When Albrecht Durer fled Nuremberg (and the plague) in 1494 for the sunny lands of Italy, his art took on a whole new dimension inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Born May 21, 1471, Durer took the lessons he learned from his time in Italy and brought them back to Germany, helping propel the Northern Renaissance and spreading humanist ideals further across Europe. Durer’s The Adoration of the Magi (above, from 1503) shows the compositional balance and harmony the Renaissance employed as a visual counterpart to their idealism. The amazing draftsmanship and inventive etching technique, however, are wholly Durer’s. Although Durer painted many great works, they remained largely in private collections. Durer’s prints, however, helped spread word of his talent across Europe and the world, winning him a name as the greatest printmaker of his time and egging other artists on to try to follow his example.
Durer’s Adam and Eve (above, from 1504) remains perhaps my favorite work by the artist. Durer liked it, too, proudly signing the image in Latin, ALBERTUS DURER NORICUS FACIEBAT 1504 (in English, “Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg made this engraving in 1504”). The white bodies of the first man and woman (with strategically placed flora deftly preserving their modesty) stand out against the darkness of the garden of Eden behind them, where the animals all peacefully coexist, beginning with the cat and mouse at the foot of the picture. Eve’s figure has that classic Renaissance look, that is, the unreality of a man’s body appended with wider hips and two small breasts lumped onto the chest like scoops of ice cream. Durer, like Leonardo da Vinci with his Vitruvian Man, saw the male physique as the apex of all creation and more fitting for study than that of the female form, a bias continued today in the dearth of medical studies concentrating on women in relation to the number of those focused on men. Despite that classic “flaw,” Durer’s Adam and Eve pulsates with life and drama as the serpent goads Eve into eating the forbidden fruit and upsetting the entire applecart of paradise.
Durer’s meticulous attention to detail pays off in that he’s never stodgy or studied. His mathematical approach became part of a strain of art continuing all the way through the pseudoscientific approach of Thomas Eakins, who based his methodology of drafting on mathematical principles ala Durer. Durer’s drybrush technique and detail-rich drawing style inspired the young Andrew Wyeth to try his hand at matching the master. As fascinating as that exactitude is in action, I find Durer’s imaginative rendering of The Rhinoceros (above, from 1515) just as fun. Durer never actually saw a rhinoceros in person. Working from another artist’s sketch and verbal description, Durer created his own idea of an armor plated beast. The original animal belonged to a now-extinct species from India, but it’s doubtful that Durer’s version comes even close to the real thing. Such flights of fantasy hint at the magic realism of Durer’s religious works and allegorical prints, which bring a sense of the otherworldly to the human element of the Renaissance and bridge the gap between fact and fiction and north and south in Renaissance Europe.