of Olives” are nearly blinding, and you can almost hear angels sing while looking at his drawing “Praying Hands.”
Particularly enthralling are the studies leading up to Durer’s luminous, erotically-charged masterpiece “Adam and Eve.” We see the artist’s thinking evolve as he creates one of the greatest pictures about the birth (and fall) of the sexes.
Elsewhere, nuanced watercolors of foliage and feathers, gleaming like gems, are brought to a state of hyper-realist ecstasy. They reveal Durer the naturalist.
In the last gallery, a human skull feels like ice and a woman’s sharply angled dress glints like a diamond. The veins in an elderly hand move like twisted roots, while another old man’s forehead suggests cragged rock, his beard roiling like a tempest.
A monumental brushy portrait of the artist’s wife, “Agnes Durer as Saint Anne,” ends the show. It is a study for his painting “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.”
Always furthering his art, Durer was rarely home. Agnes looks downcast, dejected, but you can also sense in her full, welled-up eyes that she, like St. Anne, was resigned to her fate.
“Albrecht Durer: Master Drawings, Watercolors and Prints From the Albertina” runs through June 9 at the National Gallery of Art, 4th And Constitution Avenues, Washington, D.C. Information: +1-202-737-4215; http://nga.gov.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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