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Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan
May 18 through September 12, 2010

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Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Adam and Eve, 1504, Engraving
Dated on plate, 1504.
10 7/16 x 8 1/4 inches (265 x 209 mm)
Purchased as the gift of Eugene V. Thaw, S. Parker Gilbert, Rodney B. Berens, Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, Elaine Rosenberg, T. Kimball Brooker, George L. K. Frelinghuysen, and on the Ryskamp Fund, the Edwin H. Herzog Fund, and the Lois and Walter C. Baker Fund; 2006.80

With this print, Dürer catapulted to international prominence and became the foremost printmaker in Europe. Having been introduced to the canon of proportions—a mathematical system designed to depict the ideal human body—by Jacopo de' Barbari, an Italian artist visiting Nuremberg in 1500, Dürer used the technique to create Adam and Eve. He paired their flawless physiques with an emphasis on perfect temperament. Erwin Panofsky argued that the animals embody the balance of bodily fluids believed to determine personality, called humors, and were associated with particular traits, for example, elk (melancholy), rabbit (sensuality), cat (cruelty), and ox (sluggishness). Praising Dürer's couple, contemporary poet Caspar Velius wrote, "When the Angel saw them, he said with amazement: 'You were not yet this beautiful when I drove you out of Paradise.'"

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Adam and Eve, 1504
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, corrections in white
Signed with the artist's monogram and dated at lower right, 1504 9 5/8 x 7 15/16 inches (242 x 201 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1910; I, 257d

Dürer achieved the classically proportioned figures of the Adam and Eve print through a significant amount of preliminary effort. This sheet shows the complexity of his preparatory trials. He joined two pieces of paper, a figure on each, and added a third vertical strip down the middle to create the appropriate distance between them. He then applied brown wash to unify the entire composition. Of the many drawings produced in connection with the print, this work is the only one to include both the male and female figures. That they each hold an apple, the temptation that led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, reveals Dürer's willingness to experiment as he resolved the composition. In the final print, he decided to place the apple only in Eve's hand.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Constructed Head of a Man in Profile, ca. 1512–13
Pen and brown ink and dark brown wash
9 9/16 x 7 7/16 inches (244 x 188 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1910; I, 257b

Thumbnail of verso
+zoom verso
At one-eighth the height of the entire body, the head is the key to ideal classical proportion. Dürer first drew this head on the verso over a grid pattern, faintly visible through the sheet, and then traced it on the recto to ensure geometric precision. Such schematic delineations correspond to the theories of Vitruvius, the first-century B.C. Roman architect who related the ratio of buildings to those of the human body in his treatise On Architecture. Another possible source available to Dürer would have been the work of Italian Renaissance artists concerned with proportion, such as Leonbattista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci. The present drawing may have been made in preparation for Dürer's own Four Books on Human Proportion, displayed nearby.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Four Books on Human Proportion (Hierinn sind begriffen vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion)
Nuremberg: Agnes Dürer, 1532, 1534
Gift of John P. Morgan II in memory of Mrs. Junius S. Morgan, 1981; PML 77029.2

Dürer produced dozens of manuscripts on the subject of proportion. Through the efforts of his wife, Agnes, and friend Willibald Pirckheimer, these treatises were published posthumously as Four Books on Human Proportion. The treatise attests to Dürer's changing attitude toward the body over time. He came to believe that artists should not strive for a single standard of beauty but instead embrace a variety of forms, writing, "If you wish to make a beautiful human figure, it is necessary that you probe the nature and proportions of many people: a head from one; a breast, arm, leg from another. . . ." In this folio, Dürer depicted figures, accompanied by a corresponding list of body parts, superimposed on a diagram using a single unit of measurement indicated by symbols.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Abduction on Horseback, 1516
Pen and brown ink, with traces of underdrawing in black chalk; traced with a stylus
Inscribed at lower left, in pen and brown ink, lte 50 (?); at lower right, in pen and brown ink, 15
9 13/16 x 7 15/16 inches (251 x 201 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1910; I, 257a

While consistently fascinated with the definition of beauty offered by classical models—the composition of this drawing may have its origins in Roman art and mythology—Dürer also embraced the indigenous German aesthetic. Although definitive identification of the subject of this drawing remains elusive, the male figure resembles the Wild Man, a folk character with a long tradition in German art. The drawing is distinguished by rough, parallel lines, which may relate to its use as a model for one of Dürer's six known etchings. At the time, etching was a new medium in northern Europe. In the 1516 print, the horse transforms into a unicorn and the bodies on the ground disappear.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Portrait of the Artist's Brother Endres, ca. 1518
Charcoal on paper, background later washed with white lead
Inscribed at lower right with the artist's monogram in black chalk by another hand
12 3/4 x 10 5/16 inches (324 x 262 mm)
Gift of Mrs. Alexander Perry Morgan in memory of Alexander Perry Morgan; 1973.17

Dürer mined theoretical and mathematical sources for his work, but he also relied on empirical study of the world around him. To his friend and Reformation leader Philipp Melanchthon, he wrote, "As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art." This drawing depicts the artist's brother Endres, a goldsmith who probably executed Dürer's designs for metalwork. Using charcoal alone, Dürer achieved a range of textures—from the dense pile of the fur collar to the wisps of curly hair. With his prominent jaw and close-set eyes, Endres bears little resemblance to the idealized clasical proportions. For Dürer, observations taken from nature, in all its variety, had a place in art.

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Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.