The Danube School describes collectively a number of artists who worked in or near the reaches of the Danube between Regensburg and Vienna in the period c. 1500 to c. 1530. The region was located between the major commercial and artistic centers of Nuremberg and Augsburg to the west and Vienna, an imperial capital, to the east. On the river were Regensburg, a free imperial city of great importance since the Middle Ages; the Castle of Neuburg am Inn, the seat of the counts of Salem which was renovated in the Renaissance style (1521-31) by Graf Niklas II; and Passau, an important bishopric, wonderfully sited at the confluence of the Danube and the Inn. In addition there was a wealth of rich and splendid monastic houses which provided the impetus for much of the art of the Danube School, most notably Melk, Aggsbach, Kremsmunster, Guttenstettin, St. Florian, Zwettl, and Oberaltaich.
The river itself was a natural artery for travelers, including artists, many of them on their "Wanderjahre", the period of prolonged travel usually undertaken by young German artists as part of their training. Such an artist may have been Jörg Breu (c. 1475-1537), who came from Augsburg but in the period 1500-2 painted a sequence of expressive, highly-charged altarpieces for monasteries in Lower Austria, notably Melk, Aggsbach and Zwettl. He and Rueland Frueauf the Younger (c. 1470-c. 1545), who came from Passau and worked in the monastery at Klosterneuberg, are usually considered the precursors of the School.
The work of its main masters - Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), who arrived on the Danube from Franconia c. 1500 and stayed only until 1505, and Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538), a native Danubian from Regensburg - shows them to have been overwhelmed by the wild beauty of the Danube landscape: its rocks, water, fir trees, misty atmosphere and spectacular effects of light and weather, which form the settings for many of their paintings at this period. Its third master was Wolf Huber (c. 1485-1553), a native of Feldkirch in the Vorarlberg who settled in Passau, He was inspired by the landscape of the Wachau, a picturesque defile of the Danube between Melk and Krems, and the Mondsee. He shared with the others the lyrical, almost pantheistic, approach to nature which defined the school.
Another important factor was German humanism, which gave a Teutonic slant to the revival of classical studies. Vienna University (where Conrad Celtis was a leading figure) was a center for such studies, and among Cranach's early works are portraits, set in landscapes, of two of its leading academics and their wives. It is tempting to suppose that some of the small cabinet pictures which are an innovative feature of the school, e.g. those of Altdorfer, which include the first pure landscapes in European art, were intended for such patrons. The artists' drawings after nature (e.g. Huber's Mondsee scenes or Altdorfer's view of Sarmingstein on the Danube) seem also to have been collectable items.
The chief works of the school were, however, religious paintings which reinterpreted traditional subjects - the Life of the Virgin in Huber's St. Anne Altar (for Feldkirch: now Feldkirch and Bregenz) or the Passion in Altdorfer's St. Florian Altar - with a realism so forceful and uncompromising that it is easy to think of it, quite wrongly, as caricature. Each of the figures was individually motivated, playing a clear psychological role in the drama as a whole. Settings, whether architectural or landscape, were wholly contemporary and by means of asymmetrical composition and variegated, often vertiginous, perspectives became expressive in themselves. A lyrical freedom in the handling of line and colour deriving from late Gothic art gave a decorative dimension, often touched with fantasy, to Danube School painting and the term 'realisme fantastique' is sometimes used to describe it.