Born nineteen years after Leonardo da Vinci and a mere four years before Michelangelo, Albrecht Durer was revered by those of the Italian Renaissance, such as Giovanni Bellini and Andreas Montegna. Even Ferdinand Columbus, the (illegitimate) son of Christopher Columbus collected one hundred seventy-four of Albrecht Durer's prints.
Had his body of work just consisted of his two thousand drawings or over one hundred paintings and alter pieces and three published books on theoretical subjects, that would be enough to place him in the pantheon of those who were known as true Renaissance men (and women).
But it is Albrecht Durer's print oeuvre of over two hundred fifty woodcuts and one hundred five intaglios that changed the course of artistic history. Know as the "Apelles of the black lines", Albrecht Durer was the first in western art to be both the artist and the publisher with his great woodcut cycle, the Apocalypse. In other words, he was the first graphic artist in western art.
To put this in perspective, Magellan was the first to sail around the world; or the Wright brothers were first at flight; or Yeager was the first to break the sound barrier; or Armstrong was the first to step on the moon; or Bandaraike was the first woman to be elected Chancellor of any country; but, Durer was the first to understand the importance of freeing himself from the lucrative but demanding shackles of commission work and take his reproductive art on paper to market!
No small task when you consider who was to follow: Rembrandt, Whistler, Cassatt, Picasso, Dali, Miro, Chagall, Warhol.
This is not a debate as to who was the best, the most prolific, or the most gifted. I know for sure it is certainly not me. As much as I appreciate art I could not find a straight line with a ruler!
This is simply a discourse as to who was the first to commit their work to reproductive prints in western art; and, according to the scholars who possess far more education, expertise and scholarship than myself (but certainly not passion), it is the Renaissance man, Albrecht Durer.