What Dürer has brought to the art is immaculate precision. No matter what medium he was working on – woodcuts, engravings, portraits on canvas or huge altarpieces – his commitment to detail and complexity were breathtaking.
Dürer was a Northern connection between Italian Renaissance artists and German reformation. During his journeys to Venice and back to Nuremberg he encountered the principles of humanistic philosophy, absorbed innovative artistic ideas and intensified his obsession with proportions of the human body. But the influence went both ways. His success in printmaking was an inspiration for great Italian artists as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino, all of whom collaborated with printmakers in order to promote and distribute their work.
His ambitious fine art prints, woodcuts and engravings revolutionised the potential of the media, with such works as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1498, Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513, as well as Saint Jerome in his Study, 1514 and Melencolia I, 1514, becoming legendary, much analyst artworks in their own right.
Famous rhino print
One look at the woodcut Rhinoceros, 1515, is sufficient to appreciate his exceptional skills with that medium. The thing is, Dürer never in his life seen the actual animal! All he had was written description and lousy sketch from an anonymous author. Although his depiction is not accurate, the image remained very popular, and was taken to be an actual representation of an Indian rhinoceros until the late 18th century.
This particular Dürer’s art print has been copied so many times over the next centuries that – as someone put it – ‘probably no animal picture has exerted such a profound influence on the arts’.
Northern concept of beauty
Italian Renaissance is for the many synonymous with the art and culture of that time. Renaissance is Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. Period. For that matter, their concept of beauty prevails. Yet, we have to remember that these beautiful women and men like Botticelli’s Madonnas and goddesses, Titian’s Venus of Urbino or da Vinci’s Lady with the Ferret are idealisations. They are the expressions of artists’ pursuit of absolute beauty. Platonic idea, not mundane reality.
Well, northerners have got it differently. First, they kind of liked… ugly. Purposeful deformations of the human body were popular among Lower Countries artists; take Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder for instance. Or Quentin Metsys’s most famous painting, the peak of human monstrosity – The Ugly Duchess, ca. 1513. For them, disfigurations were the artistic representation of peoples’ inner ugliness: sins, flaws, moral depravity and evil.
Whereas beauty for them is the reality. Flemish and German artists do not produce many fancy paintings only loosely based on studies from life. People in their portraits are real, women have beauty beside actual flaws in appearance, men – doesn’t matter if noble or peasant – are rough and strong, with coarse faces.
Perfect body by AD
Now, Dürer. Every single woman in his art prints or full-scale paintings is a little bit fleshy. Even the first of us all from his engraving Adam and Eve, 1504 has a double chin and notable underbelly. Needless to say, for Dürer the first man and woman in that print were the perfect human forms corresponding to the system of measurements and proportions he perfected during his entire life.
His Four Naked Women, 1497 beside the same features of double chins and bellies have also considerable buttocks, strong thighs and surprisingly small breasts. Thanks to this, his figures are recognisable with ease.
As for the facial features, Dürer’s models have small stiff lips and noses not of one ideal but of different existing in nature shapes (we can easily find for example: long and narrow, classical Greek, Roman, hawkish and snub). Eyes are yet another story. His madonnas and saints have them big, rounded, downright goggling. And that is the mystery we can not crack. Is it the Northern Renaissance canon of beauty? A tradition of painting? Who knows?…