Picture Perfect

Today, on a venture into Washington, D.C., I was hoping and praying that I would have enough time to make a trip to the National Gallery of Art – unfortunately, the meeting that I had scheduled went until 4:30, which would have left me only 30 minutes at the museum, so I breathed a sigh of sadness and drove away. I was feeling the need for some gallery-strolling, so instead I’ll have to indulge myself with a post on one of my favorite artists.

We’ve recently been studying the Northern Renaissance, and I have quite literally fallen in love with Albrecht Dürer. His works are just breathtaking, and rather than focusing on one painting, I’ll just give you a million reasons why I am in love with this particular German artist.

Reason #1

Albrecht Durer, "Self Portrait", 1500; oil on wood panel

I am literally obsessed with this painting. Here, Dürer has a commanding presence, a self-assuredness that draws us to him and confronts us. This particular painting fascinates me because it seems so far ahead of his own time – besides the fact that he looks sort of like a rock star from the 1990’s (doesn’t he?), Dürer also creates a timelessness, and spacelessness, that gives him a God-like presence before us, which is only further enhanced by his semblance to Christ himself, particularly his hair. Dürer’s rich clothing also gives the effect power and influence, not to mention wealth. However, the most striking part of this painting for me is his hand gesture: although he disguises it as a stroke of his fur jacket, Dürer directly references the gesture of the benediction, a popular iconography during this time that immediately associates, in the viewer’s mind, the artist with Christ himself. What I love most, though, is his gaze – Dürer is by far one of the most technically gifted artists, but his ability to create this tension between himself and the viewer is, in my opinion, what makes this painting stand apart from the rest.

Reason #2 & #3

Albrecht Durer, The Hare, 1502; watercolor and gouache on paper

This is a watercolor painting. Just think about that for a minute. Amazing.

This hare is perfection – Dürer must have studied every last centimeter of this hare (poor thing) for days on end as he was painting this. Dürer’s hare is lifelike, real, and impeccably executed – don’t you just want to pick it up and hold it? And this from the same artist who painted his enticing self portrait with oil on wood panel.

Albrecht Durer, The Great Piece of Turf, 1503; watercolor and gouache on paper

Don’t you just want to be there? Dürer’s simple watercolor is detailed, immaculate, and intensely studied – it is like something out of a science textbook today only a hundred times more beautiful. I love both of these pieces so much – they are beautiful, perfectly executed, and an incredible example of Dürer’s master skills in such a diverse range of medium. Just think about what else was going on in 1500: 90% of the art being produced (okay, hyperbole, forgive me) was of a religious subject, or a depiction of the monarchy, or of battle, and here we have nature: Dürer documents the pure, undisturbed beauty of nature, and creates a study so perfect that the viewer is instantly transported there.

Reason #5 & #6

Albrecht Durer, "Melencolia", 1514, engraving

Ever wondered where the idea of the dark, brooding artist came from? You can thank Dürer for that. This is his famous engraving “Melencolia”, which depicts a personification of one of the four humors in the body, melencolia. During this period, people believed that the body was ruled by four humors:

  1. Blood – ancient name: sanguine – qualities: courageous, hopeful, amorous  /  modern: artisan
  2. Yellow bile – ancient name: choleric – qualities: bad tempered, irritable  /  modern: idealist
  3. Black bile – ancient name: melancholic – qualities: despondent, sleepless, pensive  /  modern: guardian
  4. Phlegm – ancient name: phlegmatic – qualities: calm, unemotional  /  modern: rational

They believed that the imbalance of these humors caused sickness, and that people had a sort of temperament that was associated with which humor dominated their body. In his engraving from 1514, Dürer creates an association between the melancholic humor and the artist: his personification of this temperament – the angel who sits pensively, like Rodin’s famousThinker – is surrounded by tools of the trade, including an untouched block of marble. In addition, he includes various symbols of time, including an hourglass, that reminds us of this creature biding her time without true creation. Her passive nature, evidenced in the way she dawdles with a compass and leaves a book unopened on her lap, is offset by the cherub’s active nature, as he scribbles away in a journal. This only serves to highlight the artist’s pensive and brooding personality, creating an association that has stuck for centuries.

Albrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dürer’s take on the infamous scene between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is another favorite. Dürer shows off his knowledge of Italian art by creating figures reminiscent of Michelangelo’s sculpture – the contrappasto of the figures demonstrates a knowledge of the body and references iconic sculptures of Apollo and Venus. However, Dürer’s engraving gives us more to consider.

Close up of Durer's Adam and Eve

First, he brings our eye directly to the moment of Eve taking the apple with the strong tree trunk straight down the middle of the engraving, as well as the opposing positions of the pair’s arm and legs, which seem to fit together like a puzzle and draw our eye towards their meeting point – Eve’s hand. But, of course, the devil is in the details. Dürer creates this suspenseful moment by inserting little about-t0-happen instances that only our imagination can fill in from what we see in the engraving. For example, the bottom of the page shows us a cat, in that state when they are seemingly dormant but will pop awake at any moment, about to pounce on the mouse that Adam is holding down with his foot. And we know that as soon as Adam’s foot comes up, the cat will jump after the mouse and chaos will ensue. And in the very far back right corner of the work, look closely – there is a moose on a ledge, balancing as if he will spring off any moment. This all draws us in and makes us ponder what will happen next – the moment is there, the apple is in Eve’s hand, and it seems as though all hell is about to break loose.


That’s my art indulgence for today. Next time: Oscar dresses!

Posted in Art

3 thoughts on “Picture Perfect

    1. Hi Courtney – thanks so much! So sorry I didn’t get back to this sooner…I haven’t been keeping this up lately. It’s something I am working on, though! I hope once my new content gets up, you’ll come back to read 🙂

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